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3-on-3: Deciphering the Andre Drummond-Greg Monroe combo

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.  It appeared that the Pistons’ focus during their rebuild was to craft a team around their talented duo of Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond. Do you think that’s still the plan today?

Dan Feldman: I don’t think that has ever been the plan, at least not to the extent it should have been and should be. It took the Pistons way too long last season to play Drummond enough and somehow even longer to give him reasonable minutes with Monroe also on the floor. Then, the Pistons signed Josh Smith, who has unsurprisingly clogged the floor for Drummond and Monroe on offense and surprisingly given them a tougher time on defense, too. Drummond and Monroe have played just 119 minutes together this season without Smith. It’s almost as if the Pistons are going out of there way not to build around those two.

Brady Fredericksen: Judging by the Pistons consistent denial that they’re shopping Monroe, yes. We’ve blamed Lawrence Frank, Jason Maxiell, Joe Dumars and Maurice Cheeks for the lack of Drummond-Monroe action, and alas, they’re still not a go-to duo. Both are talented, but both are flawed. The only way to see if they can play together is to, well, play them together. They’re two of your best players, and you’re trying to win, so playing them together feels like it should be an obvious decision.

Tim Thielke: All the coverage coming out seems to suggest that that is still the plan. But I personally believe they should be more flexible. The Pistons have three good big men who don’t fit well. If they can get full value in trade for any of them, they should do it.

2. Even with the ill-fitting roster, Drummond has solidified himself as one of, if not the, best players on the Pistons this season. Monroe, on the other hand, has struggled. How can Drummond’s play help get Monroe back on track?

Dan Feldman: The biggest advantages come on defense. When Drummond is focused on protecting the rim like he has lately — nine blocks in his last three games in just 79 minutes — Monroe can risk going for steals. Monroe has never been the best positional defender, but his quick hands have terrorized opposing big men at times. Unfortunately, Monroe has gone for fewer and fewer steals as his career has progressed.

Brady Fredericksen: Monroe is a big man who needs room to operate. He’s not athletic enough to go over defenders, so he has to be crafty in that open space he has on the block. With Drummond, Smith and a lot of non-shooters surrounding him, he’s literally suffocated in the paint. That’s an issue that Drummond can’t help with, but where he can assist Monroe is on the defensive side of the ball. Monroe’s struggles with athletic forwards is well documented, but the faster Drummond can improve as a help defender, the better Monroe — and the rest of the Pistons — defense will look.

Tim Thielke: Monroe has to keep on doing what he does well and avoid the things he does poorly. He isn’t a plus defender, but he is big body that is hard to move out of the middle, while either Drummond or Smith makes an excellent weak-side shot blocker. When playing with Drummond, Monroe just has to keep on going down low and putting up shots near the rim. That is his best skill. And even when he misses, that creates a lot of put-back opportunities. When playing with Smith, he should be plying in the high post to leave driving lanes open, use his passing ability, and be crashing the offensive glass.

3. Do you think we’re any closer to knowing whether or not Drummond and Monroe are a viable “twin towers” that the Pistons can build around?

Dan Feldman: Barely and not nearly as close as we should be. But I know enough to believe Detroit should build around those two. For one, they’re both extremely valuable, and if it doesn’t work, the Pistons should have no trouble getting value for either or both if the duo must be broken up. Regardless, I think it would work. Drummond and Monroe haven’t played together enough to fortify their production together, but there are at least signs they can lift each other on both ends of the floor. Last year, the Pistons were equal offensively and better defensively when those two played together. This year, the Pistons are way better offensively, fairly worse defense and significantly better overall when those two play together without Smith. There has been a lot of noise regarding Drummond’s and Monroe’s fit the last two years, and sometimes it can be helpful to look back on the reason for pairing them in the first place. Here’s what I wrote the Pistons drafted Drummond: “Drummond, stylistically, fits the exact profile of an ideal Greg Monroe complement. Drummond  has the size and athleticism to protect the rim, defend post-ups and sky for dunks in ways that Monroe simply can’t.”

Brady Fredericksen: I honestly don’t know. I’d like to think so, but the current construction of this team doesn’t really play to either of the big guy’s strengths. They need space, they need shooters — Jonas Jerebko for Jared Dudley, anyone? — and they need to have role players that fit around them. Good teams aren’t just a collection of players, they’re a collection that accentuates the strengths of their teammates. Monroe and Drummond can do that for other guys, they just need the right pieces are around them.

Tim Thielke:  We are no closer. We have seen precious few minutes of Monroe and Drummond playing without Smith. That trio is awful, but just Monroe and Drummond could go either way. On paper, they have some complimentary skills and some redundant ones. And Cheeks refuses to give us any evidence to work with.

Tanking wouldn’t be easy for Pistons

Should the Pistons tank?

They’ve been gunning for a playoff berth since trading Ben Gordon to the Bobcats – allowing them to upgrade the roster this season rather than next. From Tom Gores down, the edict has been playoffs.

But whether or not they’ve actually discussed it, tanking has remained on the table. Though the Pistons have already immensely upgraded their talent in the last year, another top eight pick – whether they use it or trade it – would be a tremendous asset.

Unfortunately, it’s top-eight pick or bust. Due to the Gordon trade, Detroit owes the Bobcats a first-round pick that’s top-eight protected this year, so only full-fledged tanking will do.

As long as the Pistons avoid The Disaster Zone, they can’t go too wrong – at least not relatively. A postseason appearance would be nice, as would a top-eight pick.

Which should they shoot for?

Because the East is so awful – the Bobcats are on pace to make the playoffs with 36 wins – the Pistons have gotten more time than expected to make that choice. Somehow, the 19-28 Pistons are right in the thick of the playoff race, just 1.5 games behind Charlotte for the No. 8 seed (and half a game up on the Knicks in what’s becoming a three-team race).

But making the playoffs still seems unlikely. ESPN’s formula gives Detroit a 30.5 percent chance, and though that seems low because the system doesn’t account for the odds the Pistons make greater-than-average internal improvements throughout the year, it’s hard to spitball that above 50 percent.

Here’s the bad news for the pro-tanking crowd, though. The bottom of the NBA standings are even more difficult to break into than playoff position:

  • Pistons: 19-28
  • Knicks: 19-29
  • Cavaliers: 16-32
  • Lakers: 16-32
  • Jazz: 16-32
  • Kings: 16-32
  • Celtics: 16-33
  • 76ers: 15-34
  • Magic: 13-37
  • Bucks: 9-39

The league’s seventh-worst record would offer a 98.1 percent chance of the Pistons keeping their pick in the lottery. Eighth-worst would mean 82.4 percent – still likely, but enough to cause a few sweaty palms on lottery night.

Ninth-worst, though? The odds plummet to 6.1 percent.

Simply, the Pistons must finish with one of the NBA’s eight worst records to justify tanking.

How the heck can they do that?

If they put their minds to it, the Pistons could definitely finish worse than the Knicks, who’ve already traded their first rounder, and with it, incentive to lose.

But look at those other teams on the list.

The Cavaliers are in disarray. The Lakers’ top players are all hurt, and they seem to realize their slim playoff hopes have vanished, making tanking increasingly appealing. The Jazz have been better with Trey Burke, but they’re still getting knocked around by the West. The Kings made their big splash acquiring Rudy Gay and remain dismal. The Celtics have gone just 1-6 with Rajon Rondo, and though he needs more time to find his groove, it’s getting too late for them to make a run. The 76ers and Magic were expected to tank and are. The Pistons might have already won more games than the Bucks will all season.

That’s a tough bottom eight to crack.

It’s not impossible. The Pistons have lost to the Bucks, Magic, Jazz and Lakers (twice). They’ll have another chance against a bottom-dweller tonight, when they play the Magic. The Pistons, at times, can definitely look like a bottom-eight team. But relative to the actual bottom eight, they also look like a playoff team far more often.

I see the merits in tanking. You don’t need to convince me how valuable a top-eight pick in this draft would be, how this young team could surge forward next season and send Charlotte a worse pick in a worse draft (even though entering next year owing the Bobcats a top-one protected pick is risky).

But tanking would be really, really, really hard. It’s probably one of the few things these Pistons are too good for.

Winning the turnover battle: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s most unheralded skill

Everyone loves to watch a dazzling array of moves resulting in a big stop or a breath-taking basket. Or better yet, an end-to-end play that does both. We make a big deal about a box score bursting with numbers across the board or unseemly large ones in a category or two. But the things players don’t do to help their teams win often don’t get enough recognition.

That’s not surprising, you’ll never see a highlight reel of LeBron not taking a shot when he has no room to breathe or Chris Paul hanging onto the ball when a defender swipes at it or Paul George not biting on a pump fake or Steph Curry not air ball a free throw. After all, you and I have never committed a turnover in the NBA or had an embarrassing miss or taken a bad foul or stupid shot. How hard can it be to just not do those things? Well, a lot harder when you have hundreds or thousands of opportunities to mess up.

Avoiding turnovers is an incredibly valuable skill, especially against the top competition in the league that make every live-ball turnover more significant (live ball turnovers account for about half of the total, league-wide, in case you were wondering). It’s even more so for players on good offensive rebounding teams because a turnover completely ends the possession whereas a missed shot still keeps it potentially alive. In case you haven’t heard, Drummond is easily the league’s best offensive rebounder and the Pistons are handily the best offensive rebounding team in the league. But somehow, nobody seems to know that Caldwell-Pope is the best player in the league at winning the turnover battle; and, quite frankly, it’s not that close.

KCP never turns the ball over. Seriously, already this season he has had three stretches of over 150 minutes of playing time in which he never coughed up the rock:
166 minutes from November 17 to November 27
155 minutes from December 10 to December 20
214 minutes from January 10 to January 24

There are only 16 players in the league with lower turnover rates. Ten of them are guys who have played fewer than 36 minutes and have accrued zero in that time frame. Of the remaining six, only Battier has played more than 300 minutes. Battier is absurdly good at not giving the ball to the other team, slightly better even than Kentavious. But he’s no match for KCP in taking the ball away from them.

If you need an idea of how much better KCP is than the rest, have a look at ESPN’s leader board for STL:TO ratio. No “qualified player” is in his stratosphere. But I don’t really like ESPN’s “qualified players” filter, especially for stats like this where they don’t tell you what it takes to qualify. And in general, it tends to be a bit iffy midseason. Check out how many players qualify for leading the league in offensive rebounds or turnovers per game. Looking at how KCP fares in a field of 65 just isn’t that meaningful. So let’s look at everyone who has more steals than turnovers:

However, there is definitely a big difference between a Ronnie Brewer who plays 7 minutes per contest and has racked up six steals to two turnovers and a player who has maintained that ratio while accumulating both stats faster for over 1,000 minutes of court time. So let’s look at the absolute scale. How many extra opportunities have players generated for their teams by taking it away from the opponent and hanging onto it themselves: total steals minus total turnovers. After all, what’s more valuable, 3 steals and 1 TO or 7 steals and 3 TOs? In spite of being the worse ratio, I ardently maintain the latter, it creates four extra scoring chances for your team instead of just two.

There are only 39 players in the league with more steals to their name than turnovers. That’s not too surprising. After all, every steal is a turnover, but only about half of turnovers are steals. So there are a lot of extra turnovers to go around. Of those 39, only 11 half a double digit differential. Here’s a complete list:

Player Steals Turnovers
Shane Battier 21 7
Jimmy Butler 65 49
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope 49 17
DeMarre Carroll 57 36
Jae Crowder 42 32
Dante Cunningham 33 18
Moe Harkless 50 36
Kawhi Leonard 68 48
Rashard Lewis 43 27
Pablo Prigioni 35 23
Thabo Sefolosha 55 42

Sometimes, the numbers speak for themselves. Nobody can touch KCP with a ten foot pole.

If you’re curious about the other end, that would be Dwight Howard at -109 followed by Steph Curry and LeBron James at -99. So it’s not like this is the most important number for assessing a player’s value. You’re not going to carry a team by failing to turn the ball over. But KCP isn’t in Detroit to carry the team. He’s a role player.

That role, play defense and catch-and-shoot on offense, is one that puts him in an advantageous position to avoid turnovers. So it’s not really fair to compare him to many players in the league who are creating offense. But there are also a lot of players with similar roles to Kentavious’. We could debate over who does and doesn’t belong on that list. But regardless of which players those are, KCP has outdone them all in this regard.

He still has room for improvement in his (good, but overrated) defense and especially his (not great, but improving) shooting. But when it comes to turnover margins, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is better than anyone could have hoped. And it’s about time fans started noticing.

*all statistics current to Jan 30, 2014

4-on-3: Sniffing for success

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. After a rather depressing stretch of losses, the Pistons seemed to have found their way a bit in their last two games against Orlando and Philadelphia. Did they do anything particularly special?

Dan Feldman: They played two teams worse than them. If anything, these games showed how difficult tanking into a top-eight pick will be. The Pistons have talent — plenty more than Philadelphia and Orlando. But Detroit didn’t do anything special to convince me a playoff berth was any more likely than I believed before these two games.

Brady Fredericksen: They played some defense. Philly and Orlando aren’t anything special (they’re actually the opposite of special), but they both shot under 43 percent from the field. The Pistons aren’t pretty in any way, but they score enough points to win games, and as long as they find a way to play some defense, that should be a decent formula for success.

Patrick Hayes: The combination of playing poor teams along with the fact that Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond figured heavily into the offense was really about it. I’d love to see the Monroe-Drummond frontline continue to blossom, but until they perform like they did vs. Philly against better teams, I’m pretty skeptical the team has figured out anything substantial just yet. It was definitely more fun to watch though.

Tim Thielke: Just as fans of the Heat, Pacers, Thunder or Spurs shouldn’t get worried if their team drops back-to-back games, we have no reason to get excited about back-to-back wins. That will happen sometimes, especially against two of the worst teams in the league. If the Pistons can win seven of ten against a range of opponents, we can discuss whether they’re doing anything special.

2. Yeah, yeah, the Magic and 76ers aren’t wins to brag about, but when things are going as bad as they were prior to those wins, do you think any sustained success is welcomed from a struggling team?

Dan Feldman: Sure. It’s a long season, and not long ago, everything was getting extremely ugly. The players aren’t robots, and I’m sure two straight wins — no matter the opponents — were welcome. Will that be a turning point or just a brief reprieve? I’d guess the latter is more likely, but there’s nothing wrong with hoping for the former.

Brady Fredericksen: Of course they’re welcomed. Believe it or not, the opinion that the team should just tank and be bad is probably not shared by the guys on the court. Who knows what these wins mean — my guess is nothing — but there’s never a bad win for a team/franchise that desperately wants to be good.

Patrick Hayes: Absolutely. We all know the team’s flaws. No win is an easy win for the Pistons based on their body of work this season. They’ve blown leads against bad teams before, so seeing them build and hold leads against Orlando and Philly is still progress, even if it is only minimal progress.

Tim Thielke: Yes, but this isn’t yet sustained success. I mean, I’m sure the wins are welcome to the players. But to the fans? They’re only worthwhile if the Pistons can get all the way up to the sixth seed. Then they’ll have a realistic shot at the second round. Otherwise, they might as well pile on the losses. I find the prospect of a 7-10 seed most unwelcoming.

3. With Miami, San Antonio, Denver and Brooklyn on the docket in the next week and a half, the Pistons are going to have a chance to try to carry that success into games with playoff-caliber teams. What’s the key?

Dan Feldman: Keep motivating and involving Drummond. Drummond is the Pistons’ best player right now, and he probably still has more room to grow than anyone on the team besides Tony Mitchell. Since Maurice Cheeks benched him twice against the Mavericks, Drummond has dominated. Against Orlando: 13 points on 5-of-7 shooting, 17 rebounds, two blocks. Against Philadelphia: 22 points on 10-of-11 shooting, 14 rebounds, five blocks. Alone, Drummond has the ability to lift the Pistons into another level as a team.

Brady Fredericksen: Defend and you’ve got a chance. The Pistons’ scored 20-plus points via fastbreak baskets in those two wins. You don’t get easy, fastbreak baskets without playing defense. This team is a stick in the mud when they’re forced to play slowly. The more defense they play — or simply, the more turnovers they can force — they more fastbreak chances they’ll get. If the Pistons run-run-run, and they’re a good team on the break per Team Rankings, we’ll see less jumper-jumper-jumper (and clank-clank-clank) from Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings.

Patrick Hayes: More dominant efforts from Monroe and Drummond would be a start. And supplementing that, Smith and Jennings slinking out of primary roles and playing within themselves would help too. The Pistons offense seems to be bouncing back from more than a month of terribleness. If they’re going to play well against better teams coming up on the schedule, they’ll need some defensive progress, too.

Tim Thielke: Fully leverage their talent. The Pistons actually have quite a lot on the roster. I am still fully convinced that this roster, if well-coached, could be at least an above average team. But the players have to be put in a position to have their strengths emphasized rather than their weaknesses. And they really need to defend the arc.

What’s wrong with the Pistons’ offense?

Not long ago, the Pistons offense functioned at least moderately effectively.

Not anymore.

Me at the Detroit Free Press:

Through Christmas, Detroit ranked No. 12 in the NBA in points per possession. The Pistons’ offense wasn’t pretty, but it worked.

Since then, the Pistons have the NBA’s 26th-most-effective offense.

It has gotten so bad, Detroit’s offense (20th in the league for the season) has nearly caught its defense (21st) in ineptitude. Since Christmas, the units are running even: 26th and 26th.

What has changed from before and after Dec. 25? Three areas stand out, one positive and two negative.

On the bright side, the Pistons have gone from above average to very good at getting to the free throw line. Unfortunately, the benefits are muted when Detroit makes a league-worst 66% of its free throws.

The negatives are much more pronounced.

To start, the Pistons have gone from making a woeful 32% of their three-pointers to an abhorrent 27%.

They’ve also started turning the ball over much more. Doing it at slightly better than the median rate before Christmas, Detroit ranks among the NBA’s worst ball protectors since.

These are the perils of building a team that is led by Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings in field goal attempts, three-point attempts, assists and turnovers. The offense is bound to be erratic — particularly in the halfcourt.

The Pistons went from a strong fifth in fast-break points and eighth in second-chance points before Christmas to first in both categories after Christmas. They’re cleaning up when it comes to those defense- and rebounding-fueled methods of scoring.

That means the set offense has become the issue.

Turnovers and three-point shooting are both the root and symptoms of the problem.

Running the offense through Jennings and Smith, the Pistons frequently get themselves into trouble. If Smith and Jennings don’t turn the ball over or force a three-pointer early in the possession, the play too often still goes nowhere. That leaves mere seconds on the shot clock and little option to do anything but force a risky pass or a long shot.

Why do people believe the Pistons don’t make decisions based on statistics?

Imagine an NBA team that:

  • Hired a Director of Basketball Operations who’d gotten an MBA from Duke and risen through the league thanks to his focus on analytics
  • Drafted a player in the first round who was rated so highly by a statistical formula, not even the formula’s creator believed the player should have been selected there
  • Received a projection of 49-33 and fifth in its conference from one statistical formula and was expected to finish 46-36 and fourth in the conference by another, independent statistical formula

However, this team fell nine games below .500 early in the season.

The head coach had repeated run-ins with the team’s highest-paid player. The first-round pick showed solid potential, but he struggled after the team vaulted him into the starting lining up because it failed to acquire viable alternatives at his position. The top three players had no chemistry together.

Wouldn’t that seem like a team too reliant on analytics?

As I’m sure you’ve figured out by now, I’m talking about the Pistons.

For a team that supposedly pays minimal attention to analytics, the Pistons sure put together a team that just happened to rate well in preseason statistical prognostications.

ESPN’s SCHOENE projection predicted 49 wins, and a projection based on Wins Produced yielded 46.4 victories. Kevin Pelton’s WARP projections placed Caldwell-Pope No. 4 overall, but Pelton ranked Caldwell-Pope behind Trey Burke and C.J. McCollum in his own subjective rankings.

And the Pistons hired Ken Catanella three years ago as their Director of Basketball Operations – a move The Palace president Dennis Mannion said was not forced on Joe Dumars.

Yet, David Mayo of MLive recently wrote:

This is largely a top-down approach and the Pistons have a couple of old-school guards in the top chairs. I’ve never heard Joe Dumars utter the word “analytics,” much less apply one. Maurice Cheeks, asked about advanced statistics earlier this year, responded with something about 3-point percentage. They govern by eyeballs.

Lawrence Frank was attuned to analytics and who/what succeeded/failed under specific conditions or stimuli. He had a coaching staff that was attuned to it, too. Cheeks’ coaches are, too. Cheeks has admitted his coaches would inundate him with such statistical analysis if he showed interest in it, which he admits he generally doesn’t. Cheeks’ stated approach is that he’ll listen to anything interesting that’s brought to him. If you bring him good information, he’s more likely to listen. That’s the analytics department here.

Perhaps, Mayo knows enough about how the Pistons truly run to make that assessment despite the circumstantial evidence to the contrary I presented above. But, if he does, he doesn’t credibly make his case here.

Dumars has never applied an analytic? NBA teams are especially secretive about their use of advanced stats, and the Pistons are secretive about everything, anyway. I don’t expect Dumars to run around talking about his use of analytics.

He doesn’t need to use the word “analytics” to apply one, anyway.

When Dumars says of Brandon Jennings, “We like his ability to score off the bounce,” that might have been determined through analytics. Maybe Dumars just watched game film without taking any notes, but I’d say it’s more likely he at least complemented that method with Jennings shooting-off-the-dribble statistics. You don’t have to talk in numbers to have numbers influence what you say.

As far as Maurice Cheeks, I’ve never seen him as a beacon of statistical understanding, but I don’t know how bringing up 3-point percentage disparages him – as if 3-point percentage is unworthy of the higher minds of basketball analytics. Perhaps, Cheeks embarrassed himself with his answer on the topic – it wouldn’t be the first time – but there’s nothing inherently wrong with mentioning 3-point percentage. If Cheeks’ answer lacked insight, it needs to be explained more thoroughly than Mayo did.

Regardless, this goes back to the first point. If another member of the staff crunches numbers and determines something about a player and then tells Cheeks in plain English, the analytics are working. There’s a value in translating numbers to digestible form.

On a related note, from the outside, it’s impossible to tell exactly how much the Pistons – from Dumars down – use the information Catanella and other statistically inclined members of the organization give them.

But it sure seems Catanella is the type of statistical analyst Dumars would listen to.

Catanella, who used to work on Wall Street, spoke at the 2009 New England Symposium on Statistics in Sports. He called communicating with co-workers who aren’t necessarily statistically inclined “by far, the most important part of the job.”

Catanella, years before the Pistons hired him, essentially described how he’d make an impact on a team run by Tom Gores and Joe Dumars:

Implementing that in the sports world is even more important, especially if this a new position to the team you’re joining, which it was when I was in New Jersey. … You’re developing a trust level with the organization, with the coaches, with the GM.

And that takes time, but if you’re open to telling them when you don’t know the answer and telling them why, I think they’ll trust you more. As opposed to, ‘I know the answer every time, and this is right, and this is what you have to do.’

Also, choosing your battles wisely. When it’s a really important decision in your mind, it might not be a really important decision to the general manager or to the coach. Be sure to make that clear.

And then, at the end of the day, if you actually are getting those things implemented, then you know you’re being successful. You could be the best statistical analyst in the world, and you know you’re right 100 percent of the time, and you knock the ball out of the park every time you do an analysis. But it only gets implemented one time out of 10, the guy’s who’s a little bit, not less aggressive, but not as accurate, but gets things implemented five times as often is probably the better analyst, in my mind.

It is trending more and more towards an analytical approach, partially due to the changes in ownership that have occurred in our teams. So, a lot of times, the owners of today are coming from backgrounds where they own businesses or they ran hedge-fund companies, and they’re used to seeing in-depth analytical studies on every major decision that their companies make. And they want to see the same type of work at their sports organizations.

I supposed it’s possible, despite his preparation for and focus on having influence, Catanella hasn’t achieved meaningful results in Detroit. But he spoke about that very subject during last year’s MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.

Here are a few things he said:

I found the most benefit from having divergent backgrounds, especially in the front office, because each person lends a completely valuable different and valuable perspective that, at the end of the day, it probably comes down somewhat of a wisdom-of-the-crowds philosophy, right? And a lot of the times, we’ve seen more literature, that the best decisions are often made from completely different opinions.

In our organization, it’s exactly that way, and I think it’s structured beautifully to have someone that’s focused purely on, perhaps, the background element of a player or someone that’s focused purely on the coaching elements. We have former coaches that are scouts. We have former players that are scouts that get into the personal side of people. The analytical piece. And perhaps somebody that’s more experienced. And at the end of the day, the chief decision maker has much more information to make that final decision.

I think it gets back to the human element, because, if you think about somebody coming into your office and grandstanding and putting on a show and saying, “I’m 100 percent right, there’s no way that you could possibly be right, there’s no way you could possibly have something to add to this discussion” or that it couldn’t get better – doesn’t that make it eminently hard for you to accept the idea and then not only internalize it, but then make it an actionable item? That’s what we’re really trying to do. That’s what analysts are trying to do. They’re trying to make an impact on an organization by transferring their knowledge to somebody that will actually make use of it.

Whether it’s trying to get information to a player who’s about to guard somebody that has to be able to internalize it to the point where he doesn’t even have to think about it. He knows exactly the way he wants to guard that individual so that it’s reflex. To the GM that gets faith in the information and the decision that he’s ultimately making from that discussion, and he actually, potentially, partakes in the ultimate conclusion by adding to the discussion and tinkering with the idea, like you said.

A lot of times, our ideas are not entirely fully formed, even. Sometimes, I come into someone’s office looking for guidance. So, I think that just allows other people to gain greater acceptance and embrace your ideas when you have that type of approach.

That was a very challenging one, because you think about, I had played some professional basketball in Europe and worked in the front office over there. But here, there’s a program and a coach that had credentials, infinite credentials and a prestigious program. And how could I add value walking in as a graduate assistant at that time?

I noticed a few things in terms of their pregame prep, and I was doing some video logging of opponent games. And I automated a process that created what now is commonplace, but over a decade ago was a rarity, is a shot-zone chart that had visuals and colors. At that point, I gave it to the coaching staff and thought nothing of it. And the next thing I knew, at the practice later that day, in preparation for the next day’s game, Coach had blown it up to an infinite size, brought it over to the bench where the guys were sitting. Of course, it was a proud moment for a geek like me, but he showed it to the guys and said, ‘This is what we have to do to stop this team if we play this player this way.’

And at that moment, I realized, if you can just find that niche of something that is missing or that you can add an element that can make them better at their job, they’re going to really appreciate you and trust that you have their best interests at heart, like you were saying Alec. And if you can show that you have a passion for the game too and winning and that you’re a person that has a similar mindset and similar goals, those things also have a powerful impact.

Data really has a hard time with context. I can have as much information as I want, but if I don’t – I’ve explained this to you.

A term we use a lot is, ‘Smell the gym.’ Just get in there and feel the game again and feel what the player is seeing and what his interactions are like with his teammates and his coaches. Those are data points.

We just have to think about data in a different way and try to develop as much information around the core base of information that we use to evaluate a player. It might be on the periphery. It might be weighted heavily. It might be weighted lightly. But we definitely want to consider it.

Doesn’t that sound like the exact type of analytical specialist who can persuade Dumars?

Again, it’s still possible Dumars has ignored Catanella.

But would Catanella really choose to sit on a panel about having influence within an organization if that were the case? It’s possible, but that seems unlikely.

Would Gores compliment Catanella by name before while praising Dumars before the season for meshing with Catanella? Gores, via Dave Pemberton of The Oakland Press:

“Early on I said to Joe, ‘We got to make changes.’ I think the thing Joe has done is he’s adjusted along the way,” Gores said. “Just like in my own business, I have to grow, I have to adjust, it’s all about getting better and not getting stuck in the old way. Joe has shown every sign of a person who can grow.

“He’s done amazing things with his own basketball operations. Ken (Catanella) and George (David) and that group, those are great young men that are smart. They compliment Joe’s talents. We had success in the offseason.

I still can’t say with total certainty the Pistons don’t “govern by eyeballs,” but the circumstantial evidence is piling up that they don’t.

Analytics are not a magic bullet that solves every problem. A team can apply analytics and still make bad decisions. After all, the Pistons are competing with other teams that definitely use analytics.

We can have another discussion about whether the Pistons use analytics effectively. That’s not the question I’m addressing.

Do the Pistons use statistics in their decision-making? I definitely believe the answer is much more likely yes than no.

3-on-3: All Star Edition

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 All Star reserves will be announced tonight on TNT. The Pistons haven’t had an All Star since Allen Iverson in 2009. Is there any chance that changes this year?

Dan Feldman: Only Andre Drummond has the slightest chance, and I’d be very surprised if he’s selected. Since Drumond’s stock was relatively highest, Roy Hibbert, Chris Bosh and Joakim Noah have come around strong. Hibbert is a lock, and the other two will likely get more votes than Drummond, too.

Patrick Hayes: No chance. It’s a popularity contest where wins, name recognition and national TV appearances matter more than merit (and that goes for both fans and coaches making selections). The Pistons aren’t exactly doing well in those categories.

Tim Thielke: Definitely a chance, but I wouldn’t bank on it. Even in the East, there are 12 players more deserving than Drummond (the only realistic option in Detroit). But never count out the possibility of injuries forcing the pool to stretch a bit deeper.

2. Which Piston, if any, should be selected for the game this season?

Dan Feldman: Drummond. Hibbert, Bosh and Noah should snag the three backup frontcourt positions. If Kyle Lowry and John Wall are the backup guards, as they should be, Drummond should get one of the two wildcard slots. I’d take Drummond over Arron Afflalo, Lance Stephenson, Paul Millsap, DeMar DeRozan or any other contender.

Patrick Hayes: Drummond. He’s leading the league in total rebounding percentage, averaging a double-double and he’s even improved his free throw shooting this season (OK, so it’s only improved from 37 to 40 percent … but still, progress!). Drummond won’t make it because the Pistons continue to be their irrelevant selves, but he’s having a brilliant second season in the league and he’ll be a fixture in All-Star Games when his basketball IQ catches up to his immense physical talents.

Tim Thielke: If any, it’s obviously Drummond. He has easily been the best Piston this season. Should he be selected? Probably not, but he’s so much more fun than more worthy candidates like Noah.

3. They’re always a polarizing topic, but do All Star games serve a purpose in professional sports or are they just a simple popularity contest that yields a half-hearted game?

Dan Feldman: They should serve a purpose – honoring the NBA’s “best” players at that given moment. After that, let the players turn the game itself into whatever they want. The best measure of who’s had the best season, what many purport All-Star Game selections to be, are really All-NBA teams.

Patrick Hayes: Does anything in professional sports really serve a purpose? Let’s face it, following sports (and I’m as guilty as anyone) is an extreme waste of time that, more often than not, leads to misery. You watch for the handful of times in your lifetime that the teams you love provide incredible moments like the 2004 Pistons championship. Those moments are few and far between though. The rest of the time you’re spending time debating whether or not Mark West should start over Oliver Miller. I don’t like to label, but I would be highly suspicious that someone who is anti-All-Star Games is probably a fascist. Who doesn’t love blocks and dunks? Or even the occasional iconic moment (like Magic getting the MVP in 1992)? All-Star Games are light-hearted fun. Even the NFL Pro Bowl, by far the worst of all pro sports all-star games, occasionally provides you with highlights like this. Anyone who gets bent out of shape about an exhibition game meant for laid back enjoyment is way too into sports. Relax.

Tim Thielke: The fan vote tends to be a popularity contest, but rarely do you get some one egregiously voted in (it does happen, I know, I remember Iverson). By and large, it’s at least debatable that everyone who gets in is a top 30 player in the league at that point for that season. That’s why we use terms like “six time all-star” when discussing how good a player’s career was.

3-on-3: To tank, or not to tank, that is the question

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. With a nearly-identical record to last season’s team, it appears the Pistons are at a crossroads. On the bright side, they’re currently one games out of the eighth seed. What does the team gain from pushing for the playoffs?

Dan Feldman: Let’s not over-think this. If they make the playoffs, they make the playoffs. I don’t believe a championship is the only way to have a successful season. Without getting too deep, winning is better than losing in the most basic sense (of course, the NBA draft keeps this from being so simple).

Brady Fredericksen: Making the playoffs as a young team is never a bad move. Experience for young players is huge, and I’d argue that someone like Greg Monroe still hasn’t played in a truly meaningful NBA game yet in his career. Yeah, yeah, you’re probably going to get smothered by the Pacers or Heat once you get there, but playoff experience is a necessity for growth and maturity in a player. It’s one thing to strive to make the playoffs when you’ve never been, but it’s another to get a taste of playoff basketball and push for more. Plus, and I’m sure Tom Gores is aware, playoff games mean extra cash and extra time to be the hippest-looking owner in the league on national television.

Tim Thielke: An iota of self-respect? If you had told me in the offseason that Detroit would be ninth in the East right now, that would not have been shocking at all. But if you told me they were 17-27, having lost 13 of their last 17, I would have been appalled. And I am. First Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva (they were both pretty good before coming to Motown). Now Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings. Maybe if the Pistons make the playoffs, they can avoid a reputation as the place talent goes to die?

2. The funny part of this is that the Pistons are also just three games ahead of the team with the third-worst record in the NBA in Philadelphia. One could assume this is as prime of “tanking” shape as they possibly could be in. What’s to gain from hoisting the white flag on this season?

Dan Feldman: A first-round pick in the best draft since 2003. If the Pistons get a top-eight pick, they’re going to add a valuable player to an already talented roster. That doesn’t mean it will work any better next season than it did this season, but the Pistons aren’t in position to turn down assets.

Brady Fredericksen: I struggle with this one. If you bow out the rest of the year, you’ve got the chance to draft one of four, elite prospects (Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins, Marcus Smart and Dante Exum) and if you play your cards right, you could be right back in the thick of it next year in a likely-better-but-still-smelly East. However, there are two sides to every tanking. There are three primary teams that have built their team via the tank job — Sacramento, Cleveland and Oklahoma City. The Cavs have lucked into two (!!) top picks, two No. 4 picks and a pair of late first-round picks. They’ve got one diamond (Kyrie Irving), one starter (Tristan Thompson) three question marks (Dion Waiters, Anthony Bennett) Sergey Karasev) and a rotation player (Tyler Zeller). Blah? Blah. Meanwhile, the Kings have had a plethora of top 10 picks and late firsts. The result? One diamond (DeMarcus Cousins), two starters (Isaiah Thomas, Jason Thompson), two busts (Omri Caspi, Thomas Robinson) and one dude who got the heck out of dodge as soon as he could in Tyreke Evans. Now, look at the Thunder who drafted three times in the top 10, and three times in the mid-to-late first round. They’ve corralled four diamonds (Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka) and two current rotation players on a title contender (Reggie Jackson, Steven Adams).

Here’s my point: Tanking doesn’t work unless you locate (luck into?) multiple stars with those picks. Most years there just aren’t that many, and most teams just aren’t as good as OKC when it comes to drafting and player development. If the Pistons bottom out, they’re relying on a likely new front office to rebuild the team through the draft. It’s extremely risky, and the reward of ending up like the Thunder is extremely unlikely, seeing as no one has done what they have.

Tim Thielke: Obviously, a shot at an elite player in the upcoming draft. Detroit’s roster would still be a mess. But if they can add a star, at least they have a starting point. I love Drummond, but I don’t know that you can build a roster around him. That said, the Pistons are more likely to get a very good non-superstar player if they keep their pick in the draft. That would be an asset, but not a game changer.

3. Put your money where your mouth is and make a prediction: Should the Pistons push for the playoffs or should they try to keep their draft pick? What do you think they will do?

Dan Feldman: As I wrote Friday, I have no idea what they should do. I know, that’s shocking, but I could make a case for any direction. Similarly, I don’t know what they will do, either. Gores clearly wanted to make the playoffs, but at a certain point, he must realize that could be futile. I have no idea if we’ve gotten to that point. A lot could depend on how many tickets are already sold for the rest of the season.

Brady Fredericksen: If tanking means that they’re selling off all of their assets for 50¢ on the dollar, that’s not the right move. Say you can trade Monroe for a No. 1 pick and a young wing player and swap Josh Smith for now-injured Brook Lopez with an eye on pulling a fast one on Mikhail Prokhorov. Then you also finding takers for one or both of The Expiring Contract of Charlie Villanueva and Rodney Stuckey? You’re looking at a pretty frickin’ horrible Pistons team at that point. I think they will, and should, push for the playoffs. Trading Smith and Monroe with their value so low just feels like a mistake, and if you’re Joe Dumars and your job’s safety is based upon making the playoffs, what are you going to do? My analogy is that the Pistons are kind of like a family business for Dumars — it’s all he’s known in the NBA. He’s brought them to the top multiple times, but he’s the reason they’re currently on the bottom. The easiest way to get back on track is for him to leave, but do you think he would tear apart this team knowing it’ll simultaneously get him fired? That’d be a tough pill to swallow for anyone, man.

Tim Thielke: Honestly, I don’t care. But it’s time to pull out all the stops. Make a swing for the fences trade, try unorthodox rotations and schemes, gamble at every opportunity. If the Pistons improve, that’s a win. If the Pistons get worse, that’s a win. They couldn’t be in a worse place right now, so they may as well choose a direction, sprint headlong toward it, and end up in a better place by default.

Josh Smith on pace for worst 3-point-shooting season in NBA history. So what?

A couple posts by Sean Corp of Detroit Bad Boys and backed by Kyle Wagner of Deadspin have been making the rounds. They allege Josh Smith is on pace for the worst 3-point shooting season in NBA history.

They’re right.

But it doesn’t matter.

At ProBasketballTalk, I explain why:

Even while on pace to set this record, Smith is producing about the same number of points per shot from at least 16 feet as he usually does

Smith’s 3-point percentage is a problem only insofar as there’s a column in the box score for 3-pointers and not for shots from at least 16 feet.

Look at that above graph again. The season Smith scored the fewest points per shot from beyond 16 feet, by far, was 2010 – the year he was celebrated for eliminating 3-pointers from his game. But he kept taking long 2s that year. It’s just that nobody noticed because they show up in the box score the same as dunks and layups.

Click through to see the mentioned graph – plus three more.

Tom Gores sent Pistons spiraling toward The Disaster Zone

Me at the Detroit Free Press:

“We better make the playoffs.”

-Tom Gores

April 26, 2012

With those five words, Pistons owner Tom Gores backed his team into a corner.

The idea, at least in abstract, wasn’t terrible. Sometimes, being pressed against the wall triggers a fight-or-flight reaction that summons the best in people.

That didn’t happen here.

Instead, the Pistons find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Backed into a corner and stuck between a rock and a hard place? Yes, everything really is closing in on the Pistons from all directions.

The Pistons are 17-25 and in ninth place in the Eastern Conference — right in the teeth of what I call The Disaster Zone.

if the Pistons land a pick in Nos. 9-14, that would mean they lose the choice to the Bobcats and missed the playoffs: The Disaster Zone.

So how do the Pistons avoid The Disaster Zone? Should they try to improve to make the playoffs or tank to keep their pick? With the season mostly over, they’re running out of time to decide.

Thanks to Kevin Pelton of ESPN for simulating the rest of the NBA season 1,000 times, applying real lottery odds to each outcome and supplying the results, we have baseline possibilities for the Pistons’ final position:

  • Make playoffs: 36%
  • The Disaster Zone: 34%
  • Keep pick: 30%

Call that a three-way tie. Any differences in percentages this small can be attributed to the difficulty in forecasting uncertain future events.

That leaves the Pistons in a heck of predicament and, in a twist that surely will leave you floored, not even I know what they should do.

Keeping their pick won’t be easy. Even finishing with the NBA’s eighth-worst record would grant just an 82.4% chance of landing a top-eight pick. It would take the league’s seventh-worst record to bump those odds up to 98.1%.

And how much worse can the Pistons get than they already are? There’s talent on this team, and it won’t be easy to make a step back. Team president Joe Dumars probably would have to pull off multiple trades to unload enough talent for a major regression.

A common suggestion — trading forward Greg Monroe for a future draft pick — actually might make the Pistons better right now. Same with trading Smith (who probably wouldn’t net a future draft pick) or, sadly, even Andre Drummond.

The Pistons just waste too much time playing all three together, a lineup combination that is a proven failure. Smith’s, Monroe’s and Drummond’s minutes together won’t change significantly as long as coach Maurice Cheeks appeases each by starting them.

Smith, Monroe and Drummond have played together 38% of all Pistons minutes this season and account for 80% of Detroit’s total deficit.

In other words, get rid of the Smith-Monroe-Drummond lineups — even if means getting no immediate contributor while excising one of the three — and the Pistons might have a fighting chance.

Getting good enough to make the playoffs might be even more difficult.

Monroe’s value has sunk while playing with this odd-fitting team, and the odds of trading him for a good wing shrink by the game.

Meanwhile, the rest of the East is showing significant progress. In their last 15 games, the Pistons are 4-11. In the conference, only the tanking Boston Celtics, tanking Milwaukee Bucks and tanking Orlando Magic have been that bad in that span. Even the tanking Philadelphia 76ers have been better.

If trying to get better won’t work and trying to get worse won’t work, maybe the Pistons should just stay the course — though that could lead them right into The Disaster Zone.

On the other hand, trying to get better or trying to get worse also could send Detroit into The Disaster Zone.

There’s no easy out, the predictable result of what Gores set in motion years ago.

By rule, I don’t typically edit block quotes in order to preserve the original message. But in interest of transparency, I want to note a change today. Free Press editors mistakenly edited “The Disaster Zone” to “the Disaster Zone.” The Disaster Zone, with a capital T, is the official style.

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