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Recent Pistons’ Struggles Spell Trouble

Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

The Detroit Pistons have woefully underachieved this season, creating problems on and off the court.

The Pistons came into the season fully expecting to build off of their solid first-round playoff performance against the eventual champions, the Cleveland Cavaliers. Instead, they are currently 15-19 and positioned out of the playoffs as we near the All-Star break. 

Before beating the LeBron-less Cavs on Monday, they were in the midst of a five game losing streak. Although they lost to some talented teams, they were beaten by double digits in every game except against the Warriors, the worst of it being a 31 point loss (implosion) against the erratic Bulls. 

So where do the Pistons’ problems lie?

Reggie Jackson:

Reggie Jackson has been a semblance of his former self ever since he returned from a combination of a left knee and thumb injury. The Pistons rely on Jackson being their leader and playmaker, but so far he has been unable to fulfill these roles. Jackson is producing worse numbers in almost every statistical category compared to last season. Here are some of the notable ones:

2015-2016 (79 Games): 18.8 PPG, 6.2 APG, 3.2 RPG, .434 FG%, .363 AST%, 19.8 PER

2016-2017 (13 Games): 14.1 PPG, 5.1 APG, 1.8 RPG, .409 FG%, .307 AST%, 13.8 PER

Granted, Jackson has only played in 13 games since returning, so it is a relatively small sample size. Plus, it’s typical for a player to need time to return to true form, but it is interesting to note that Jackson’s return was supposed to invigorate the team and has instead made them worse. 

Image titleLeon Halip-USA TODAY Sports

The Pistons are frustrated that the ball is not moving enough on offense, and although Jackson is not the sole reason for that, the problem has seemed to surface only recently. 

Marcus Morris voiced his frustration after a 105-90 loss to the Indiana Pacers:

“Guys are not going to respond well when they don’t get the ball when they’re open. That’s just basketball. That’s just the right way.” 

Many explain the offensive stagnation by pointing to the fact that Ish Smith, Jackson’s replacement for the beginning of the season, is more of a distributor than Jackson. While Jackson’s assist percentage and assists per game have noticeably dropped from last year, the five man lineup of Jackson, Tobias Harris, Andre Drummond, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Marcus Morris averages the same amount of assists (5.8 in 13.3 MPG) than the identical lineup with Smith substituted in for Jackson (5.8 assists in 12.0 MPG). 

The difference lies in efficiency. Jackson’s version of the lineup shoots a lower field goal percentage and averages one more turnover than Ish’s version, a sign that while assist numbers may be similar, the Pistons are not getting easy shots and the offense is not flowing naturally with Jackson on the floor. This discrepancy culminates in Jackson’s lineup being outscored by an average of 12 points per 100 possessions, while Ish’s outscores opponents by an average of 1.2 points per 100 possessions.

The highlights from the Bulls game below show just how anemic the offense was with Jackson on the court.



The team simply seems frustrated with Jackson back at the helm. Stan Van Gundy put it best when he said after the same Pacers loss:

“Our offensive frustration is affecting us at the defensive end and we’re losing heart a little bit…Part of it is, we got guys upset they’re not touching the ball and everything else so they’re not as engaged in the game on the defensive end of the floor.” 

Van Gundy seems to understand perfectly what is hindering his team. However, identifying a problem and solving a problem are two very different things.

Andre Drummond:

Numbers-wise, Drummond is having a productive season. He is averaging 14.0 PPG and 13.4 RPG, the latter ranking second in the league, and although those numbers are slightly down from last season (16.2 PPG and 14.8 RPG), his minutes are also slightly down, so he is producing at a similar rate. Drummond’s problem has never been on the stat sheet; however, he has yet to adapt to the nuances of the game.

In today’s NBA, players can shoot three-point shots. Yes, even a player who has made only three three-pointers in his entire eight year career before this season can make three-pointers, i.e. Brook Lopez. When the Pistons played the Brooklyn Nets and Lopez earlier this year, Drummond seemed to refuse to believe this fact, and Lopez lit him up for four threes and a total of 34 points in the game to defeat the Pistons.


Good teams, like the Warriors, have learned to expose Drummond’s weakness. In the final minutes of the game, the Warriors ran a play to draw Drummond to the top of the key, then set a back screen on him to free up Draymond Green for an open dunk. While it is a clever play design by Steve Kerr, it is one they run often, and by the way Stan Van Gundy reacts to its success, was one he had hoped his players would recognize and defend properly. 

About a minute later, the Warriors pick on Drummond again by having Klay Thompson run off a screen set by Green, whom Drummond is defending. Drummond does not properly hedge the screen, and Thompson gets an easy, in-rhythm three because of it, all but sealing the game.

The very next play is where the game was truly sealed. Drummond decided to set a high ball screen for Reggie Jackson on offense, thus making him part of the play, and by rule, eligible to be fouled and shoot free throws without getting the ball back. Drummond is a notoriously bad free throw shooter, and with the Pistons down by five at that point, needed to make both to keep them in the game. Advantage Warriors. He ultimately made one of two, putting the Pistons down by four, with too little time to make up that deficit.


(For the events just described, start at 8:21.)


In his draft profile, Drummond’s maturity and commitment level are questioned, and the concern for the Pistons is, that at this point, these problems may never disappear. The mistakes made by Drummond in the final minute and a half of the Warriors game were all easily avoidable with more effort and presence of mind. If Drummond cannot play with a so-called higher basketball IQ, then it seems as if he has reached his ceiling and will not be able to make the Pistons serious contenders like the Warriors.

Good News:

There is some good news in all of this: Jon Leuer. With Jon Leuer in the starting lineup instead of Tobias Harris, the Pistons are playing much better. The five man lineup of Leuer, Jackson, Morris, Drummond, and Caldwell-Pope has a plus/minus of 0.3 and is shooting an impressive 44.0% from three (compared to -5.5 and 34.9% with Harris). Leuer is adept at making quick decisions and keeping the ball moving, the perfect remedy for the offensive sluggishness the Pistons have experienced. Leuer provides balance for the Pistons by complementing more ball-dominant players like Morris and Jackson with off-ball movement and quick passes, leading to better shots.


Harris, the more talented scorer of the two, can then come off the bench and provide a burst of scoring midway through a quarter when other substitutes are in the game. Harris seems to flourish in this role, having scored 26, 21, and 23 on a combined 24/43 shooting (56%) in the three games since the lineup change was implemented (he averages 16.3 PPG on the season).

The Pistons have not experienced the type of success they were hoping for at the beginning of the season. While the lineup shift with Leuer seems to be working—albeit with a small sample size of just three games—it’s concerning that the Pistons’ two best players and leaders, Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond, have regressed this season. These are the two players that ultimately control the future of the Pistons going forward, and if they cannot improve, then it may be time for the Pistons to look for other options that will make them serious contenders again.

Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and stats.NBA.com

Edited by Brian Kang, Peyten Maki.

SQuiz
When did the Detroit Pistons last win a championship?
Created 12/29/16
  1. 1999
  2. 2001
  3. 2007
  4. 2004

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