Small Ball 2016-17 Season Previews: Detroit Pistons

Key Additions: Jon Leuer -F(FA – 4 years, $42M), Boban Marjanovic -C(FA – 3 years, $21M), Ish Smith -G(FA – 3 years, $18M), Henry Ellenson -F(Draft – 1st round pick, #18 overall)

Key Departures: Anthony Tolliver, Steve Blake, Spencer Dinwiddie, Jodie Meeks

The Pistons made the playoffs for the first time in six seasons last year and arguably gave the Cleveland Cavaliers their toughest series in the Eastern Conference. The starting five of Reggie Jackson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Marcus Morris, Andre Drummond along with the combination of Ersan Ilyasova/Tobias Harris played over 1300 minutes together. That’s the most of any 5 man unit in the NBA and with Harris in the line up, that unit is also one of the most inexperienced in the NBA, especially compared to playoff teams. This lack of seasoning comes with implied setbacks but also substantial potential. Most would agree that Stan Van Gundy is one of the better coaches in the league and for the most part has done a great job of putting together and developing young talent on this squad. The future is bright for Detroit basketball.

One of the problems the team faced last year was the lack of creativity within the offense. We all know that SVG loves 4-out spread pick-n-roll sets but the Pistons became extremely predictable at points during the season. The ball handler in the pick-n-roll was the one that ended the possession on 20.3% of their plays according to Synergy Sports, which is the 5th highest such number in the entire league. Reggie Jackson lead the entire league in possessions ended as a pick-n-roll ball handler. He struggled some to beat his man when rejecting the pick but overall was fairly effective in this situation. However, shooting off the pick-n-roll often leads to long, off the dribble two-pointers, which most analytics experts would describe as some of the lowest efficiency shots in basketball. The Pistons as a team were also second-to-last in the league in passes per game and tied for 19th in assists per pass. Guys like Ish Smith and Jon Leuer have been brought in to add playmaking and shooting but there are questions as to how much impact they will have over the course of next season. Furthermore, it’s clear that Andre Drummond has some struggles with his overall confidence, in particular relating to his poor shooting from the free-throw line. His on-off court plus/minus was +5.6 the first 41 games of the year. The 42nd game of the year the Houston Rockets intentionally hacked him to the tune of 36 free throw attempts, which he only made 13 of. The 15 games including and immediately following that one, his play noticeably dipped and his on/off court plus-minus fell to an abysmal -8.8. Thankfully, at that point Van Gundy managed to steal Tobias Harris which seemed to lift the spirit of the entire team, especially Drummond. Still, it’s clear that Drummond is incredibly talented but also a fragile, gentle giant who needs to learn how to balance his emotions, focus and other mental aspects.

Season Outlook

One weakness that has been highlighted recently is the Pistons’ lack of “playmakers.” Reggie Jackson, Tobias Harris, Marcus Morris and to a lesser extent, Stanley Johnson and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope could all make plays, the problem is they make plays for themselves, not for others. It then becomes clear that the bigger problem is actually lack of ball-movement. Many of the perimeter players for Detroit like to take a few dribbles and hold on to the ball for a few seconds every time they catch it, which tends to stagnate the offense. This is further compounded by the lack of spot up shooters with 3-point range on this roster. The Pistons were 23rd in the league at catch-and-shoot points per game last season, according to SportsVU data on KCP only shot 30.9% on 3pointers last year and Marcus Morris and Reggie Jackson both like to take a couple dribbles before they shoot, as opposed to spotting up. Jon Leuer is the guy that’s supposed to help in that department but last year his eFG in catch and shoot situations was only 48.5%. To put that number in context, that would place him 28th in the league at catch-and-shoot jumpers among teams. He is still a decent option as a stretch 4 who is also slightly underrated as a passer and position defender. His contract looks fine when compared to the one someone like Ryan Anderson got. However, he figures to be a bench guy, so unless guys like Tobias Harris, Stanley Johnson and KCP drastically improve their range and ability to make spot up three pointers, the Pistons may once again struggle with ball movement and spacing. This will more then likely cause them to once again fall into the predictable pattern of 1-5 pick-n-rolls that end in off the dribble mid-range jump shots.

The Ish Smith signing has been mildly controversial. The critics are calling it an overpay and I tend to agree that considering the age and talent level of both players, some one like Tim Frazier would be a much better bargain. However, others have tried to justify the move by pointing to Smith’s strong locker room reputation. The addition of Boban Marjanovic seems to be a future insurance policy, in case Aron Baynes decides to opt out of his player option for next season. However, Marjanovic’s lack of mobility puts a ceiling on his playing time and can be a severe limitation in today’s NBA. Andre Drummond is the star talent this team is building around and other true centers aren’t exactly compatible with his skill set. When considering some of the weaknesses mentioned earlier, along with unproven players such as Reggie Bullock and Darrun Hilliard set to play as back up two-guards, I think that’s the area that they probably should’ve taken more of a look at. This year’s first round pick,  Henry Ellenson, has a nice ceiling as a stretch-4 type, especially if his stroke finally starts yielding results, but he is a long way from being able to contribute.


As a whole, this team has certainly gotten better and their on-paper talent has the looks of possibly finishing as high as the 4th seed in the diluted Eastern Conference. Nevertheless, even with their younger players taking another step forward in the coming season, there are certain flaws in the way this roster is constructed, such as the aforementioned lack of ball movement and consistent shooting. This will hurt their on court chemistry and possibly keep some of their young players from unlocking their full potential. That being said, SVG and his staff have done a great job and the future remains bright. With some smart moves on the margins, along with further improvement from guys like Drummond, Stanley Johnson and KCP, this team can be a contender down the line. For now though, they seem in line for a 4-7 seed and another early playoff exit.


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