The Pistons Owe $144 Million to Two Guys Who Make Their Team Worse
The Detroit Pistons were one of the bigger disappointments of the 2016–17 season.
In 2015–16, they finally broke through to the playoffs, and gave the Cleveland Cavaliers a pretty fun first round series — though the Indiana Pacers just proved that may not be as big of an accomplishment as it’s chalked up to be. Still, the Pistons appeared as a young team with a good coach on the rise.
They backtracked in 16–17 in a major way. They didn’t participate in the playoff race. The players seemed unhappy. Stan Van Gundy clearly doesn’t want Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson anymore, but can’t get anyone to take them.
But growth is not linear for NBA teams. Sometimes you take a step back when you’re supposed to take a step forward, and then take two or three steps forward later to compensate. So how can the Pistons take those steps now that they’ve fallen back? Either by hoping last season was an outlier, or fundamentally changing their formula.
Based off of their offseason, it seems SVG and his team are hedging between those choices and going for a little of both.
The big move of the offseason was their acquisition of Avery Bradley from the Boston Celtics. Bradley has been one of the best shooting guards in the league for the past few years. He was a high-volume 39 percent three-point shooter and a lockdown defender, despite his shaky defensive metrics which I still contend were dragged down by his backcourt partner Isaiah Thomas.
Bradley should be a huge acquisition for a team like Detroit — a top-tier role player who takes what comes to him, and will spread the floor and make life easier for Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond. Unfortunately, the steps they took to get him make the trade a bit more bittersweet.
First of all, Detroit sent forward Marcus Morris to Boston in exchange for their new shooting guard. Morris is a solid role player who you want to have if you can. He is going to help Boston, but upgrading from him to Bradley is a no-brainer. The issue is what having Bradley on the roster meant — renouncing the team’s restricted free agent rights to last year’s starting shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, allowing him to sign with the Los Angeles Lakers.
KCP is only a slight downgrade from Bradley — a strong perimeter defender who plays a similar role. He wasn’t quite the three-point shooter or scorer Bradley was last year, but two factors come into play there. First of all, Bradley was in a far better situation, playing on the eighth best offense in the league with two All-Stars. Secondly, Bradley is older and more experienced than KCP. KCP’s first four years have been pretty comparable to Bradley’s first four, via Basketball Reference:
KCP got more opportunities than Bradley did at the beginning of his career, but their quality of production was about the same. By year four, the two were scoring at about the same rate, and KCP had a slight edge in rebounding. Bradley had a large edge in three-point percentage, but KCP was shooting at a higher volume. Maybe most important is their difference in games played. Bradley has been a regular on the injury report throughout his career, only playing more than 70 games twice in seven years. Pope has played 75 games or more every single year of his career thus far. That’s extremely meaningful.
KCP could still evolve into an equivalent player to Bradley, if not better. On top of that, the Pistons already know how KCP is going to perform in their system. Bradley should fill in perfectly — but because he has only ever played in Boston, he is an unknown quantity.
So they gave up Morris and KCP for Bradley, then they also let backup center Aron Baynes walk and sign in Boston. Their other offseason moves were adding bench guard Langston Galloway — who’s good — and forward Anthony Tolliver — who isn’t. They also drafted Luke Kennard, a shooting guard out of Duke.
In the end, they turned three of their most reliable rotation players, a guard, a forward, and a center, into two rotation guards, and an unknown in Kennard. That’s not a disaster, but it means their savior is not riding in over the hill this year. They’re going to need a serious return to the right path for their main guys. Which is what brings us to the Pistons’ concerning 2016–17 metrics.
A big defense of letting KCP walk was the team’s performance with him on the court. In the 16–17 season, the Pistons posted a minus-2.8 net rating with Pope on the floor, and were far better with him on the bench, putting up a plus-1.9. If it were that simple, it would be great. Of course, it isn’t, and that’s what gets us to the very concerning part.
Essentially all of the Pistons’ bad metrics — and there were plenty of them — come back to the team’s two purported stars, Jackson and Drummond. Start by looking at KCP. His metrics were positively tanked by playing with Jackson. When sharing the floor with his starting backcourt partner, the team posted a minus-10 net rating in 1030 minutes, more than a third of the minutes Pope was on the floor last year. That is a complete trainwreck.
When on the court with backup point guard Ish Smith, KCP helped Detroit post a minus-1.1 net rating in 1348 minutes. That isn’t great, but is passable. The big difference between the two pairs was the defense. The starting backcourt had a defensive rating of 112.9 — two full points worse than the worst defense in the league — compared to the 105.5 rating Smith and Pope posted together. Even more, lineups with Pope and the team’s third-string point guard, Beno Udrih, they put up a plus-13 net rating and 93 defensive rating.
When Pope was on the floor with Drummond, the team was miserable, ending up with a minus-8 net rating in 1921 minutes. 925 of those minutes came with Jackson as well, which made things even worse, resulting in a minus-9 rating. The pair was only slightly better with Ish Smith in Jackson’s place.
When KCP shared the floor with backup center Aron Baynes instead of Drummond, the results were fantastic: a plus-12 rating in 471 minutes. The difference was once again defense, with the Drummond lineups posting a dismal 110.8 defensive rating, and the Baynes lineups putting up an almost unsustainably excellent 95 rating.
These are essentially the opposite of the stats you want to see from your two best players. And it wasn’t just the results with Pope — these trends go up and down the roster. The Pistons with Drummond on the bench were a full ten points better per 100 possessions than they were with him in the game. Your center is supposed to be the anchor of your defense, yet Detroit’s defensive rating was nine points worse with Drummond on the court.
The team’s net rating was also ten points better with Jackson on the bench. Your starting point guard is supposed to be the key to your offense, yet Detroit’s offensive rating was 2.5 points better with Jackson on the bench. Baynes and Smith made the team ten points and five points better per 100 possessions respectively when they were on the floor, and while they are both solid players, they aren’t exactly Stockton and Malone.
It gives the impression that Drummond and Jackson are the forces holding the Pistons back instead of the ones propelling them forward. Every combination of players gets screwed up by inserting one of Detroit’s two highest-paid players. Smith, Pope, and Baynes were fantastic together. When you sub Jackson for Smith, they were terrible. When you insert Drummond for Baynes, they were terrible.
Drummond and Jackson also make a combined $40 million per year.
In 2015–16, when things were going well, Drummond and Jackson weren’t dragging the team down. They were making the team better, like they’re supposed to. The team was notably better with both of them on the floor.
So what changed, and what needs to change again to get back on track? For Jackson, a major factor is definitely his shooting. For example, his 15–16 shooting compared to his 16–17 splits:
In 15–16, Jackson was shooting much more, and was shooting much better. He isn’t an outside shooter, and doesn’t necessarily need to become one to help his team. The big issue was Jackson’s production close to the basket. That’s where he needs to be to score, and last year he shot a lower percentage at a much lower volume. He shot from less than five feet 5.12 times per game in 15–16, and that went down to 3.53 times per game the following season.
Jackson can’t shoot threes, so if he isn’t getting to the basket, he becomes an extremely one-dimensional threat. When a point guard isn’t a threat to shoot and isn’t a threat to get to the basket, they won’t demand the attention of the defense. That makes setting up their teammates that much harder. That could speak to why Jackson’s assists per game went down by one in the 16–17 campaign.
In Drummond’s case, his offensive production improved in 16–17. His defense — which was already questionable — is where things really regressed. For example, his 15–16 defensive stats compared to his stats from 16–17: (From left to right, fields goals made against his defense, FGA against his defense, and the FG% against his defense)
His interior defense is what makes or breaks the team, and it got way, way worse. He defended less shots in 16–17, and those shots went in much more frequently, both close to the basket and in the mid-range.
Defense is more complicated statistically than shooting, because defense can never truly be isolated. All five players on the floor influence what happens on defense at all times. Still, there’s no discernible reason the Pistons defense surrounding Drummond should have gotten that much worse in 16–17. The only major change in their perimeter defense was the addition of Ish Smith, who made the defense better when he was on the floor.
Both of these issues could be assigned a myriad of explanations, but the one that jumps out is effort. Getting to the rim is a challenge, even when you are a player of Jackson’s talents. You have to be willing to use a lot of energy and take a physical beating to score in the restricted area. If Jackson didn’t feel compelled to put forward that effort, those numbers would reasonably regress.
Defense is also largely an effort game when you have the size and athleticism Drummond has. It’s about keeping your focus and being in the right place at the right time. Drummond was cast in the mold of a Dwight Howard or a Deandre Jordan — but if shots he is defending less than five feet from the basket are going in 63.6 percent of the time, he can never impact the game in the way either of those guys can.
Not to be dramatic, but all this points to two stars that have quit on their current situation. Like I said, SVG petty clearly doesn’t want Drummond and Jackson as his stars anymore. So maybe they don’t want to be his stars anymore because of that. Or maybe their slipping effort is what made SVG want to move on. Unless you’re with the team on a day-to-day basis, it’s hard to tell.
What isn’t hard to tell: Avery Bradley and Langston Galloway may not be enough to save this situation. If things don’t get back on track this year, fundamental change will be on the way in Detroit, even if it means giving away their two highest-paid players for nothing.