We are only 34 games into the 2021-22 season, but it’s already been quite the tumultuous start for the Detroit Pistons. The losses were inevitable, but the way many of them have come has discouraged the fanbase. Many games have not been competitive. Injuries have stunted some development. Second-year players have struggled to make the year-two leap.
To add insult to injury, COVID-19 and the NBA’s health and safety protocols hit the Pistons organization hard for the first time. Nearly the entire team was ineligible to play. The nightly rosters looked more like the Motor City Cruise than the Detroit Pistons.
The hope would be that a few players signed to hardship deals would impress. Derrick Walton, Jr. has been solid and could possibly fit in as the third point guard if the roster gets shaken up. Luka Garza has been decent in extended minutes. Cassius Stanley played very well in Detroit’s victory, and victories are precious for six-win teams, over the San Antonio Spurs.
But, the real story has been how the two surviving rotation members have found a rhythm within the offense in ways that seem important for their future.
Saddiq Bey has scored over 20 points in six of his last seven games. Hamidou Diallo has averaged 31 in his last three. Together, they have held together a paper-thin roster. And it all feels somewhat sustainable.
Bey’s struggles up until this recent stretch are well-documented. After largely serving as a spot-up shooter in his rookie year, he was asked to take on a bigger role with a year under his belt. The early returns were less than encouraging. He was not making threes at a rate you would expect given his history, and he was turning open looks into contested attempts far too frequently.
The results inside the arc didn’t look a whole lot better. Bey often looked a bit lost when he got beyond the free-throw line on dribble penetration. On the year, he’s shot less than 47 percent inside 10 feet. Early on, he seemed to struggle quite a bit when defenses were physical with him.
Watch here, against the Indiana Pacers, how the defender absorbs contact and Saddiq immediately loses control for a turnover:
He was still learning not just how to react to physicality, but how to use his own to his advantage. A decent number of his early-season turnover were the result of careless attempts to create space with his body like this one against the Chicago Bulls:
The other major contributor to his turnovers was traveling violations resulting from poor footwork after receiving passes. There was a lot of thinking, too much thinking, going on with Bey’s on-court play.
That’s far from unusual or some sort of red flag. As young players take on larger offensive roles, there are more decisions to be made. Not having a ton of experience to call upon, they spend more time thinking than reacting and it leads to poor decisions while they work out the finer details.
Saddiq certainly experienced those growing pains in the first quarter of the season. But there are signs to suggest he’s turning a corner.
Both his shooting inside 10 feet and on two-point pull-ups has jumped six and seven percentage points, respectively. Sure, that could be some positive shooting variance. But, more importantly, Bey looks far more comfortable embracing and reacting to contact when he gets inside the arc.
Against the San Antonio Spurs, he fought through a ton of contact to get to the rim for a layup and a free throw:
Attacking a closeout against the Miami Heat, instead of running into contact and an offensive foul, Bey collected himself and hit a balanced, step-back jumper in clutch time:
When he drove into Mitchell Robinson, he confidently and patiently worked against a much bigger body to get a clean look near the rim:
The confidence has been obvious. The thinking has begun to turn into reacting. The growing pains were rough, but they could pay dividends if Bey can continue to build upon the improvements we’ve already seen in the last couple weeks.
With that all said, it’s still exceedingly unlikely that Saddiq is ever a guy who’s going to be able to create initial advantages at any real volume. But playing with the skeleton crew recently, he’s found a running mate who can do that for him.
While Derrick Walton, Jr. has been playing point guard, Hamidou Diallo has really been the primary creator for the Pistons starters.
He’s put up three very impressive offensive performances, and he’s done it in while scoring in a variety of ways.
Primarily, though, Diallo’s success has come because of his ability to get downhill. It’s no secret that he’s a terrific athlete but harnessing that into effective basketball has come with mixed results up to this point in his career. As the unquestioned primary creator for three games, it’s been a different story.
Detroit’s tendency to run dribble hand-offs has played into Diallo’s strengths. So too has Luka Garza’s increased minutes, as the Iowa rookie sets the best screens on the team. Watch how this screen against the Knicks allows Diallo to get his inside shoulder past his defender to free up a cleaner look at the rim:
The Pistons have let Hamidou do things as a ball-handler in the pick-and-roll, as well. Because Detroit lacks many other threats, defenses have played drop coverage against him in an attempt to keep him in front. But when the big doesn’t fully commit (as Poeltl doesn’t in the clip below), he attacks aggressively and finds high-percentage looks.
You’ll also see Diallo reject the screen and attack, as he does here in semi-transition against New York:
As with the previous plays, once Diallo sees the defender is the slightest bit off-balance, he attacks the other way and his athleticism prevents defenses from recovering.
But it’s not just getting to the rim that’s unlocked his full offensive potential. He has also found a lot of success in the mid-range. Now, the large caveat here is that we’re dealing with a small sample size. But the process looks really good.
Note how he attacks this closeout against the Knicks, doesn’t force his way into traffic, and hits a smooth pull-up jumper for two:
Later in the game, he similarly attacked a closeout, navigated through traffic, and looked smooth hitting a runner with some creative footwork:
Playing under control has resulted in Diallo shooting 66% on pull-up twos in the last three games. And that’s while shooting six such attempts per game. Rather than forcing his way into awaiting defenders, he’s taking what the defense gives him a lot more. That’s notable because, in a larger role with a skeleton crew, you’d expect him to force things even more than usual. The new offensive load has seemingly had the opposite effect on Diallo.
So what does all that mean moving forward?
With Jerami Grant out for a while, Hamidou Diallo is the obvious replacement in the starting lineup. That substitution has looked good in limited minutes - the starters plus Diallo actually have a positive net rating while being the third most-used lineup.
That is perhaps driven, in part, by the chemistry that we’ve seen budding between Diallo and Bey. They are the best two-man lineup Detroit has that’s played at least 250 minutes. When you pair those two with Cade Cunningham, the Pistons have just a -2.7 net rating. No three-man combination with more minutes have been better outside of a couple Trey Lyles lineups.
Saddiq obviously fits well around Cade as a shooting option. But Diallo does as well as a secondary option attacking closeouts created by Cunningham’s playmaking. Bey is showing some of that same ability, which adds another option in lineups with the number one overall pick.
But you also don’t want to just throw away the success you’ve seen recently with Diallo as the primary initiator.
The obvious workaround for that is to have him as the first man to the bench in the first and third quarters. Dwane Casey loves keeping Bey with the bench and taking Diallo out early would get the two of them more minutes together leading the second unit.
Add in Frank Jackson and Kelly Olynyk as spacers around Diallo and Bey and the fifth member of the rotation can just be plugged in based on the opponent. All the sudden, the rotation looks a bit more competitive.
Keeping Bey and Diallo together to run more of the second unit also allows the Pistons to get Killian Hayes more repetitions with Cade to figure out what the future of that pair will play in the franchise’s future.
Only time will tell if these trends hold over a season’s long sample. But the recent results provide some reasons for real optimism and may have helped clarify the Pistons’ rotations moving forward.