The Pistons Shouldn’t Be This Bad
Every fantasy baseball league has that owner who drafts too many players at one position, hoping to outsmart the group, hoard one asset type, and either make the roster work or find a killer trade down the line. (I may have done this with catchers once during a disastrous draft-day binge involving Russell Martin, Victor Martinez, and beer.) Sometimes the decision breaks right, but it usually ends up with diminishing returns — useless overlap leading to a losing trade.
The Pistons knew they were taking a risk when they signed Josh Smith to a massive four-year contract, slotting him alongside two cornerstone big men in Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond. There were other alternatives, but Joe Dumars, flush with cap space for the first time since the 2009 offseason, went all-in for the biggest talent available. Smith has played both forward positions, but he has always worked better as a power forward. The fit with Monroe and Drummond would be awkward, but Detroit banked on sheer talent and smart coaching to win out in the end.
Halfway through the season, higher-ups with the Pistons have to be feeling queasy. Detroit is 16-22, clinging to a postseason spot in a putrid conference. The Pistons aren’t boring anymore, at least. They play at an above-average pace after a decade-plus as one of the league’s snails, Drummond dunks a lot, and there is League Pass appeal in the sheer wackiness of the roster — the lefties, the hairstyles, the horrible jump shots, Mo Cheeks sitting with fans in the stands during game play.
The Pistons might be watchable again, but they’re still bad, and they’re bad in a very disturbing way: The Smith/Monroe/Drummond trio has been a complete flop on both ends of the floor. Opponents have outscored the Pistons by 7.4 points per 48 minutes in the 716 minutes the three bigs have played together, per NBA.com. Of the 134 trios leaguewide who have logged at least 500 minutes, only two have registered a worse scoring margin — and they play for two franchises (Utah and Philly) that are not trying to win games. The damage has been worse on defense. Detroit has allowed 110.2 points per 100 possessions with the ultra-big group, a mark that would rank well below Utah’s league-worst overall figure. Detroit is on pace to finish below the league average in both points scored and points allowed per possession for the fifth straight season; it is the only team to have pulled that dubious double in each of the last four seasons. Uh-oh.
The Big 3 Isn’t Working Out
The Pistons have been much better when separating the three bigs. Considering only lineups that have logged at least 10 minutes together, Detroit is a collective plus-29 in 435 minutes when only two of the three bigs are on the floor. The Monroe/Smith combination has been the best of the three permutations, but Dumars has also given it by far the most time to sort itself out. The Drummond/Monroe pairing has been the worst, and it has played most sparingly; only two lineups including the young bigs, but not Smith, have hit that 10-minute threshold.
The triple-big thing just hasn’t worked, leaving Detroit in an awkward position as Monroe approaches restricted free agency. There is rampant speculation among league executives that the Pistons will look to deal Monroe ahead of next month’s trade deadline, but it’s just speculation. No one has heard a peep from the Pistons yet. But other teams know the results have been poor, and that Monroe’s agent, David Falk, will push for the max and work hard to maneuver Monroe to the team willing to pay him the most. Smith has three years left on his contract after this season. Drummond is a keeper, but would the Pistons really be willing to commit something like $42 million per season, at least once Drummond’s rookie deal expires, to a foundation that simply doesn’t work? The Pistons appear to be preaching patience with a very young roster, even amid an endless montage of disastrous fourth quarters.
That the worst problems with the all-big group have come on defense might provide hope, if you squint at them in just the right light. Young teams tend to struggle on defense, and the Pistons’ centerpiece rim protector is one of the youngest players in the league. Perhaps they might grow as a collective, provided Cheeks can coach them up properly.
The early returns are discouraging. Most rotation guards and wings are prone to backdoor cuts, and the one with the most potential on defense, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, is in the very early stages of learning NBA-level rotations. Brandon Jennings has dialed up his effort level recently from “comatose” to “generally aware of his surroundings,” but he’s always been loose with his fundamentals and disappointing with his effort. Smith is a smart defender who can protect the rim, but he’s slipped a bit this season, and he’s not quick enough to guard speedy wings.
Monroe and Drummond have great hands, fantastic for the pickpocket steals that fuel Detroit’s high theft rate, but their footwork and decision-making are poor. 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.
Drummond is already a fearsome shot-blocker, and he projects as an elite defensive force. But his footwork and awareness are dicey — not unexpected, given his age. He might be the only player in the league this season to fall head over heels for Jonas Valanciunas’s pump fake.
There is just carnage, everywhere. The Pistons are routinely giving up two of the juiciest shots in the league — baskets off of cuts, and corner 3s. About 8.3 percent of enemy possessions end with a player shooting (or drawing a foul) via a basket cut, the sixth-highest share in the league, per Synergy Sports. Only the Sixers have allowed more corner 3s, and opponents have hit a sizzling 41 percent of those short triples against Detroit, per NBA.com.
Good ball handlers who know when Monroe is going to hedge out far from the basket on the pick-and-roll can split him, or just go around him, with ease. From there, it’s a simple matter of driving into the lane, drawing help, and finding the guy with the easiest shot. One particular sort of “cut” is killing Detroit over and over: Ball handlers run a pick-and-roll, get into the lane, and then drop off an easy pass to the non-screening big man lurking along the baseline. Here’s a textbook example, via Paul George:
Miscommunication appears rampant. There are times when multiple Pistons involved in defending the same play seem to have no insight into what the other guy is going to do. Take this Gerald Green drive from Detroit’s fall-from-ahead win over the weekend against Phoenix:
Caldwell-Pope, guarding Green, positions himself between Green and the screener — an indication KCP believes the Pistons should try to force Green away from the pick, and toward the left baseline. But Monroe, guarding the screener, lunges up above the pick toward midcourt, as if he’s expecting KCP will allow Green to use the pick — making it Monroe’s responsibility to cut Green off up top. Whoopsie.
And once facing a crisis, Detroit’s rotations are rarely clean enough to put it out. Take this sequence against the Nets, which begins with Joe Johnson and Kevin Garnett running a pick-and-roll on the right side — a play on which Detroit, apparently by design, allows Johnson to drive toward the middle so Drummond can hedge out hard and meet him there:
That opens up an easy pass from Johnson to Garnett, who slips down toward the right baseline, drawing a rotation from Monroe off of Mirza Teletovic on the right side.
All’s (kind of) fine so far! Except Caldwell-Pope, who struggles with this kind of on-the-fly team rotation, allows Teletovic to just cut right by him, catch a pass from KG, and lay the ball in:
This kind of stuff happens all the time. The Pistons are just not able to maintain any on-a-string coherence. Drummond has to help on this disastrous pick-and-roll, but no one behind him “helps the helper”:
Anyone wanna rotate from this weird triple-team of Goran Dragic in the post and find P.J. Tucker in the corner? Anyone?
Why is Jennings pestering Valanciunas behind the 3-point arc, leaving Kyle Lowry open for a 3-pointer he’ll make about a couple of seconds after this screenshot?
How Can They Fix It?
There are possible solutions, but testing them out in real time, amid a playoff “race,” is always tough for a coach. Cheeks should probably be staggering minutes more, and he began doing so over the weekend, when the three bigs averaged just 12 minutes together per game — down from their season average of about 19 minutes. He might want to let the Drummond/Monroe combo stretch a bit more without Smith; Detroit was solid defensively when those two shared the floor last season, but Cheeks has barely used that alignment. In the bigger picture, he might tinker with a more conservative defensive style that keeps his big men closer to the paint — an imitation of what Indiana, Chicago, San Antonio, Golden State, and others have done — but such a revamp midseason is difficult.
Detroit is big, slow, and clunky, but it shouldn’t be this bad. And if it remains so, it will raise painful questions about Monroe’s future on the team. He’s a bit of a liability on defense, but he’s a freaking beast on offense and the glass. His quick hands produce legitimate benefits on defense (namely, steals), he cleans the glass, and he might function well in a different system, aside a top rim protector — perhaps Drummond in a couple of years. You don’t deal a big guy with these skills, at age 23, just because you overpaid for an older guy who plays the same position. The Pistons could have about $12 million in cap space this summer, even factoring in Monroe’s cap hold, and they could have something close to max-level cap room in the summer of 2015 — even if they re-sign Monroe in the interim. Only the first year of Drummond’s next contract will overlap with Smith’s deal, and Jennings’s contract will have expired by then. Detroit’s cap sheet is pretty lean.
The crazier solution would be to cut bait on Smith immediately via trade. That will be hard, perhaps almost impossible. Detroit would have to include a first-round pick in some deals, and it’s already out one to the Bobcats — a pick that is top-eight protected this year, meaning Detroit only keeps the pick if it falls within the top eight. Detroit has no interest in tanking to keep that pick, at least for now.
The other solution is to find a team desperate to win now and unload Smith for a less onerous contract. One off-the-wall suggestion a few NBA folks on other teams have mentioned to me in recent days: What if the Pistons offered Smith to the Nets for Brook Lopez? The Nets get a player who can help them now in exchange for a player who can’t, and who has suffered chronic foot injuries. Detroit gets a guy whose deal might expire two years before Smith, making him a more tradable asset going forward. You can build other deals involving some of the league’s other unpleasant contracts, but it doesn’t help that two teams that once had (improbable) postseason ambitions — the Lakers and Pelicans — have seen those hopes almost totally extinguished because of injuries and (in L.A.’s case) a general lack of talent.
Such a trade would out of the box, and almost certainly won’t happen, but it’s not lunacy. Smith is a good player. I’ve been a fan for years. But he has slipped a bit this season, and he has too often been a drain on Detroit’s offense — particularly late in games. He’s shooting 25 percent from deep, and he’s on pace for more than 300 3-point attempts. Precisely zero players have ever shot that many 3s and shot them so poorly.
It’s probably too early to execute such a drastic change, but the Pistons should at least be thinking about it. They can afford to be somewhat patient. The East is horrible, and Detroit has enough talent to work things out, improve organically, and become a feisty playoff team. But the ultra-big look hasn’t gotten off to a good start, and it might be unworkable.