After decades of involvement with Joe Dumars, the Pistons have gone their separate way and will bring in Stan Van Gundy as both the coach and president of basketball operations, a rare double-duty that’s difficult to properly cover objectively. The roster is a mess, and they invested heavily in selfish players who don’t mesh well. This is not the Wallace’s-era Pistons with natural chemistry. They have three frontcourt players demanding major minutes who can’t all play together — Josh Smith is definitely a power forward exclusively at this point in his career and at this point in modern basketball. But the future belongs to Drummond and Van Gundy.
2014 in review
If there was one team raging against the miniaturization of the NBA, advanced statistics, and the ascendance of the three-point shot, it was the Detroit Pistons, who brought in two bricklayers, Jennings and Josh Smith, and insisted their hard-nosed basketball would work. I argued against the team, citing fit concerns, and in retrospect I should have been harsher and given additional penalties. They won 29 games, and funnily enough the defense was the problem, not the offense. Even with their supposedly hulking frontline, they were below average on capturing defensive rebounds. Josh Smith’s shotblocking talents were less useful on the wing, Jennings was a large downgrade compared to Knight, and Drummond was still a raw force who could put up pretty stats but couldn’t control an opposing team’s offense. They were one of the poorest three-point shooting teams as well, but their saving grace on offense was a league-best offensive rebound rate, thanks mostly to Drummond. But even in a weakened eastern conference, they were out of the playoff race way too early.
Exit: Rodney Stuckey, Josh Harrellson, Chauncey Billups,
Peyton Siva, Charlie Villanueva.
Enter: Jodie Meeks, D.J. Augustin, Caron Butler.
Future Stuckey will never be fully realized, and the Pistons enter the modern era by dumping his slashing game for Jodie Meeks’ three-point specialty talents. Detroit had no first round draft pick because it had to send out a conditional draft pick to Charlotte just to take on Ben Gordon’s onerous contract. Seeing Billups retire marks the end of a crucial link to their last title — only Prince remains standing in the NBA. D.J. Augustin has bounced around in the league, but he could see more floor time due to his ballhandling skills and as an antidote to Jennings. Caron Butler’s a veteran role player at this point in his career, and at his worst he’ll hold back a couple promising young players from receiving minutes. Aaron Gray is a giant human being who probably longs for the days of Greg Ostertag and Bryant “Big Country” Reeves with Joe Dumars in a bar somewhere. But the biggest difference, of course, is Stan Van Gundy, who will try to work his defensive magic in Detroit.
Greg Monroe was the source of multiple rumors over the summer given his restricted free agent status and his awkward fit with the Pistons. But nothing materialized, and he signed a one-year qualifying offer making him a free agent next summer. He’s a skilled big man, and he has some tantalizing attributes, but few teams saw a need.
The Moose is an offense-first big man with an above average usage rate and some guard-like skills. He’s one of the best passing frontcourt players in the league, and he can put the ball on the court and drive to the rim as well. He’s not efficient, even with a good free throw rate, but he’s been largely pushed to the side on offense and his jump shot has failed to improve. He rarely takes it anymore. He did help them on the glass though, terrorizing poor rebounding teams with Drummond.
Defensively, Monroe has always had issues not having a true position because he’s too slow for power forward and he’s not an effective interior defender at center either. As adjusted plus/minus has gained in popularity, specifically ESPN’s RPM, people may cite his positive defensive-plus/minus. However, this metric lumps together rebounds with defending shots, and he’s a very good rebounder. Additionally, you can compare him to other centers and power forwards, who generally have higher defensive plus/minuses than perimeter guys. Monroe’s block rate is low for a center, and his rim protection numbers are lukewarm. He also has a very low eFG% percentile, which is usually a strength for guys of his size. What’s hopeful is that he’s not a liability, and with his young age he could have a breakthrough on defense in the future.
Monroe’s shot chart is pretty basic. He’s a frequent low-post player and takes shots on both sides of the blocks with an average percentage overall. He takes few jump shots, and when he does they’re usually from the elbows. Looking at previous seasons, those patterns hold, and besides one promising season he’s never been a good midrange shooter, which makes his pairing with Drummond tumultuous. He’s never had a consistent hot-spot either. If he ever improves his jumper, it would make his passing at the elbows all the more valuable like a Noah or Marc Gasol distributor.
The playlist embedded below (link’s also here) shows every assist of his season high nine total versus Oklahoma City. His first two videos are top of the key/elbow assists to a three-point shooter in the corner. He also uses the elbow to hit a cutting Caldwell-Pope in clip 4 and Jennings in clip 8, and then uses it for a give-and-go with Singler in the last video. His low-post game is an offensive fulcrum as well. In the fourth and seventh videos he hits Singler with a pass from the post for a lay-up and a midrange jumper, respectively. In the sixth video, he spins in the post, draws attention, and dishes it to Drummond for an easy shot. Finally, in the sixth video he puts the ball on the floor, drives, spins, showing his nimble feet, and passes to Drummond when his defender sneaks over. He can act as a “point center” when given the opportunity.
On the flipside, you have Monroe’s problems on defense, especially his problems with long-range big men. Versus Miami (link’s also here), he just looks like he has no idea how to defend Bosh. In the first video from the playlist below he sinks far into the paint to help defend a drive, and Bosh gets a wide-open 20-footer. (That’s probably more the fault of his team because no one rotates to cover Bosh, but Monroe doesn’t communicate.) In the second video, he somehow gets caught behind a Mario Chalmers pick and Bosh gets another wide open shot. The third video is an improvement because he botches the first pick and roll by knocking the ball loose, and Bosh only gets an open shot because Monroe stops the drive. However, there was no communication, and Monroe isn’t quick enough to coral these plays at a high-level. The fifth video shows a proper response: he contests a drive and forces a pass, which goes to Bosh for a dunk — he just had no help behind him.
Monroe in today’s NBA is definitely a center, but with Drummond’s explosive game and the need for more defense at center he’s been relegated to play half his time at power forward. He’s exposed versus stretch 4’s or 5’s, as seen above with Miami, because he has a center’s instinct at protecting the rim and is not quick enough to run out and contest shots outside. Offensively, he’s a skilled passer and low-post player, and he could be used on an ideal team as another offensive distributor. He should study the Gasol brothers and work on his jump shot. Perhaps if he had a reliable midrange game he could make it work with Drummond or other similar big men by playing a high-low game from the elbow and post, feeding Drummond. He’s a free agent next summer, but finding the appropriate destination may be difficult — and he might have to settle for a bench role.
The Pistons are essentially the same team on paper with only a switch of Stuckey and Meeks a significant departure from last season’s rotations. But the minor pieces, like the stretch 4 Cartier Martin, suggest a change in the team’s philosophy and an emphasis on spacing, at least to make things smoother and give more room to guys like Jennings and Monroe. The major change, thus, is Stan Van Gundy, who’s taken over the team entirely. Modern statistics have players figured out pretty well now if they’ve been in the league for a while. There are a dizzying array of metrics and advanced models that outperform humans by a significant amount. But coaching is still a wild frontier in understanding value, and recent attempts at evaluating them has led to such conclusions as Scott Brooks being the greatest coach of the past decade because he took over right as Durant and other young players made significant leaps. It’s not a dismissal of Brooks being good at development, but it’s a sign we don’t know how to disentangle natural player development, which moves in fits and starts, from real, Plantonic coaching value. I don’t know how to quantify Van Gundy’s worth to this team. It’s one of a handful of subjective tweaks I’ve thrown in, partly blind and hopeful.
One issue Van Gundy needs to resolve is the starting lineup. They’ve been starting Drummond, Monroe, and Smith together in pre-season, but according to some reports the team might be leaning toward bringing one guy off the bench. They were the fourth most used trio last season, and they were abysmal: -7.1 overall per 100 possessions, the worst of any trio in the top 20 in minutes played. Since the team for the entire season was at -4, this means without the trio on the court at the same time the Pistons were a more respectable -2.3 net points per 100 possessions. The difference between the dreaded trio and every other lineup is the same difference between the Utah Jazz last season and the Denver Nuggets.
If you squint hard enough, there’s a classic Howard-era Orlando Magic team here under all the rubble. Drummond’s a rebounding demon and a potential defensive wrecking ball. Meeks, Butler, Caldwell-Pope, and Singler give the team three-point shooting on the wings, and there are a few stretch 4 options: Jerebko, Martin, and even Smith to a smaller degree. The Magic were able to form some of the best defenses without any obvious defensive stoppers on the perimeter. But this is a tougher rebuilding job because of some onerous contracts. Jennings should not have the keys to the car here and he’s flammable on defense, but he’s being paid 8 million dollars a year for the next two. Smith has a nearly untradeable contract, and he’s holding back the potential of real spacing from power forward with Jerebko. Monroe’s probably the odd man out in this scenario though.
Unfortunately, Detroit’s infusion of shooting won’t be completely ready for a couple more months due to a back injury to Jodie Meeks. And I’m not sure I trust Van Gundy with a magic touch — this season could be more of an experiment for him, figuring out which plays are worth keeping, mentoring Drummond, and playing for the next season.
Besides the big man conundrum, there’s the disaster of having Jennings and Josh Smith on the same team, and a team whose roster behooves the coach to use Smith as more of a small forward, where he will jack up more shots. Rubio has received a lot of criticism for his inability to convert near the rim, but Jennings is just as bad and sometimes worse. The Rubio line for competence within 5 feet is 50%, and Jennings has only cleared that in one season, 2012. He shot a ghastly 41.6% in his rookie season, which was still somehow better than two players: Rafer Alston and … DJ Augustin, his back-up now. He’s a shoot-first point guard who can’t shoot and doesn’t distribute well and has played terrible defense for most of his career.
Josh Smith is still an electric finisher at the rim, but left to his own devices on the perimeter he’s one of the worst jump shooters ever. Since 2001, he has the worst shooting percentage for a season on shots from 10 feet and out for guys over 600 attempts excluding half-court shots. The list is mainly reserved for point guards and big forwards, and many of them are high volume three-point shooters. Adjusted for the value of three-pointers, and Josh looks worse than most everyone on the list. It’s rare for a high volume jump shooter to be that inaccurate, and Detroit had two of them: Jennings is at the bottom right at 35%.
Sadly, Josh Smith is known for his horrid shooting now rather than his defense or finishing skills. He was overlooked in Atlanta for years even when his shot selection was better, and coaches passed over him for the all-star game. He does have his strengths. Few mention he shot 71% within three feet this season and 77% last year. Overall, he’s still a good defender when used correctly, but chasing around smaller perimeter players is diminishing his value. There’s a fear, though, that he’ll age poorly like Gerald Wallace has since his game is based on athleticism and he’s undersized for a power forward. But Smith has had a healthy career missing only 5 games a season on average, unlike “Crash” Wallace, and he could age gracefully like Shawn Marion.
With Meeks out, the wing rotation will probably be sorted through by Van Gundy until he knows who he can rely on. Caldwell-Pope is a potential 3/D asset, but his shooting percentage has to be closer to league average. Singler wouldn’t be in the league if it weren’t for his corner three’s, as he brings little to the table, but he’s played huge minutes for them. Butler could squeeze out a surprising number of minutes if healthy since he’ll likely have the coach’s trust. With some serious tweaking and maximization, you can induce a few wins, but there’s still a low cap on how good the team can be.
The story with the Pistons is their underperforming trio of big men, but the issue cannot yet be resolved without major bench time for at least one of the players. Stan Van Gundy is trying to change their course, and he has ultimate power as the president and the coach. For the future of their franchise, it’ll be important to track what other moves he makes and if his role as coach is focusing bad short-term decisions. The six million dollar a year Meeks deal is too much, but he was infusing some emergency-level spacing into a system that needed some and with the rising cap, the deal will become more palatable. (But it’s worth noting that in seasons where Meeks’ three-point percentage is down, he’s close to useless.) This probably won’t be enough for a playoff appearance this season, but they have a decent chance with the way the east has disintegrated.
Conference rank: 8th
League offense rank: 13th
League defense rank: 24th