After splurging a combined $81 million on Brandon Jennings and Josh Smith in free agency last summer, the Detroit Pistons were looking to make a playoff push for the first time since the 2008-09 season. Things immediately started going horribly wrong as Josh Smith started jacking up 3s and Brandon Jennings blatantly ignored playing defense.
The Pistons finished the season at 29-53, which was 12th in the horrible East and the same record as the year before.
The “Big 3″ of Andre Drummond, Josh Smith and Greg Monroe couldn’t find a way to fit together and first-year head coach Maurice Cheeks didn’t stagger their minutes accordingly, forcing Smith to play a ton of small forward (56 percent of the time, per Basketball-Reference.com). Those ultra big lineups were too slow, couldn’t keep track of shooters and fell apart at the first sign of any decent motion by the offense.
The Pistons allowed the sixth-most 3s per game (22.8 per game), opportunities which the opponent converted at an 36.5 percent rate, the seventh-worst mark in the league–meaning Detroit’s opponent shot the ball open and often.
Overall the defense was terrible; the Pistons ranked 25th in defensive efficiency at 107.3 points per 100 possessions, while somehow managing to be the third-worst team defending the pick and roll ball handler, and the second-worst defending the roll man according to Synergy Sports. A borderline miraculous achievement; you’d think they would have been able to contain at least one, even just a little bit.
From the beginning we knew there were going to be some issues regarding fit. Neither Smith or Monroe can really space the floor despite being good passers and Drummond is limited to shooting from three feet and in. Jennings has always been a bit of a wild card and inefficient scorer, and the wing rotation was always going to be a bit shaky.
With all that said the Pistons should have had enough talent to overcome those problems, at least in part, and be able to round out into a playoff team by the end of the year. Especially in the Eastern Conference.
And even though there was a bit of an improvement (if you squinted in just the right light) toward the end of the year as the combination of Monroe and Smith got more comfortable playing with each other, (out of all possible two-man combinations of the big three, they had the most on the court time to figure things out) the fact is Detroit shouldn’t have been this bad.
The question is, what went wrong? And how can the new head coach and president of basketball operations Stan Van Gundy remedy the situation?
Identifying the Problems
The Pistons started the offseason with a slight overpay for Jodie Meeks at three years and $19 million, later also adding Aaron Gray, Caron Butler and D.J. Augustin to the mix. I personally don’t mind the Meeks deal, he’s a good two-way player who can shoot 3s and you have to pay for that.
Contracts for these guys aren’t anything fancy but generally they’re OK deals for OK players that don’t really move the needle too much. Detroit wanted to upgrade their horrific bench from last season and probably got close to fair value (although Butler might cut into Luigi Datome‘s minutes. He’s awesome and needs to be unleashed. Proof: by far the best on/off marks of the entire roster last season. All jokes aside Datome is really good and needs to play next season).
Meeks, Butler and Augustin should bring some shooting that Detroit desperately needs, they were ranked second to last in 3-point percentage at 32.1 percent. Considering the fact that the Sixers were the worst 3-point shooting team, you could say the Pistons were the worst out of all real NBA teams.
Fixes to depth and shooting are nice, but doesn’t solve some of the long-term core problems that Detroit has; the big front line doesn’t work together, and after two seasons together there isn’t much evidence showing that Monroe and Drummond can play together even without Smith on the floor. When the Pistons played their big front line Drummond-Monroe-Smith, their net rating was a minus-8.0, which is the equivalent of being the fourth-worst team, just in front of the Utah Jazz, Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks.
The defense was an even bigger liability than the offense and when the “Big 3″ was on the floor the Pistons’ defensive rating was 110.5, a mark that would have been the worst in the league.
Two-man combinations of the three big men didn’t do much better:
Monroe/Smith. -3.9 (net rating per 100 possessions, equivalent to ranking 23rd in net rating)
Drummond/Smith. -5.9 (rank: 26th)
Drummond/Monroe. -6.4 (rank: 27th)
The problem is that no matter what the Pistons do it’s more than likely they will never find a way of maximizing the talents of both Drummond and Monroe when they share the floor. Spacing is too scarce and Monroe doesn’t really move and defend in a way that you would like from your power forward.
Monroe is a terrible pick and roll defender; he has bad footwork and allows good ball handlers to split the pick and roll whenever they want. Monroe isn’t really agile enough to show hard on the ball handler and doesn’t protect the rim in a way which would allow him to hang back and contain pick and rolls from the foul line.
He also ranked 187th in block rate last season with basically every competent big man in front of him.
Despite his great steal and block rates, Drummond is still a bit of a shaky defender. He often over helps or misses rotations entirely, and is generally still catching up on how to play in an NBA defense.
But he’s only 20 years of age and has incredible tools to get better. Among the 78 players with more than 45 blocks or more this season, Drummond ranked 65th in opponent field goal percentage at the rim (52.3 percent) and Monroe ranked 58th (51.7 percent).
Those numbers can get better; Stan Van Gundy is a great coach will instill a proper defensive system to help Monroe and Drummond.
Monroe and Drummond are big, physical and most importantly, young. Van Gundy will accelerate their development exponentially. The problem is always going to be the other end though, at least as long as Monroe and Drummond are both below average or non-threats from mid-range.
As shown by the graph above, Monroe’s production has fallen off a cliff over the past two seasons. And I don’t see how the Pistons will ever to be able to maximize both Drummond and Monroe at the same time. Something they would have to be able to assuming they want to be come a title contender some day.
On a brighter note; the defense isn’t going to be as horrible to watch anymore. With a real defensive philosophy and system we can expect these weird triple teams on Goran Dragic in the post to stop.
Seriously what is going on here? Did I miss the memo that said that there’s no way you can allow Dragic to beat you in the post?
It was just a brutal season to watch, highlighted by some record-breaking incompetence from Smith and Jennings.
Jennings is now the only player to have more than 1,100 field goal attempts in a season and shoot less than 38 percent from the field in the last 35 years, managing that feat for the second time in his career last season. And Smith, in all his 3-point shooting glory, became the second player in NBA history to shoot less than 26.5 percent from 3 with more than 260 attempts.
To pay $81 million to two players to break records in such a fashion on the same team in their first year together is astoundingly hilarious and baffling at the same time.
Drastic Moves Ahead
According to reports, the Sacramento Kings are interested in trading for Josh Smith. The Pistons should seriously look at any possible trades to unload Smith, Jennings and pretty much everyone else on their team right now except for Drummond and perhaps Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
Including Greg Monroe if the deal is right.
NBA writers too often throw around the idea of teams starting from scratch and that it’s better to be bad than to be stuck in mediocrity. It’s a tough road that can take half a decade to bear any fruit, if it ever does.
There is value to just building up assets and paying average to good players money on OK deals. Atlanta has tons of flexibility on their roster to trade and sign free agents, and Denver is filled with intriguing young trade assets.
Those are the type of teams that can make potential godfather offers for star players in the future, a la Houston Rockets and James Harden. Even though it didn’t quite work out that way, the idea behind signing Josh Smith was to get a good asset on a non-terrible deal and see how it goes. That’s actually pretty smart.
The Pistons are a case where blowing it all up and starting from scratch is valid course of action. At least to some extent.
The big decision is whether or not you want to keep Monroe. But you have to have the imagination to realize that Drummond is your blue chip prospect, and that what you can build around him is special. He’s only 20 years old and could serve in the role of Dwight Howard for Van Gundy.
The choice of not keeping Monroe would have been easier to make if the Pistons had been able to keep their pick in this year’s draft, which they shamelessly tanked for but lost to the Charlotte Hornets when the Cavs passed them in the draft lottery, and used it on a floor spacing power forward like Noah Vonleh. Due to Monroe’s and Drummond’s similar age, the Pistons are sort of stuck on the train with them and will probably have to make due with them as the cornerstones of the franchise.
If the Pistons can get rid of Jennings and Smith and bring back at least semi-valuable assets in a trade they have to do so. The endgame for Van Gundy isn’t to make the playoffs in the next two seasons but to become a contender.
Build on your younger players, find an identity as young team with a style of play and solid system.
Van Gundy is a great coach and certainly smart enough to accomplish that with just Monroe, Drummond and some shooting. The way he used Howard when he was the head coach of the Orlando Magic was genius.
And he’ll be able to replicate some of those things with Drummond. The Magic used to run tons of down screens that turned into pick and rolls and plays where the ball would swing from side to side and Howard could get deep post position.
The genius of those plays was knowing the limitations of Howard as a post player and bringing him close enough to the basket where it wasn’t a post up anymore, it was a dunk.
Drummond improved as a post player throughout the year and has a nifty little right-handed jump hook in his arsenal along with some spin moves and improving footwork. He’s still a bit turnover prone and can’t go left at all, but Drummond is quickly becoming good enough down there to be a real threat. Especially in SVG’s system.
He’s an excellent cutter, averaging 1.32 points per possession, the third best in the league per Synergy Sports, and is a fantastic finisher at the rim in pick and roll.
With Monroe, Van Gundy won’t have the type of floor spacer he’s used to having at the power forward position like Ryan Anderson and Rashard Lewis, but he’s a capable facilitator and has shown slight improvement on his jumper, shooting with small upticks in shooting efficiency from outside the paint each season. Adjustments will have to be made to accommodate Monroe and his skill set, but nothing too drastic that Van Gundy wouldn’t be up for.
The road to building a championship caliber team is pretty interesting. Big guys tend to develop slower than guards, and Monroe is still a couple of years away from his prime. Drummond is even further out. Meaning the Pistons have an opportunity to build their team in a way where the big guys and young guards peak at the right team while some of them are on rookie deals along with a few veteran specialists, something that many teams in the league are striving to do.
Just think about the roster composition of the Trail Blazers, Warriors or the Rockets (at least before losing Parsons). They still to add a wing player and a reliable young point guard, but with good drafting and a bit of luck those things can work themselves out.
It’s a marathon and not a sprint. Additionally I really like Caldwell-Pope. He can become an elite defender and shooter, in the mold of Danny Green but with more ball-handling skills.
Amid all the mess and turmoil the Pistons have some great pieces who are most importantly really young. After a rocky five years for the Detroit Pistons, the organization probably isn’t brimming with patience, but it’s probably the right choice to take a step back, trade what you can for assets and build around Drummond in a way where they could be really special a few years down the line.