Things in Detroit under Stan Van Gundy look much as they did in the last half-decade of the Joe Dumars era, when a ridiculous number of head coaches presided over so many losses that Motor City became the NBA’s saddest market.
The new Pistons are 2-6 after a loss to the Wizards on Wednesday night, and they rank below the league average in both points scored and points allowed per possession. They’re already the only team to have pulled off that depressing double in each of the last five seasons; if they do it again, we should just call it Pistoning.1
Finishing dead last in both categories should forever be known as Bobcatting, in honor of the tanktastic 2011-12 Bobcats, one of the few teams to be that terrible on both ends of the floor.
After a brief experiment with Greg Monroe coming off the bench, Van Gundy is recycling the super-big starting lineup — featuring all three of Monroe, Josh Smith, and Andre Drummond — that failed so horribly in nearly 1,500 unwatchable minutes last season.
But dig deeper, and there are budding signs that Van Gundy is putting his imprint on this franchise. The most obvious: Drummond is suddenly a post-up player. Drummond has attempted 36 shots via post-ups in the team’s first eight games after taking only 77 such shots in all of last season, per Synergy Sports. About 45 percent of the possessions Drummond has finished with a shot, drawn foul, or turnover have come via post-ups. Only four guys who played heavy minutes last season went to the post for such a large chunk of their offense: Zach Randolph, Andrew Bynum, Professor Al Jefferson, PhD, and Dwight Howard.
Van Gundy isn’t bringing along Drummond’s post game gently. He’s trying to mold Drummond in one season from a young Tyson Chandler into an unformed Dwight Howard — a pick-and-roll dunk machine who can also serve as the back-to-the-basket hub of a functional NBA offense.
Except Detroit’s offense isn’t functional. It’s 24th in points per possession, and Drummond is a horrid 13-of-36 on those post-ups, per Synergy. He’s turnover-prone down there, he doesn’t draw fouls, and he is about as far away as possible from being a competent inside-out NBA passer. Drummond’s post-ups have produced just .628 points per possession, a mark that would have ranked 116th out of 117 players who recorded at least 50 post-ups last season, per Synergy. The Pistons haven’t made the playoffs since 2009, but they’re playing a long game with Drummond.
That said, it’s not as if Detroit is teeming with better options — especially during the 12 minutes or so per game in which all three bigs share the floor. That’s about six fewer minutes than they averaged together last season, and probably a few more than Van Gundy would like; injuries to several perimeter guys, including Jodie Meeks, threw Detroit’s rotation into chaos, and defenses don’t treat the remaining perimeter trio of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Singler, and Caron “Call Me” Butler like Kyle Korver or the Splash Brothers.
Monroe and Smith are better post-up options than Drummond, and leaving the on-ball work to them frees Drummond to cut for dunks and crash the offensive glass. But spacing is tight in the all-big alignment regardless of who has the ball, and slotting Smith at small forward guarantees he’ll spend some time floating around the perimeter and launching his bricky moon balls. Might as well try Drummond, especially during the 15 minutes per game he plays without Monroe around.
Drummond is faster and twitchier than perhaps any NBA center, and his post-up game, to the extent we can call it that at this point, is based mostly on speed. He likes to flash into position, catch the ball, and immediately rise up for his pet move — a righty turnaround jump hook he uses from both sides of the floor:
Drummond knows he can get off the ground before his plodding defender, and jump higher. It’s similar to the way he plays defense on the block. Bulky dudes like Nikola Pekovic get low and use their body weight to shove offensive players away from the rim. Drummond goes for a more touch-free approach, standing a few inches behind his man, primed to leap straight up for a rejection.
Going up in a flash also cuts Drummond’s chances of being hacked. He’s a woeful foul shooter, just 9-of-24 this season, and his attempts are hovering around his career norm despite all the post-up work.
Drummond’s a powerful dude, but he’s not really using his power to back guys down closer to the rim. Bad news: Drummond can’t hit anything outside of dunk range. He’s shooting 55 percent within 3 feet of the basket, but just 22 percent in that tricky area between 3 and 10 feet from the rim — the jump hook and floater zone. He barely shot from there last season, but nearly a third of his attempts under Van Gundy have come from that range, per Basketball-Reference.
Drummond just isn’t comfortable with this stuff yet, which isn’t surprising. He’s dependent on one move, and opponents have scouted it by now. He hurries, and you get the sense he doesn’t have a precise idea of where exactly the rim is when he flings up his shot.
He’s also a righty-only post-up player now. That’s not a death sentence. Al Jefferson never uses his left hand, even within tight spots where normal players would need it or else suffer a humiliating rejection. Jefferson joked with me last season that he could play just as well if someone cut off his left hand, and he’s as polished a post scorer as there is on earth.
But Jefferson has a soft touch, eons of experience, killer footwork, and maybe the best array of pump fakes in the league. Drummond has none of those things yet. When defenders take away his pet move, Drummond sometimes resorts to a series of fakes and contortions designed to reposition himself for the same shot — a process that can lead to even uglier attempts and three-second violations. Even when he turns to the left baseline, he’ll shift the ball back to his right hand — and back into traffic:
There are signs of hope, though. A lot of Drummond’s post shots clank off strange places, but he doesn’t have a bad touch. He also has a nice little drop-step he uses along the left baseline when defenders overplay his right hand:
Drummond has experimented with a physical back-down dribble to move the line of scrimmage toward the rim, but he��s not really doing it to gain territory. He can feel when the shock of the impact shifts his guy off-balance, even into straight-up-and-down position, and in that moment, Drummond gains enough leverage to spin around that defender, leap for his hook, or plow right through him:
This is a tough process for even the most skilled players. Think of how long it took LeBron James to embrace becoming a post player and then to actually get good at it. Drummond comes with a better set of raw materials, and he’s working at the nuances.
Defenses don’t respect him yet, which makes the process both simpler and trickier in different ways. He’s not drawing a lot of hard double-teams. He gets work a lot in single coverage, which is nice, but it also means Drummond rarely gets an easy passing lane to an open teammate.
And that’s the skill Drummond might need to improve most. He has just three assists this season. He dished just 35 last season, and he has assisted on just 2.8 percent of Detroit’s baskets while on the floor during his career. That ties for the sixth-lowest assist rate ever among players who logged at least 4,000 minutes over their first three seasons. Big-man finishers always bring up the rear in assist rate, but Drummond’s passing is behind schedule even by the standards of his position and general job description.
Good news! Drummond is barely 21, and he’s playing under an expert coach. He will get better. But this might be too much, too soon on a team with playoff ambitions. It will be interesting to see what happens when Meeks comes back and Van Gundy can normalize his rotation.
Drummond’s post chances aren’t coming at the expense of his pick-and-roll work. He’s getting about 24 ball screens per 36 minutes this season, up from about 19 last season, per SportVU tracking data provided exclusively to Grantland. The pick-and-roll will always be Drummond’s bread-and-butter, especially when Van Gundy has the tools to surround him with more shooting. Even given Detroit’s limited personnel over the last two seasons, there is a track record of success with lineups involving Drummond, a point guard, and three shooters — including a passable shooting power forward, a role Jonas Jerebko is trying to fill this now.
There just aren’t a lot of big guys who can catch the ball near the foul line and dunk it without dribbling — or even landing on the ground. Those guys suck in attention from all over the floor, freeing shooters everywhere. It’s probably not as fun when you don’t get the ball — when your cut is just a vehicle for someone else to shoot — but it’s damn effective. Howard has always struggled to reconcile the idea that one of the best things he does on offense involves not touching the ball.
Under Van Gundy in Orlando, Howard did both — just as he does now in Houston. Van Gundy knows that the math in a vacuum suggests the pick-and-roll is a better play, but Howard’s post game was good enough in his athletic prime (and looks great this season), and you have to feed the big dog if you want him to guard the rim on defense.
This is step one of Van Gundy transforming the Pistons to his liking. Other hallmarks are already here. Detroit is taking more 3s, including from the corners, the players have slowed their pace, and it’s toned down its defensive scheme so all the big men generally sag far back against the pick-and-roll.2
They’re also trying to force pick-and-roll ball handlers away from screens and toward the sideline.
That conservative approach has resulted in a huge decrease in forced turnovers — only Utah has coaxed cough-ups at a lower rate — but that low-risk, low-turnover, protect-the-paint approach was Van Gundy’s calling card in Orlando.
The Pistons are still bad, but they’re changing. Drummond is changing faster than any of his teammates, and that represents a short-term sacrifice for a team with postseason hopes.
A few other random notes on that SportVU ball-screen data:
• Among rotation players, Amir Johnson set the most screens last season — about 32 per 36 minutes. He’s down to about 23 this season, just 49th in the league. The Raptors are still a pick-and-roll-heavy team, and though they’re earning a bunch more free throws this season, they don’t appear to have redesigned their offense in a way that would generate such a big change. Given Johnson’s ankle issues, this is worth monitoring.
• Dirk Nowitzki and Nikola Vucevic are the league’s premier pick setters, at least in terms of frequency. They ranked in the top 10 among rotation players last season, and they’re in the top five this season.
• Kosta Koufos has shot up through the ranks — from about 25 ball screens per 36 minutes to nearly 38 this season. He struggled until his outburst against the hapless Lakers defense on Tuesday, but he’s canny about moving around the floor on offense. The Grizz had success in that game with a double-center lineup featuring Koufos and Marc Gasol. That duo struggled in 143 minutes last season, but in the right matchups, the two combined bring enough skill to coexist. (Gasol alone brings enough skill for most big-man partners. Even his passing turnovers are small pieces of basketball art.)
• Another big leaper: Cody Zeller. He is setting about 10 more ball screens per 36 minutes this season for the Hornets, a team that passes and moves more than almost anyone — but rarely gets anywhere profitable.
Zeller is backing up Marvin Williams, who offers more spacing (at least in theory) and less of just about everything else at power forward. Zeller can’t shoot 3s, but he’s developing into a decent midrange shooter, and he scoots around the floor in interesting ways. The Hornets have a pet play in which they run Zeller across a pick at the left elbow, and have him catch the ball there on the move, then curl toward the rim for a shot or pass to an open guy.
He’s not a great passer yet — you can see him reading the floor in his head, and when guys show their work like that, it means they’ll notice passing lanes only at the moment the defense closes them.
Zeller brings more size and rebounding than Williams, and it wouldn’t shock me if he starts a string of games at some point this season. Charlotte’s current starting lineup has been a train wreck, and Zeller has played only 14 minutes in Williams’s place with the other four starters, per NBA.com.
• Last one: Both Anderson Varejao and Kevin Love are setting fewer ball screens this season than last, even with Love coming from a Rick Adelman system that wasn’t as heavy on the pick-and-roll as most NBA offenses.
That doesn’t mean Cleveland’s offense doesn’t feature a ton of screens; these are only on-ball screens, and David Blatt’s offenses have traditionally used as many off-ball picks as on-ball. But it has been interesting to see how reluctant Cleveland has been in some games to get basic with LeBron/Love and Kyrie Irving/Love high pick-and-rolls.
Teams have switched the LeBron/Love pick-and-roll more than I’d expected, especially late in the shot clock. That creates mismatches, but it also stops the flow of Cleveland’s offense when it dumps the ball to Love and lets him work in the post against a wing defender. Love will win that matchup more than he loses it, with a slick little righty jump hook, but he doesn’t bull his way to the rim for the juiciest post looks. So far, it’s a trade-off opponents have been happy to make. Go earlier in the shot clock and Cleveland would have more time to exploit those mismatches in interesting ways.