Detroit Pistons: A team forced to grow into Stan Van Gundy's image
Stan Van Gundy’s Orlando Magic teams were noted for their inventive offensive style, punctuated by routinely playing career small forward Rashard Lewis at power forward. In doing so, they helped significantly to shepherd in the face-up stretch four era that has now become something of a standard in the modern NBA. Be it by design or by happenstance, the Lewis/Hedo Turkoglu pairing flanked alongside Dwight Howard worked, and the four-out system is nowadays targeted by all bar a few teams.
Now with the Detroit Pistons, Van Gundy still wants to play four-out and with a well-spaced floor all over, to continue what he started. They have particularly wanted to add spacing at the forward spots, starting last season with Marcus Morris and Ersan Ilyasova as starting forwards backed up by Stanley Johnson and Anthony Tolliver, and replacing Ilyasova with the similarly-shooting Tobias Harris at the trade deadline.
This desire for floor spacing forwards has even permeated their summer league roster selections, with former Magic stretch fours Brian Cook and Justin Harper getting looks, amongst others (with Harper eventually getting two ten day contracts out of his trial). The hunt is on for shooters, for creators, and for offense.
Unfortunately, there have been two key problems with the Van Gundy offense in Detroit. There haven’t been enough good floor spacers to hit shots off of good looks, and there haven't been enough good looks to be hit.
As evidence of this, Detroit finished 29th in the league in assists last season, not so much indicative of a selfish team as it is of a flawed make-up. All too often, the lone creator off of the dribble has been Reggie Jackson. And when Reggie Jackson creates off of the dribble, it is normally for Reggie Jackson. In pick-and-roll action, Jackson seeks to either drive to the basket or pull-up – rarely does he seek to hit the roll man, nor go back to the screen-setting big for the jump shot. Scoring is what he is good at, and he knows it.
Furthermore, it has not helped who the big men in question are. Starting center and defensive wizard Andre Drummond cannot shoot, and nor is he as effective in pick-and-roll action as someone with his physical tools could be (then again, maybe he would be with players more capable and willing at exposing the passing angles a Drummond screen creates). Contrastly, Ilyasova, who received the majority of the power forward minutes last year, was not an effective roll man.
And while Morris is useful at both and his acquisition is a valuable one for this reason, he is not an offensive creator. Indeed, other than Jackson, few were. Such has been the dearth of shot creation in recent years that Drummond continues to be given the ball in post-up situations and asked to score down there. (It's not going to happen. Stick with the pick-and-roll.)
Passing and playmaking in general has been a problem. When he gets the ball in the post - and, again, he really shouldn't - Drummond hasn't the poise or vision to pass back out. At shooting guard, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope demonstrates similarly little passing vision and desire, and while Morris and Harris are slightly better in this aspect of the game than he, it is not by much.
It is not an ill-disciplined and selfish offense necessarily, but it is one that settles for some bad looks and forces too many other shots, often seemingly feeling pressed into doing so by a dearth of creative talents. Even Jackson, the closest thing to one, is a scoring point guard. (Steve Blake, the closest thing to a playmaking point guard, has left via free agency. And a point guard's playmaking ability is always going to be limited when they cannot get to the basket even with a screen). The problem, however, is less one of not being able to create the looks, and more one of not being able to hit them.
Jackson may like to shoot jump shots, but never has he been especially good at it, a reasonably decent shooter who uses the shot to open up the drive but who is not the type to shoot his team back into a game. Nor is Kentavious Caldwell-Pope alongside him, a player with excellent potential as a high minute three-and-D complimentary player, but who continues to lag behind on the "three" part of that. KCP played 36 minutes per game last year but still shot only 30.9% from three, due in part to being somewhat overconfident in his ability to hit them, taking them like he's Klay Thompson but hitting them like he's Damien Wilkins.
Harris and Morris were decent but not elite shooters last year, in accordance with their career numbers. And of course, there was very little floor spacing at the five spot, save for the occasional Aron Baynes baseliner. Further down the depth chart exist decent shooters such as Reggie Bullock and Darrun Hillard, but they can only shoot if they play. Detroit finished a lowly 21st in the league in three-point shooting last year, in large part explaining the low assist numbers, and anchoring a pretty good defensive team with a pretty average offensive unit.
The Pistons will return much the same roster in 2016/17 that they finished with in 2015/16. At the inconsequential end of the roster, Tolliver, Blake, Joel Anthony and Spencer Dinwiddie have been replaced by draft picks Michael Gbinije and Henry Ellenson, along with free agent signing Ray McCallum, who will fight for a spot with Lorenzo Brown.
In the rotation, Jodie Meeks was traded to Orlando, and the money that deal freed up was spent on three likely backups in Ish Smith, Boban Marjanovic and Jon Leuer, the three of whom will push Gbinije, Ellenson and the winner of the Brown/McCallum battle to the inactive spots on the roster.
None of the acquisitions are of the calibre of shooter as Jodie Meeks is. Then again, they might be healthier. Meeks managed only 43 minutes last year - had he been able to play, much of the above might not be as true as it was. Leuer's continued ascent into quality role player territory has been proven successful, but not because of his three point shooting - he is good for the occasional spot-up, but is not a volume three-point shooter at this stage, and nor is Smith, whose very slender build might never fully lend itself to being one. In essence, then, the Pistons took one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the league last year, and didn't improve it. On paper, at least.
What they should be instead is great in transition. Smith's blinding speed was targeted with this in mind, and Caldwell-Pope is one of the best wing transition players in the league. Drummond can outrun almost all opposing centres, and Morris and Harris also do their turns there. You cannot make it on the back of transition and defense alone, but it is a good starting point from which to build an identity.
Beyond this, Smith's dynamicism and relentlessness should create more opportunities for cutters and shooters alike, and as Drummond continues to develop his comfort level on the court, he might be able to expand his uses offensively (he doesn't need to be able to score much, just finish looks created by others, be able to move the ball back out, cut hard off screens, and hit some foul shots).
There still exists little in the way of a second creator, barring, of course, a big internal improvement from someone, most likely Stanley Johnson. But this will alone will not undermine the team's potential. What is much more likely to do so is if they cannot make enough shots to stay in games.
Detroit would surely like eight straight years of thorough mediocrity to end. To do so requires internal growth, especially offensively. By signing a load of backups near their primes, the Pistons have given their young core the platform to succeed. To achieve that potential, they must move the ball and shoot better. And regardless of whether that happens, they need to get out and run the court.