Progress in the NBA, just like in life, is not always linear. The Detroit Pistons are finding that out the hard way this season.
After improving from 32 wins in 2015 to 44 wins and a playoff spot last year, this young Pistons team seemed poised to continue their ascent in the Eastern Conference. Instead, five losses in six games have dropped Detroit’s record to 14-17, the 11th best record in the East. The team’s lackluster form of late can’t help but make Pistons fan wonder if this is going to be a frustrating negative step in the Stan Van Gundy era.
The question, of course, is how could Detroit be heading backwards when all signs before the season -- an improved bench, natural progression of youth and a dash of playoff experience -- pointed toward the team challenging the East’s elite? The answer emerging to that query is starting to look rather ironic.
The Double-Edged Development Sword
It’s hard to think of ways in which players getting better is a bad thing for a basketball team. The whole point of the arms race occurring in the NBA (and most major sports) for tools to hone a player’s body, mind and game is centered around the concept. Yet the current state of disarray in Detroit right now is in part due to an emerging power struggle between a developing trio of versatile wings and the team’s supposed bellcow, Reggie Jackson.
If you go back a year from today, you’d find a Pistons team being propelled by an emerging Jackson, beginning his first full campaign as a starting point guard. As the season wore on, Jackson’s production was directly correlated to the team’s success. With Jackson on the bench, Detroit’s offense went from competent to crappy, or if you prefer numbers instead of lazily constructed alliteration, from a 105.7 offensive rating with Jackson to 99.3 without him, per NBA.com.
Data like this is partly why Jackson’s absence was viewed to be such a big loss to start the season and why his return to the lineup would boost the Pistons to another gear. Given the team’s recent funk, that clearly has not happened. Finding out reasons why that is begins with the player starting alongside Jackson in the Piston’s backcourt.
Last season, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was still an enigma -- a young, athletic defender with a reliance on a streaky jump shot. Caldwell-Pope’s numbers in his third campaign mostly mirrored that of his sophomore season in the NBA, a stall in his overall progress. In particular, Caldwell-Pope’s backslide to 30.9 percent from on three-pointers last year from 34.5 in 2014-15 was likely a source of frustration for both the fans and the front office. Though the team ran plays for him last season, it was more to a “keep our defensive stopper happy” thing than a real attempt to pry open an opposing defense.
This year, however, has been a different story due to the drastic uptick in the young guard’s accuracy from deep. While matching his career high in attempts per game from 3-point territory at 5.4, Caldwell-Pope is converting those shots at a clip of 38.5 percent -- blowing away his established norms. The improved consistency of his jumper played a part in how the Pistons adapted their offensive scheme with Jackson out.
After a rocky start to the year, Detroit found a formula for offensive success in a two-fold approach. Ish Smith, holding down Jackson’s spot in the starting lineup, was given free reign to push in transition, his area of expertise, in the appropriate situations (steals, blocks, long rebounds, etc). When the pace slowed, Van Gundy turned to Caldwell-Pope (along with Marcus Morris and Tobias Harris, which we’ll get to in a second) to orchestrate the proceedings -- mostly through sets similar to their “Elbow 2” play:
Due to his improved accuracy with his jumper, Caldwell-Pope could turn more of these hand-off/pick-and-roll situations into a threat to the opposing defenses, especially because of his newfound ability to consistently punish defenders sneaking under screens by stopping and hitting shots behind the three-point line. But an improved jumper isn’t the only development of note in Caldwell-Pope’s game this season. An expanded role in the offense with Jackson out has helped Caldwell-Pope nearly double his assists per 36 minutes from 1.8 last year to 3.2 in the current campaign. And while more opportunities to have the ball in his hands has helped, Caldwell-Pope simply has more savvy this year when it comes to his playmaking ability:
The emergence of Caldwell-Pope as a halfcourt playmaker has been aided by the steady contributions of Morris. If you were to create a simple label for Morris, he’d best be described as a “tough-shot maker" -- something that, while not a statistician's dream, is a helpful thing to have around in certain circumstances. Though Morris’ shot selection can be frustrating at times, smart play-calling from Van Gundy helped the forward find a niche in the Jackson-less Piston’s offense.
Whether it was attacking switches, straight up iso’s or the occasional turn handling in pick-and-roll, Morris became something of a safety valve when the Pistons offense stalled. When other players struggled to get good looks, Van Gundy could call Morris’ number in an attempt to get a much-needed bucket against a locked-in defense. This has been reflected somewhat in the fact that the team’s offensive rating drops by nearly five points (104.9 to 99.1) when Morris is off the floor.
Harris, meanwhile, can do all the things Morris can do but is one of the most underrated players in the league when it comes to playing off the ball. Though his three-point shooting has declined since a hot start, Harris still poses problems for defenses when given a chance to attack help defenders rotating back to him. The young forward has developed every shot needed to be a great “closeout” player -- one-dribble jumpers, floaters/runners off either feet and fancy footwork in order to get finishes near the rim. This effectiveness off-the-ball meant Harris could still get great shots despite not having a bevy of plays called for him.
Where you see a real difference in these two players is their ability to punish opposing defenses when encountering switches out of 1-4 (or maybe technically 1-3) pick-and-rolls. When that happens, the Pistons go into “Ear”, which is the same free throw line isolation call started by Dirk Nowitzki in Dallas.
In isolations after switches, Morris has been posting a points per possession (PPP) mark of 1.36, good for 93rd percentile in the league, per Synergy data. Harris is just a shade behind him at 1.3 PPP. While most of those switches occur in the dreaded “long 2” area of the court, Harris and Morris have made them a hyper-efficient and, with Jackson sidelined, frequent play for the Detroit offense.
So what essentially happened with Jackson out is Van Gundy compartmentalized his team. After some trial-and-error early in the season, the Pistons found a smooth working order. Smith had transition breaks, Caldwell-Pope and Morris got the vast majority of half-court sets while Harris made played off others, punished switches in “Ear” and enjoyed a handful of play calls made directly for him.
After the adjustment period, the results pre-Jackson’s return were starting to become rather impressive. From November 23rd to December 2nd, the last game before Jackson’s come back into the lineup, the Pistons went 5-1 with four of those wins against teams currently in the playoffs (Clippers, Boston, Atlanta and Charlotte). Detroit’s offensive rating during that stretch was a sizzling 114.9, per NBA.com data.
Now the tricky part about evaluating that stretch is deciphering whether the Pistons were merely on a hot streak or stumbling onto something that could be sustainable long-term. There’s a track record that a (healthy) Jackson-led offense can be competitive. Six games is hardly something to point as proof the point guard’s return is undercutting a group poised to be the league’s best offense.
As long as the team continues to struggle with Jackson, who it must be said, doesn’t look fully healthy, questions will be asked about where he fits in after seeing what his supporting cast was starting to accomplish in his absence. Because of the development of Caldwell-Pope and the improvements of Harris and Morris, the possessions that used to belong to Jackson were redistributed to great effect. More importantly, the team’s offense found a flow that kept players from being marginalized at the expense of others, something that could happen because the veteran Smith is a fundamentally different player than Jackson.
Even when he’s at his best, Jackson is a score-first player without a track record of making the players around him better. Over the past few seasons when he’s gotten consistent playing time, Smith is typically found near the top of per minute assist categories. Last year, when Detroit had no bench, a less effective Caldwell-Pope and weren’t joined by Harris until after the trade deadline, the all-Jackson, all-the-time approach was a fine option -- maybe even the only one.
Yet this year, the players around Jackson have combined to show glimpses of a better, more balanced offensive approach. If Jackson fails to gel with this group and the team continues to sputter, it could mean that an up-and-coming young team may need an unexpected overhaul. Most times, players improving their games helps put teams on a better path. But for now, the double-edged sword of development has put the Pistons in a tricky spot.