Category → Analysis
Modeled after ESPN’s 5-on-5, three of us will answer three questions about a Pistons-related topic. Please add your responses in the comments.
1. The Pistons made the biggest splash in free agency this summer when they inked Josh Smith to a 4-year, $54 million contract. Needless to say, he’s yet to live up to that deal, so how does he grade out at the almost-midway point?
Dan Feldman: If it seems Smith is shooting more often from the perimeter, it’s only because 3-pointers have their own column in the box score, and long 2s don’t. Smith is wisely trading long 2s for 3s, and that has helped his efficiency from outside. It’s still abysmal, though — to the point Smith’s jumpers undermine his offensive game. Smith has been miscast defensively, struggling to chase small forwards around the perimeter. When defending the paint or wings who don’t chase opponents off screens all game, he’s excelled. GRADE: C-
Patrick Hayes: Switching positions and playing in an often directionless offensive system hasn’t really set Smith up for success. But he’s also too talented a player to consistently and willingly take (and miss) as many poor shots as he does. I wasn’t expecting his offense to be great though — he’s always been a feast or famine type of offensive player. I was expecting him to be the anchor of a good, young defense, and that hasn’t materialized. That’s not all on Smith, but as the biggest free agent signing in team history, his performance has been underwhelming. GRADE: D+
Brady Fredericksen: Well, um, I’m not sure if there’s a nice way to say this, but Smith has been… mediocre. Yeah, I’m not quite on the he-is-the-worst-player-ever bandwagon, but there’s definitely been plenty of ugliness from Smith so far. He’s overtaken Will Bynum as the long-2 shooter that makes me audibly groan — which I wasn’t sure was possible — and while he looks comfortable playing small forward and hoisting 3-pointers, he surely doesn’t play that way. I think the recent move to get the majority of his minutes at power forward is going to be a really, really beneficial move for this team’s success here and now on both offense and defense. GRADE: C-
2. Prior to the offseason trade for Brandon Jennings, the Pistons hadn’t gotten much play from a real NBA point guard since Chauncey Billups left town. The results have been mixed so far, but how do you grade Jennings at this point?
Dan Feldman: Jennings is still finding finding his way as a pass-first (or at least pass-more-often) point guard. He’s averaging a career-high 8.5 assists per game, but also a career-high 3.3 turnovers per game. His assist-to-turnover ratio is a career-best, so that’s at least an encouraging sign. But there’s little encouraging about Jennings’ 3-point shooting, a below-his-career-average 34 percent, including 25 percent on spot-ups, according to MySynergySports. With Josh Smith, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond drawing focus to the interior, Jennings must shoot better from the perimeter. Jennings has defended a little better this season, leading the Pistons in steals per game, but when not gambling, he doesn’t accomplish much on that end. GRADE: C+
Patrick Hayes: Zach Lowe described Jennings defensive improvements as “going from “comatose” to “generally aware of his surroundings.” Jennings has had exciting moments this season, and he’s made efforts to improve as a distributor (though that has come at the expense of his shooting percentages), but doesn’t “exciting moments” mixed in with forgettable play pretty much describe what everyone who has followed Jennings closely throughout his career already knew about him? He’s basically the same guy he’s always been, with a few minor tweaks. That’s an upgrade over Brandon Knight, and that’s worth something, but it’s also not super impressive. GRADE: C
Brady Fredericksen: I’m gonna be honest — Jennings has been better than I expected. He’s trying to be a distributor, perhaps too hard at times, but he’s looking more and more comfortable in that role. I don’t think he has the ability to be the kind of commanding leader late in a game that most great teams have, but he’s definitely been in that above-average group of guards so far. Can you argue that he’s played at an All-Star level in the East? Sure, he’s No. 4 in scoring, No. 2 in assists, No. 5 in steals and No. 2 in double-doubles. He won’t be one — I know, I know, he’s shooting a horrid percentage — I’m just pointing out that he’s been decent. Now, I won’t bore you with how bad his defense or fourth-quarter play has been, but you could do a heckuva lot worse at this point. GRADE: C
3. It’s no secret that Andre Drummond is a big reason for the Pistons’ successes this season. He’s also been the most fun player Detroit’s seen in awhile. What grade does the 20-year-old earn thus far?
Dan Feldman: Are we grading Drummond as a starting center? He’s one of the NBA’s best. Are we grading Drummond as a 20-year-old? By that standard, he’s historically good. Are we grading him as a franchise player who should be leading his team to a winning record? He’d fall short, though the potential is there. But it’s to soon to ask so much of Drummond, and it’s really a credit to him that some fans have their bar set so high. GRADE: A
Patrick Hayes: Drummond has exceeded every possible expectation by so much already in his career, that it’s silly to even bother recapping it. As a 20-year-old who is already one of the best and most productive centers in the league despite the fact that he’s still kind of lost on offense and defense a significant part of the time is incredible. Imagine what he will be when he has a better grasp on his role at both ends of the court? Scary. In the mean time, he’s still the team’s best player by a mile. GRADE: A
Brady Fredericksen: Drummond has been the best player on the team this year, and it’s not even close. He’s still got so far to go before he’s a finished product, but if this is the kind of player he is at 20, than he’s only going to get better. Rarely does he have a play run for him, and somehow he comes up with 12 points a night. Who knows how the Pistons offense will look as they continue to tweak it, but the team is 10-11 when Drummond takes 10-or-more shots. GRADE: A-
Modeled after ESPN’s 5-on-5, three of us will answer three questions about a Pistons-related topic. Please add your responses in the comments.
1. When the Pistons signed Chauncey Billups this summer, it was supposed to be the second coming of everyone’s favorite Piston. It hasn’t been quite as fun as most had hoped, so what grade does he get for his performance so far?
Brady Fredericksen, PistonPowered: It’s hard to watch him play now, but it’s not really a surprise. The fans who thought the Pistons were getting the old Billups were, well, naive to say the least. His per-36 number (8 points, 5 assists and 3 rebounds) are kind of where I expected in a best-case scenario. Obviously, he can’t sustain that kind of court time, but here’s my thing with Billups — he’s old, but I don’t think he’s really this bad. He can still be an asset as a shooter, but the issue is that he doesn’t play consistently enough to find any sort of rhythm. If he finds his stroke, I think he can come in and be a threat from 3-point range. But so far, he’s been pretty brutal. GRADE: F
Tim Thielke, PistonPowered: Billups has played terribly. It’s unfortunate, but there’s no getting around that. His 31/29/83 splits suggest that he should never, ever shoot the ball. But he doesn’t contribute in any other way either. He is far too slow to defend anyone at this stage of his career, his 22 percent turnover rate blows away his previous career high, and his assist rate is way down from his career levels (for a guy who never amassed huge assist totals). Peyton Siva might actually be a better player right now. GRADE: F
Sean Corp, Detroit Bad Boys: Sadly, Billups provides more evidence every day that maybe it’s time to hang up his jersey (in the Palace rafters, maybe?) and trade it in for a front-office suit. His numbers almost universally are the worst in his illustrious career. He’s shooting 29 percent, can’t defend and can’t get to the free-throw line. In a lineup desperate for a ball-handler and decision-maker alongside Brandon Jennings late in games, a contributing Billups would be just what the doctor ordered. Unfortunately, Billups can’t contribute and he’s largely lost his minutes to Will Bynum. Billups was always my favorite player from the Going to Work era, and I’m glad that the Pistons re-signed him even if it was just to see him don the Pistons’ jersey again. But this will probably be his last year as a professional. Grade: D
2. While he’s still not the most well-liked Piston, Rodney Stuckey has put together one of his most productive seasons so far. Injuries have slowed him, but what does he get for his play thus far?
Brady Fredericksen, PistonPowered: Contract Year Rodney Stuckey is the best version of the much-maligned guard. He’s been slowed by a shoulder injury recently, but Stuckey was playing the best basketball of his career prior to that. Considering the Pistons are trying to make the playoffs, there’s definitely value to keeping Stuckey around and just letting his $8.5 million contract expire this summer. But if he’s playing well later on, and you can spin him for assets (maybe a late 1st round pick?)… well, we’ll wait and see if he returns to form first. GRADE: B
Tim Thielke, PistonPowered: Stuckey started off the season red hot. As expected, though, he has cooled down of late. He’s still very important to the Pistons’ continued success this season, though. If either Jennings or Bynum is injured (or is playing particularly poorly), you don’t wan to rely on Billups or Siva to have to take minutes at the point. GRADE: C+
Sean Corp, Detroit Bad Boys: Stuckey rebounded nicely from an off 2012-13 season and looked like a potent go-to bench scorer … until he pulled a Stuckey and started dealing with a series of nagging injuries. He’s tough, so he has played through his various ailments, but it has definitely hurt his overall effectiveness. If he can get healthy again and put together another strong string of games, the team should definitely capitalize and try and trade him to a team looking for scoring punch in return for either a draft pick or a different kind of scorer — namely, one with legitimate 3-point range. Grade: C+
3. While all three of the Pistons big guys have had their fair share of inconsistencies this year, Greg Monroe has been one guy who’s kind of been a steady presence. What grade has he earned?
Brady Fredericksen, PistonPowered: Overall, I think Monroe has done his job. He’s been put in a bad spot on both sides of the ball, but he’s still been really good around the basket and on the boards. As for his defense, it’s been poor, yeah. But he wasn’t a great defender when he was playing primarily center, so I don’t see why everyone is so surprised that he’s struggled with the more athletic power forwards. He’s kind of in that company of guys who have gone from underrated to overrated and maybe back to underrated now. Fans can complain about him all they want, but if the Pistons do trade him and they don’t get a stud in return, Monroe is going to join the Amir Johnsons and Arron Afflalos as the next, “WHY DID JOE DUMARS TRADE THIS GUY???!!” figurehead. GRADE: B
Tim Thielke, PistonPowered: I’m not concerned about Monroe’s scoring dip. He’s shouldering a lighter burden this season than in the past. And that is also reflected in his reduced turnovers and increased field goal percentage (although I’d like to see that percentage go up a bit higher still to his rookie or sophomore levels). Unfortunately, his rates of collecting blocks, steals, rebounds, and assists are down too. I tend to think that’s because of being used poorly (being played with two other bigs, not silly nitpicking between PF and C), but I can’t know for sure. Given that at his age, he should still be improving, this is a disappointment. At least he’s playing the best (still not very good) defense of his career. GRADE: C-
Sean Corp, Detroit Bad Boys: Monroe is the forgotten man (especially in the fourth quarters), less because a lack of skill and less because of a lack of role. The offense runs through Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings, for better or worse, so Monroe is usually the second or third option despite being Detroit’s most reliable scorer. Yes, he has his limitations — he still doesn’t have a jump shot, his defensive awareness leaves a lot to be desired and he allows balls to be too easily poked away. But he is Detroit’s most potent weapon on offense on a nightly basis, and he should be featured on offense more, especially late in games when the opposing defense clamps down. The big 3 experiment has failed, and that has most negatively affected Monroe and Smith. If the team staggers the minutes among the three better all could see increased effectiveness, and the Monroe as power forward experiment has obviously worked better than the Smith as small forward one. Grade: B
Brandon Jennings tied a Pistons single-quarter record with 11 assists in the first quarter against the Phoenix Suns on Saturday. Most, six of the 11, came in transition. Usually, these kind of dimes are much easier, but Jennings deserves for running the floor and creating the opportunities.
But, on closer inspection, perhaps another Piston deserves credit for Jennings’ assists, too.
All but one of Jennings’ transition assists were triggered by a defensive play made by Andre Drummond – two blocks, one steal, and two other stops. Here is the tape of six Drummond-generated fastbreaks (I apologize for the quality):
As you can see, all of the plays lead to a quick outlet and a fast break.
The first one does not lead to a basket because Jennings hesitates to lob it up for Drummond. Jennings tends to do that at times, which is also a reason why he commits too many turnovers.
On the second play, Goran Dragic is unable, or unwilling, to go over Drummond, and makes a risky pass which leads to a steal.
The third and fourth plays are a swat of the ball against the backboard.
The fifth a steal, which leads to a highlight dunk.
Finally, Drummond scares the Leandro Barbosa so badly that the Brazilian throws up an airball floater in order to circumvent another rejection.
Let’s look closer at the blocks and forced airball:
Drummond blocks all three shots with his left-hand. This is outstanding for a player his age.
If you look at other (especially young) big men, they tend to block shots only with their strong hand. Drummond has the skills to mirror mostly right-handed opponents.
Moreover, Drummond keeps the ball in play, which is crucial. Bill Russell was one of the great shot blockers at his time, and he always preached keeping the ball in play. Javale McGee, for example, ofteen tries to spike the ball into the stands. This is an issue because the team does not receive the opportunity to run a fastbreak – or even gain possession. Therefore, the block becomes a somewhat empty statistic.
Meanwhile, Drummond channels the ball toward his teammates – even using the backboard to do so – which enables the team to run the floor. This kind of defensive intelligence is outstanding, and I would like to think Rasheed Wallace has something to do with it.
Here is Drummond’s good defense on a driving Dragic:
Dragic has driven all the way to the basket, but he knows Drummond is an excellent shot blocker, so Dragic attempts to drop it to Miles Plumlee. This is not a bad idea, since the Pistons defense has not properly rotated. What you see here is a perfect example of ball watching, as the rotation is not crisp at all. Jennings look out of sorts, as he should have gone all the way down to Plumlee to prevent the pass. Instead, he is not guarding anyone. Fortunately, Plumlee struggles to catch the ball and Jennings can steal it. The point is, had someone like Monroe been in Drummond’s place, Dragic probably would have scored or drawn a foul. Instead, Drummond has denied two points, and thereby created two for his own team.
Lastly, Drummond steals the ball from Dragic in this sequence. Dragic is a good point guard, but this play shows just how the Piston center influences the game, actively and passively. In spite of Dragic coming at him with great speed, trying to cross him over, Drummond simply pokes the ball away. There are very few centers in the league who can stay this low to do this to a driving guard. Drummond can do it. In this instance, he is rewarded with a dunk off the backboard.
Drummond is special. Most of the league has recognized this.
But not everyone realizes his full value.
He not only plays well defensively, he helps the team on offense as well – a classic case of defense creating offense. One can argue that each of the six situations, or more than a half of Jennings’ first-quarter assists, happened due to Drummond’s defensive prowess. In two of them, it is evident that the driving player is afraid of Drummond, which causes a bad pass and an airball. Those plays don’t show up in the box score for Drummond.
This ability, to dominate in so many ways defensively, strongly reminds me of Ben Wallace.
It has always been a mystery to me, why the Pistons were so much better offensively with Wallace on the floor. Apart from Wallace setting strong screens and being a good passer, I believe these kinds of situations are also a reason for it.
Drummond hasn’t neared Wallace’s level defensively yet, but the second-year-player is showing progress. Some might not see it, but the Pistons’ offense clearly does.
Modeled after ESPN’s 5-on-5, three of us will answer three questions about a Pistons-related topic. Please add your responses in the comments.
1. We’ve seen Will Bynum do Will Bynum Things for six seasons now, so far this season he’s done much the same. How does he grade out so far?
Brady Fredericksen, PistonPowered: We’ve kind of reached the point of no return with Bynum. He’s been the same guy for the past three years. He’ll wow you at times, he’ll make you groan at times, but he’s mostly just streaky. If we were to put together an All-Streaky Team, I think Bynum would have a strong shot at starting, and definitely a chance at the sixth man role. GRADE: C-
Tim Thielke, PistonPowered: What is there to say about Bynum? He has been basically the same player he has always been. I think it was a waste of next offseason’s cap space for Dumars to guarantee a second season. He just isn’t important enough to make that worthwhile. But he has done what was expected of him so far. GRADE: C
Chris Gaerig, Isiah Was a Prophet: Bynum is suffering through a post-contract-signing lull. Shooting .040 worse than last season and averaging almost a full assist and point less in the same time on the floor, the Pistons’ bench spark plug hasn’t shown the consistency or explosiveness that garnered him a $5 million paycheck. A recent few impressive games playing significant minutes may see him get more burn off the bench, however. GRADE: C
2. Perhaps the least exciting Pistons player, Kyle Singler has played a valuable role off the bench for the team — what grade does that yield?
Brady Fredericksen: His play is never going to wow you, but he’s always there. He’ll be a hero once or twice a year, and he’ll have impressive games where he scores well and rebounds the heck out of the ball. The role that Singler is in now is probably what his career is going to be — guy who makes some shots, brings intangibles and is relatively versatile. He’s probably been one of the Pistons most valuable players sheerly because he’s been able to fill (in spurts) so many holes. GRADE: B
Tim Thielke: I’ve been really impressed with Singler this season. Last year, I figured he was a decent get for where he was drafted but that he was not a player with virtually any room for growth. But this season, he has improved his shooting considerably and put up nearly identical stats in spite of playing fewer minutes. Also, most games he makes a really impressive play around the basket (at least, really impressive for a guy with low expectations). GRADE: B
Chris Gaerig, Isiah Was a Prophet: Hidden behind Singler’s poor perimeter shooting this season: he wasn’t all that good shooting from downtown last year. Averaging only slightly worse from outside this season (34.1% in ’13-’14; 35.0% in ’12-’13) in spite of a horrible opening month, Singler had an exceptional December, draining 46.7% of his three point attempts. Otherwise, he remained a practical clone of his rookie form: energy rebounder who spaces the floor and plays passable defense. The move to his preferred small forward position gives the Pistons more personnel flexibility but uncovers some defensive liabilities. GRADE: C+
3. The Pistons’ first-round pick, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, has had his moments this season — overall what has he graded out as at this point in the season?
Brady Fredericksen: I think Caldwell-Pope has room to grow — in basically every facet of his game — but he’s still been a valuable contributor so far. The Pistons could have chosen better players, that’s not even an argument. The thing is Caldwell-Pope has shown himself to be one of the better perimeter defenders from the class. The Pistons had no one capable of guarding athletic wing players going into the season, but Caldwell-Pope has been able to step in and be a solid, albeit still learning, defender. His shooting will come around, but in the meantime imagine what kind of terrible things opposing guards would be doing to the Pistons without him. GRADE: C+
Tim Thielke: Caldwell-Pope is probably the hardest player for me to grade because I don’t know where to set his baseline. He has not been nearly good enough for an 8th overall pick who isn’t a major “project”. On the other hand, he has been significantly better than I expected when I learned that KCP was the pick. After a rocky start, KCP has been shooting respectably of late and his D is very good. I guess I can’t blame Caldwell-Pope for Joe Dumars’ mistake. GRADE: B-
Chris Gaerig, Isiah Was a Prophet: There are no mincing words: KCP had an atrocious opening month. Since the end of November, however, he has averaged 7.4 PPG on 44.5% shooting and 39.3% from outside. Combine that with his improving rebounding ability and magnetic on-ball defense, and KCP shows the makings of the NBA’s coveted 3-and-D wing player. He still needs to improve—finishing at the rim, drawing fouls, and making his free throws, for instance—but recent performances show he’s closer to the player Joe Dumars thought he drafted than the overwhelmed rookie we saw in November. GRADE: C+
In theory, it should be easy to root for this version of the Detroit Pistons.
The Going to Work era Pistons were beloved not just because they had a successful and sustained run. They found a commonality with fans because every key player on those teams could have at different times in their careers been described as underrated, overlooked, under-utilized, given up on, overachieving or some combination of those terms. They were a reflection of the blue collar image of the city and state they represented. The fact that they won big was certainly the biggest factor in fan support, but the narrative of how that team came together as a grab-bag of players who were unappreciated or considered spare parts elsewhere shattered those expectations and had their greatest successes together was a compelling part of why fans invested so heavily in the Pistons during those years.
This year’s version of the Pistons has a narrative that isn’t without similarities to that group. They’re a mix-and-match collection of players who don’t necessarily fit. Josh Smith, despite being one of the NBA’s most versatile two-way players for much of his career and a near All-Star on playoff teams in Atlanta, is still better known for his flaws than for the collective whole of his game, which has always been pretty good. He’s surly, talented, defensive-minded and tough … all qualities that typically lead to adulation among Detroit fans. He’s been on playoff teams for six straight seasons, including one of my favorite losing playoff teams ever, the 2007-08 Atlanta Hawks, who took the eventual champion Boston Celtics to seven games in a physical, intense first round series. Incidentally, the Pistons that season could only manage to last six games vs. Boston.
Their other big acquisition, Brandon Jennings, has similarly always had detractors. Not wanting to go through the sham of playing one year of college basketball because of the NBA’s age minimum, Jennings went to Europe to play a year of professional basketball before entering the draft. At the time, some worried that Jennings would set some sort of trend — one-and-done caliber players would suddenly choose that path rather than college basketball. Looking back, however, only a couple of prospects have tried that path, with good reason — as Jennings discovered, it’s really hard to go to a foreign country as a teenager and play in a professional league of grown men.
During the 2009 NBA Draft, Jennings wasn’t one of the prospects invited to the green room. But he was driving around in the area, and when his name was called at No. 10 overall by Milwaukee, a bit higher than most projections had him going, Jennings decided to stop by and make a slightly late entrance. That’s always going to be an all-time great NBA Draft moment.
Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond both fell in the draft because scouts questioned their motivation levels, hurting their stock. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope will constantly have to deal with the, “should they have taken Trey Burke?” questions.* Rodney Stuckey has had nearly as many coaches as he’s had seasons in the league and the fact that he never developed into the All-Star level expectation the organization unfairly saddled him with, he’s still a reliable and valuable NBA rotation player.
* Yes, they should’ve taken Trey Burke … he’s already one of the best PGs in the league when it comes to not turning the ball over.
The point is, much like those beloved Pistons teams, this version of the Pistons has baggage that’s kind of endearing. They even talk similarly. One of my favorite quotes from Ben Wallace during the Pistons’ run in 2004 came in response to a TV reporter questioning whether Wallace being a “one-way player” hurt the Pistons at the offensive end. An annoyed and prideful Wallace responded, “I’m not a defensive specialist. I’m a basketball player.”
Similarly, Smith was recently asked by USA Today’s Jeff Zilgitt about his perimeter shooting woes and the impact that has on the team. Smith, noting the other skills he brings to the table in the article, replied, “I’m a basketball player.”
But if you continue with the quote, it exposes the problem and the key difference between Wallace’s defiance and Smith’s: ”I’m confident in each and every play I make. I don’t think about it. I just play and play with confidence.”
Wallace’s defiance was supported by statistical evidence that overwhelmingly showed his limited offense was of little consequence because of how historically impactful he was defensively at his peak. Smith, on the other hand, has very clear statistical evidence that shooting a lot of jumpers makes him a worse player.
Pride, defiance and surliness are traits that could describe the demeanor of some of the most beloved sports figures in the history of pro sports in Michigan. The fact that this version of the Pistons exhibits some of those traits or brings with them disappointments or baggage from their experiences elsewhere, is actually a good indicator that players like Smith and Jennings, who haven’t exactly had smooth (or is it Smoove?) starts to their Detroit careers could win over fans.
Here’s the difference between the 2000s Pistons and the current version, though: basketball intelligence. Those teams, even when they lost games, even when they disappointed, they didn’t play brain dead basketball. This Pistons team plays without basic basketball intelligence regularly. Despite evidence being readily available showing that there are certain shots on the floor that Smith should never take, he won’t look at it or tweak the way he plays. Despite Jennings having incredible moments as a distributing point guard, he sometimes fails at more mundane but critical elements of point guard play, like clock management for example.
This Pistons teams is often maligned for playing with a lack of effort. I think that’s usually unfair (and I think the “effort” thing in general is an overplayed and overly general weak sports writing tool). They generally play with effort, but if you’re playing with effort but doing so unintelligently, your effort level is meaningless.
Some of the Pistons issues relate to coaching — you can’t have a team that routinely makes mental mistakes consistently and not pin that on the coaching staff. This was a great observation from Grantland’s Zach Lowe (among many great observations) about how Cheeks uses Monroe defensively:
Monroe’s issues are well documented. He inspires zero fear at the basket, and he’s not the quickest cat. He’s certainly not quick enough to execute a scheme that often asks him to jump out aggressively against pick-and-rolls, chasing little point guards 25 feet from the hoop.
Yeah … wish No. 1 for watching the Pistons is you stop using Monroe in your defense like he’s an in-his-prime Ben Wallace or Kevin Garnett.
Some of the issues are a product of youth — when Joe Dumars constructed the 2000s teams, he did so with more experienced players. Jennings is still a young point guard, Monroe and Drummond have not yet figured out NBA defense (although I’m confident that Drummond will and Monroe still might if used in a better defensive scheme) and the team’s steadiest veteran, Chauncey Billups, is too old to provide much on-court stabilization.
And some of the issues are as simple as the players themselves taking more responsibility to eliminate unforced mistakes, particularly on defense, and play more disciplined.
There’s more interest (slightly) in the Pistons this season because they have more talent and a legitimate shot at the playoffs. But many nights, they’re still a poor on-court product. Watching a poor on-court product that lacks talent is bad, but watching a talented team that loses because it plays stupid is the height of misery as a sports team. The Pistons’ season is still salvageable and I’m not even convinced that they won’t figure out how to effectively use all of their big three effectively by the end of the season — it’s doable. But if fans tuned out during the past four years because of bad basketball, they’ll turn even faster on this team if they don’t play more intelligently.
Mailbag note …
After a long hiatus, the PistonPowered mailbag will return. Apologies for the delay … it was due to an addition to the family. I have a few questions left that I didn’t get to in the last one, but I could use some new ones, so get your questions about your wildest trade scenarios, handsomest beat writers and questions about Feldman’s personal life in before Thursday evening. Mailbag will run Friday. You can catch me on Twitter or via email – patrickhayes13(at)gmail(dot)com.
Only if they’re playing with Josh Smith, apparently.
In a video posted by David Mayo of MLive, Maurice Cheeks said, “We’ll probably have Josh Smith and any one of the bigs on the floor. It will safe to say we’ll have those guys on the floor more, as opposed to Greg and Andre.”
The Pistons are becoming Josh Smith’s team.
Smith struggled at small forward, but the Pistons won’t pull him – or Monroe, a pending free agent, or Drummond, a prospective All-Star – from the starting lineup. So, they’re left trying to get Smith as many minutes as possible at power forward in other ways. And because Cheeks doesn’t believe in using Monroe and Drummond together with a tradition 1-2-3 behind them – following the misguided lead of his predecessor, Lawrence Frank – that means fewer minutes for Monroe and Drummond, two of the NBA’s top young bigs.
With the absence of a third big to clog paint, Smith-Drummond and Smith-Monroe are probably better combinations than Monroe-Drummond right now. But Monroe-Drummond could be the Pistons’ future, considering they’re five and eight years younger than Smith. And in the present, the combination trumps most of what Detroit has done this season.
But, for the time being, Monroe and Drummond will just have to fit best they can once Smith is comfortably situated.
1. When he was signed this summer, Luigi Datome was hailed as a great shooter… well, that hasn’t been the case yet. What’s his almost-midseason grade?
Dan Feldman: Datome was signed to stretch floor, but he’s made just 6-of-31 3-pointers, giving him a worse percentage from beyond the arc than Chris Andersen. His defense has actually been good enough to get a dead-eye shooter on the floor. He just hasn’t shown he can shoot. Maybe he would shoot better with more-consistent minutes, but he hasn’t shown himself to be deserving of a bigger opportunity. Datome is caught in a catch-22. GRADE: F
Brady Fredericksen: Datome’s been a ‘shooter’ who can’t really shoot thus far in his Pistons’ career. That’s probably not totally his fault — he’s proven throughout his European career that he is a good shooter — but the situation he’s been in has hurt him. There aren’t many Brent Barrys or Kyle Korvers floating around who can just jump on the court and be automatic from deep. Datome isn’t that guy, but shooters need shots and court time to find their rhythm, and Datome’s limitations defensively have made it hard to put him on the floor for long stretches. GRADE: D-
Tim Thielke: Datome was signed for one reason: to be a shooter. I still think he can be a very good shooter in this league (the ball just looks so pretty going up). But so far, the results have been miserable. He is 6-of-31 from downtown. Of players who have attempted at least 30 threes, only Tyreke Evans’ 7-of-37 is worse. His 20-for-42 from two and 2-for-4 from the stripe are not good either. And his D has been as bad as advertised. Grade: F
2. Jonas Jerebko has had an up-and-down career in Detroit, and this season has been another inconsistent one for the once promising forward. How does he grade out, so far?
Dan Feldman: Jerebko’s shot selection has improved immensely, leading to career-best 55 percent shooting on 2s and 45 percent shooting on 3s. But what’s happened to his offensive rebounding, which was once his best skill? And why is he turning the ball over at a disturbingly high rate? I suspect both would regress toward his career averages in a larger sample, but for now, they weigh down his grade. GRADE: D+
Brady Fredericksen: He’s a victim of circumstance right now. Could Jerebko be a player who can help the Pistons every night? Of course. Has he chilled out and gone back to the scrappy player he burst onto the scene as? Surprisingly, yes. But with the minutes at both forward spots being occupied by guys who are better (Josh Smith, Greg Monroe) or a better fit (Kyle Singler, Datome) he’s just kind of stuck where he is. GRADE: C
Tim Thielke: Jerebko has mostly fallen out of the rotation this season so he has to get docked for that. But when he has played, he’s done everything we could ask of him and more. His 52/45/71 splits are terrific. All his per-minute stats are at career highs (so career bests apart from TOs). And he has gone back to making hustle plays. However, Jerebko is on the books for $4.5M and has played 201 minutes. That’s pretty bad. GRADE: B-
3. To say that Charlie Villanueva hasn’t been a fan favorite in Detroit is, um, an understatement. Playing out the final year of his contract, what grade has he earned at the almost-midway point?
Dan Feldman: Guess who leads the Pistons in shots per minute. After ceding the crown to Will Bynum last season, Villanueva is back on top. Villanueva is probably playing the worst basketball of his career. He’s stopped rebounding, at least for a player his size. Chauncey Billups is the only Piston who has taken a higher percentage of his shots from beyond the arc. Considering Villanueva has made only 24 percent of his 3s, that’s really killed his productivity. On the bright side, he hasn’t stood out as particularly inept defensively, but that’s probably only because he hasn’t been on the court long enough to make a mark on that end. GRADE: F
Brady Fredericksen: All I have to say about Charlie V at this point is that he’s playing for his NBA livelihood, he’s playing on a team literally desperate for guys who can simply put the ball in the hoop from 3-point range — and he’s failed miserably so far on both accounts. GRADE: F
Tim Thielke: Villanueva has also mostly fallen out of the rotation. The difference between him and Jerebko is that when he has seen the floor, he’s done everything the opponent could ask of him and more. His 39/23/60 splits are terrible. His per-minute rebounding is at a career low and his turnovers nearly a high. He doesn’t defend or make hustle plays. And he’s on the books for $8.5M and has played 109 minutes. That’s really, really bad. GRADE: F-
1. The sample size has been small, but what how would you grade Peyton Siva‘s performance so far at the almost-midway point of the season?
Dan Feldman, PistonPowered: The Pistons have an offensive rating of 83.8 when Siva is on the court. The only point guards who’ve led their teams to worse offensive ratings are Eric Maynor, Isaiah Canaan and Jannero Pargo. Siva has shot poorly and turned the ball over at an extreme rate. Of course, it’s a small sample, and Siva is just is a rookie, but he hasn’t shown any potential during NBA games for belonging in the league next season. At least he got his contract guaranteed for the rest of this season, which is a positive indicator for his behind-the-scenes work. GRADE: F
Brady Fredericksen, PistonPowered: Think back to the Pistons’ preseason loss in Orlando. That was a game where he finished with 12 points and eight assists — but also shot 3-for-10 and had nine turnovers. He also played without a backup, and labored through 47 minutes in a loss where the Pistons shockingly blew a big lead. That game literally meant nothing, but he worked his butt off the entire game. His play hasn’t been pretty this year — just like it really wasn’t in that game — but he’s giving this his best try. I know you don’t want to reward a guy for being a hard worker, but if Siva’s bringing that kind of energy in practice for the Pistons, he’s doing all they could hope for right now. Even if his play on the court as stunk (hint: it has), he’s still proving to have some sort of value to the team, perhaps in practice, if they’re continuing to invest in him and his future. GRADE: F+
Ben Gulker, Detroit Bad Boys: Coming out of college, Siva looked like a long-shot to stick in the NBA, and so far in (only) 76 minutes as a pro, he’s looked like a long-shot to stick in the NBA. Of particular concern is a nearly 62% turnover rate, which is definitely inflated by such a small number of minutes, but certainly doesn’t do anything to inspire confidence that he’s capable of handling NBA defenders. I know a lot of fans have been asking for more minutes for Peyton — and that’s understandable given some of the erratic guard play — but right now, he’s simply not part of the answer. GRADE: D
2. The sample size has been even smaller for Tony Mitchell, but what how would you grade his performance at the almost-midway point of the season?
Dan Feldman: Mitchell has scored efficiently and rebounded and blocked shots at high rates — all during garbage time. He remains the only Piston not to crack the rotation all season. I’ve enjoyed his late-game highlights, but they’re not enough to have me calling for his playing time to increase. Mitchell is talented, and maybe on a team with less big-man depth, he could have a bigger role. GRADE: C
Brady Fredericksen: There’s no recent Piston who’s been more exciting in garbage time than Mitchell. He’s hit 3-pointers, he’s dunked, he’s gotten to the free throw line — he’s basically doing everything he possibly can in the minute-and-whatever time he gets at the end of a blowout. I talked to Mitchell during Summer League, and he’s aware that his motor scared some teams off during the draft. Those stints of bat-out-of-hell play show he’s at least trying to give it his all when he gets in games. He’s just a fun player — definitely one who isn’t ready to be a full-time contributor — but in the minor minutes he’s gotten, he’s been a pretty fun player. GRADE: B-
Ben Gulker: In even fewer minutes than Siva, Mitchell has looked like the raw athlete that has a chance at becoming a rotation-worthy big man if he puts the time into disciplining and refining his game that excited many of us when Joe Dumars selected him. Opportunities are certainly limited given the Pistons’ frontcourt, but as a second-round pick on a second-round contract, I hope he sticks for at least one more season. Where will you get another big man with this kind of upside for less than a million bucks per season? GRADE: B
3. He’s bounced in and out of Maurice Cheeks‘ rotation thus far, but what grade has Josh Harrellson earned at the almost-midway point of the year?
Dan Feldman: Harrellson has been extremely productive. He does all the big-man things — score inside, rebound, block shoots — well, but he also leads the Pistons’ top 10 players in minute in 3-point percentage (37.0)! That’s partially an indictment of this roster’s shooting, but good for Harrellson. Unfortunately, the Pistons’ optimal lineup — featuring a staggered use of two of Josh Smith, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond — leaves no meaningful role for Harrellson. GRADE: B+
Brady Fredericksen: Remember how we had the running joke of Everyone Loves Kim English? I think Harrellson could eventually get that with fans, too. The guy’s nickname is Jorts, he’s huge and he likes to shoot 3-pointers; what’s there to hate? But he’s not a great defender against agile, athletic guys and he’s lead-footed, but when he comes into the game for those short stints, good things happen. I don’t think his recent lack of PT has been all his fault — Cheeks is trying to find a sustainable rotation — but the good flashes have been much more apparent than the bad ones from Jorts so far. GRADE: B+
Ben Gulker: I am a huge Jorts fan. How can you not be? If anyone on the Pistons deserves more minutes (and more shots), it’s this Josh. When given time, Jorts has provided respectable rebounding and plenty of hustle, but more importantly, he is a fantastic three-point shooter. Unfortunately for him, he’s playing behind a franchise-caliber center, and he’s not particularly suited to defending mobile power forwards (playing him out of position is rarely an option). I’d love to see how a Monroe-Harrellson frontcourt works with three other shooters on the floor for extended minutes. On paper, it should work on offense, but I’m not sure we’ll get. This grade will certainly seem high to a lot of people, but relative to expectations and contract size, Jorts is performing as well as could be hoped. GRADE: A+
1. The Pistons are spiraling, and it seems that the popular opinion is that this current stretch of stink is the fault of either Joe Dumars, Maurice Cheeks, Greg Monroe, Brandon Jennings or Josh Smith. Why is Andre Drummond immune to that kind of criticism?
Dan Feldman: Because he’s the biggest bright spot — by far — this team has had since the Chauncey Billups-Allen Iverson trade. Drummond probably shouldn’t get such a long leash, but I get it (and probably extended it myself). It’s also because Drummond still isn’t fully credited for what he does well, so until that happens, there won’t be a rush to decry his flaws.
Patrick Hayes: Drummond still has flaws in his game, obviously, but things like, “Hey, don’t bite so hard on pump fakes,” or, “Get better at shooting free throws,” seem infinitely more correctable than, say, trying to explain to your highest paid player in franchise history the difference between a good shot and a bad shot. Or trying to teach your point guard when to hold for the last shot. Or trying to teach Monroe to play anything remotely resembling defense. And don’t even get me started on Dumars’ or Cheeks’ faults. In short, Drummond’s flaws look correctable and relatively minor. The other flaws the Pistons are dealing with … not so much.
Brady Fredericksen: Beats me. I think people see what they want to see. Drummond serves as a sort of guiding light for Pistons fans — he’s exciting, fun and still pretty frickin’ good — but why look at the faults of your (perceived) favorite player when you can just do it to everyone else? The Pistons problems aren’t something you can pin to just one player because they’re a team issue. To think any of the key guys on this team are immune from criticism is extremely naive.
2. Where can Drummond shore up his play to hopefully help pull the Pistons out of this funk?
Dan Feldman: He must defend better. His physical attributes negate a lot of deficiencies, but his help defense falls way below the level of the rim protector the Pistons need him to eventually become. Even excluding the Josh Smith-Greg Monroe-Drummond lineups — which cause defensive issues so deep, it’s unfair to pin them on Drummond — the Pistons defend better when Drummond is on the bench. That shouldn’t happen.
Patrick Hayes: I think improving at the free throw line is likely an offseason task, so I’ll put that obvious area on hold. But in the interim, he can work on being a bit more disciplined when it comes to leaving his feet (as Dwight Howard showed, Drummond is very susceptible to the pump fake). He also has a ways to go when it comes to understanding team defense and his role as a help defender. I certainly think he can and will improve in those areas, perhaps even by the end of the season. But Drummond is already doing far more than was reasonably expected of him — remember the post-draft comments from team officials suggesting Drummond might not be a key contributor for two-three seasons? Him shoring up a few sloppy areas in his game would be nice and isn’t unreasonable, but let’s not pretend that the more experienced key players who should know better are the ones who are far more responsible for the team’s awful play.
Brady Fredericksen: Defense. Drummond is already an elite rebounder, athletic freak and above average shot blocker, but his defense is still far, far, far from a finished product. The funny thing about comparing Drummond to a guy like Dwight Howard is that, while the cosmetic numbers match up favorably, the overall on-court impact isn’t really Dwight-esque. Drummond’s still not the defender Howard was early in his career, and he’s still got that nagging habit of biting on almost every shot fake thrown his way. Compared to some teammates, many of his issues are miniscule. He just doesn’t have a great grasp of defensive rotations and how to correctly position himself in those 1-on-1 situations. That should come in time.
3. Do people give young players like Drummond a little too much leeway when it comes to turning a blind eye to their individual struggles when it comes to the faults of their team?
Dan Feldman: Absolutely. See Kentavious Caldwell-Pope this year or Brandon Knight the last couple years — and at least those two have shown potential during meaningful stretches. There are plenty of Pistons fans who believe Tony Mitchell and/or Peyton Siva can save Detroit’s season. As they develop a fatigue of veterans, many fans get infatuated with young players whose deficiencies they haven’t yet seen.
Patrick Hayes: Sure. Young players are always easier to forgive. They typically play with higher energy than veteran counterparts, they play harder if they’re fighting for minutes and they give fans of bottom-feeding teams like the Pistons have been a chance, even a slight one, to hope that the future will be brighter if these players develop. Drummond is in a good position right now. His higher paid teammates bring a lot of negative attention upon themselves with their more than occasional baffling decision-making, and that allows for greater appreciation of the way Drummond just goes out, rebounds, blocks shots and dunks most every night. But Drummond is also one of the most physically gifted players in the league. So that leeway won’t last very long. At some point, he’ll face even greater pressure than his teammates to become one of the league’s elite players. The jump from good to great player in this league is difficult, and if it doesn’t go smoothly for Drummond, he’ll face his detractors. That’s just how sports are. But for now, just enjoy him. There’s not much else to like about this team.
Brady Fredericksen: Of course, we all do. Remember all the ‘sacred cow’ stuff from Dumars back in 2008? That’s what Drummond is in the fans’ eye today. He’s immune to criticism because it’s hard to hate on the guy you like. Fantasizing that Drummond is antithesis of the Pistons struggles makes dealing with the struggles easier. I can’t argue that because turning a blind eye usually does make things easier to swallow. But if you’re going to talk about the Pistons’ shortcomings and what can be done to fix them, there are no sacred cows — Drummond included.
Singler is making a higher percentage of his two-pointers, three-pointers and free throws than Smith. Of course, Singler shoots less often than Smith, and that selectivity boosts Singler’s efficiency. But that’s the point.
The Pistons’ starting lineup doesn’t need the high-volume shooter Smith has become (he takes more shots per game than Dwyane Wade). Monroe and Andre Drummond, two extremely efficient scorers, deserve more touches. If Singler replaces Smith, some of Smith’s shots would go to Singler, but even more should be allocated to Monroe and Drummond.
Plus, Singler’s biggest advantage over Smith is three-point shooting. Another threat on the perimeter would space the floor better, leaving Monroe and Drummond more room to operate in the post.
There’s no question Smith is better defensively than Singler. But Smith might not defend small forwards better than Singler.
Smith is extremely agile for a power forward and built his sterling defensive reputation at that position, wreaking havoc on less nimble players. As a small forward, he’s getting lost chasing quicker players around screens on the perimeter.
Singler is a middle-of-the-road defender, but his best defensive position is small forward. His long arms help, as do his years of experience on the perimeter — an advantage over Smith, who mostly has been a power forward.
The numbers support this perception. Opposing small forwards have a 15.1 PER against Singler and 18.6 against Smith, according to 82Games.
Fortunately, we’re not just guessing about whether Singler would fit better than Smith with Detroit’s other four starters: Brandon Jennings, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Monroe and Drummond.
Those four have played 54 minutes with Singler. Although that’s not the 369 minutes they’ve spent with Smith, those 54 minutes make it Detroit’s fifth-most-used lineup and provide at least some perspective.
Here’s how the foursome has performed with Smith and Singler, plus how each mark would rank among the NBA’s 30 teams over the full season.
? Offensive rating: 97.3 (27th)
? Defensive rating: 104.0 (19th)
? Offensive rating: 108.0 (3rd)
? Defensive rating: 92.3 (1st)
Before reading too much into that, both sets of numbers would regress toward each other if Singler replaced Smith.
Most teams start a lineup that’s very effective, and it’s possible the Pistons just can’t assemble a really good five-man unit with anyone on this roster. If that’s the case, whomever Detroit trots out to start games is the sacrificial lamb to have its efficiency numbers slaughtered.
Then the reserves enter and perform better against other reserves. Plus, backups are used more strategically, so they often receive a higher percentage of their playing time when the matchup favors them.
A Jennings/Caldwell-Pope/Smith/Monroe/Drummond lineup appears every game, whether the matchup is good or bad. And because the Pistons are a poor team, it’s usually bad.
Cheeks uses a Jennings/Caldwell-Pope/Singler/Monroe/Drummond lineup mostly when it’s an advantageous matchup. If that lineup became the starting unit, it would face opposing starters whether the matchup were good or bad — and more often than previously, it would be bad.
But the difference in lineup efficiency is so stark, with all the other evidence, that the Pistons should at least test how much context has affected those lineups’ efficiency.
Plus, bringing Smith off the bench would make it easier for Cheeks to stagger the minutes of his bigs. Detroit is at its best when precisely two of Smith, Monroe and Drummond — no matter which pairing — are in the game. Smith doesn’t even need to lose playing time to make this work, just the prestige of his starting spot.
Of course, I’ve so far ignored what could be a major issue.
Smith is the Pistons’ highest-paid player, having just signed a four-year, $54-million contract this summer. Singler will make just more than $1 million this season and again the next.
In the NBA, salary dictates power, and Smith’s salary trumps the combined salary of Cheeks and Singler by some magnitude.
That’s why Smith got the first crack at starting at small forward, but it doesn’t mean he should hold the spot indefinitely. It’s not working, and as the Pistons are slipping out of playoff position, even in a horrid Eastern Conference, a change is necessary.
And I think Smith wants to alter the perception of him as difficult, so he might go with the move, at least publicly.