Where to place the blame.
So the Pistons’ season is over, and it was disappointing by anyone’s measurement. As the first order of offseason business, lets go, player by player, and decide how much blame they deserve for the disappointment.
The problems in general:
Before diving into each player, a quick overview of the things that the Pistons did poorly, as well as a few things they did well. The biggest problem the Pistons had was their offense, as it finished the season at #25 in the NBA in efficiency by scoring 103.3 per 100 possessions, which I hardly need to remind anyone is very bad. The source of the offensive struggles came from a lack of being able to find good shots, especially 3 pointers, and generally an inability to put the ball in the hoop. The Pistons finished 26th in 3 pointers attempted, and 28th in percentage, and DEAD LAST in TS%, and drew the 2nd least (29th in the NBA) fouls while having the lowest percentage of their points come from the line of any team. They took more mid range jumpers than any team in the NBA as well. Simply put, they couldn’t get good shots or hit the tough ones at a high rate. The fact that they were pretty average (12th) in offensive rebounding only exasperated this problem. Defensively they ended up being ok, with the 11th most efficient defense in the NBA by allowing 105.3 points per 100 possessions, but they had trouble keeping that up against starters, as their backups generally swallowed opponents.
Some general good:
The Pistons fared almost a point better in their per game totals than they did in the per 100 possessions, and they currently are a perfect example of why you can’t just look at those numbers to get the whole story for a team. The Pistons were able to stay in the playoff race most of the year despite terrible shooting and only a pretty good defense because they freaking took care of the ball. Offensively the Pistons posted the 4th best assist to turnover ratio with 1.78, and the 2nd lowest turnover percentage at 12.1%. Simply put, the Pistons took really good care of the ball on offense. This combined with the Pistons being, by a pretty wide margin, the best defensive rebounding team in basketball with a defensive rebounding percentage of 81.2% (Just because I’ve seen a few people be confused by it, rebounding percentage, whether offensive, defensive, or total, is the percentage of misses that a player or team gets. As such, it is the best way to account for how good a rebounder a player or team is because it accounts for both pace and how many misses were available.) meaning that opponents very rarely got extra looks against the Pistons. (which is almost entirely thanks to Andre Drummond) The low turnovers, and excellent rebounding meant that the Pistons averaged 5.5 extra shot attempts per game than their opponents. So even if their offense wasn’t as efficient, they usually got more chances. That ability to take care of the ball and clean the glass also helped them a great deal in having a respectable defense, as their half court offense was nothing special, but their ability to avoid giving up easy looks off 2nd chances and on the fast break (they allowed the fewest in the NBA in both categories) allowed their overall defense to end up being pretty good. So that is the general overview, now for the individuals.
Reggie Jackson: The lion’s share of the blame.
It is entirely possible that it will end up being, perhaps, unfair to truly “blame” Reggie. SVG seems to believe that Reggie will be back next year and be “better than he was two years ago”. If that is the case, and it truly was just that he was hurt and for whatever reason it didn’t heal as fast as it was supposed to, then that isn’t his fault as he certainly tried to play. Regardless of whether it is really anything within his control or not, Reggie Jackson missing a lot of time and fluctuating between mediocre and straight up bad (with the occasional good game spattered around) when he did play is definitely the main reason why the Pistons disappointed this year. Last year the Pistons did not hit a very good percentage of 3 pointers coming in 22nd in percentage, but they were able to generate a high number of them to come in 10th in attempts, while also getting more points at the line on their way to being dead average (15th) in the NBA in offensive efficiency. In a lot of areas, Ish Smith is not a huge drop off from Reggie. But the place where it was most painfully obvious is his ability to get into the lane and score there, and more importantly, drawing extra defenders. The Pistons really lacked anyone who collapsed the defense beyond Andre rolling to the hoop, and Ish is such a bad shooter that teams were happy to leave him wide open in order to keep Andre from the hoop. When Reggie played, he did little better than Ish, while providing some semblance of a threat shooting the ball in the midrange and from 3, but he was even less threatening going to the hoop than Ish, meaning that once again, defenses were not collapsing extra guys onto him very often. It meant that the Pistons could not generate good looks from deep. Throw in his miserable defensive campaign (once again, possible it was beyond his control) and the guy who was the Pistons 2nd best player last year (with a big gap to 3rd) was either out or playing poorly. If you want the TL;DR of why the Pistons disappointed this year, it is because of Reggie, and this comes from someone who has defended him all year. (And I will continue to do so btw)
KCP: Not a lot, but enough to matter.
In the end, it is hard to say that it was a disappointing year for KCP, but it was not as triumphant as his agent is about to tell everyone it was. He did improve significantly in all areas of his offensive game by learning how to make basic passes and that he is in fact allowed to occasionally hit layups in traffic. He cooled off from deep after a very hot start to finish the year at 35%, which is fine, but is nothing more than that and also further reinforces a trend that he will never be more than league average from deep as he has shot 31.9%, 34.5%, 30.9%, and 35% from 3 in his first 4 years for a career average of 33.4%. If he had remained at his early season heights of high 30s/low 40s then there would be an argument that he had “figured it out” and would be good from here on out. Finishing at 35% does the opposite. Once again though, he improved every area of his offensive game to go from a mediocre offensive player last year to a pretty decent one this year, and considering that he entered the year as being the 5th or 4th option in the offense (obviously before the year Reggie Jackson was assumed to be healthy) that is fine. The main spot where he gets blame is his defensive play, where he went from an All NBA caliber defender, to just ok. It is honestly one of the more bizarre things I’ve ever seen in a player, guys don’t usually get worse defensively in their 4th year, but it just happened. Considering that the Pistons probably saw a dominant inside/out defensive combination of KCP/Andre (we will get to Andre obviously…) was their best chance to be an elite defensive team, it was a problem that KCP suddenly was no longer elite, or even very noteworthy defensively.
Tobias Harris: Depending on your point of view, quite a bit or just a little.
This is a bit unfair, Tobias was very good this year, was often the Pistons best player, and a constant member in their best lineups all year. But it should be noted, that despite his efficiency, he only scored 16.7 points per game. Now some of that may be coaching, and that is where the “point of view” comes in, because you could say that it was SVG misusing him, which is something we will get into later, but the reality is that at least some of this has to be on Tobias. It has been a knock on him for almost his entire career, is that despite his skill and efficiency as a scorer, he is either lacking in ability or mentality to be a big time scorer. And the reality is, that if there was ever a season for him to take that step, this was it, and he remained the same old high efficiency but not high volume scorer. But I don’t want to say anything bad beyond that because Tobias was excellent overall for the Pistons this year.
Ish Smith: Not really blame, but still a reason.
Somewhat like Reggie if he was really just hurt all year and that was the only problem, in that it isn’t really Ish’s fault. But once again it should be noted that objectively, his lack of shooting was consistently a problem for the Pistons this year. But obviously no one expected him to suddenly become a good shooter, in fact he was better than he ever had been in his career before this. But it is just worth mentioning.Also like Tobias, I don’t want to rag on him much because he was very good all year.
Andre Drummond: Maybe a lot, maybe a little. Need more information.
A very weird season for Andre. He definitely receives some blame, because for all of the excuses I have made all year, and am going to bring up in just a moment, he is the Pistons’ cornerstone and best player in his first year in a huge new contract, and the team was disappointing. When you are the cornerstone you get lots of credit when things go well, and get blame when things go poorly, regardless of any other peripherals. That said, an area that would’ve been disappointing no matter how the season went for the team overall would’ve been his defense, which was better than last year, and he was responsible for the about 1 and a half of the 2 things that helped the Pistons defense be pretty good, (cleaning the defensive glass is all him, and he is about half responsible for their ability to keep opponents out of transition since they have to box him out) but just as I said with KCP, the Pistons road map to elite defense was a dominant inside/out combination of KCP and Andre. Just as KCP didn’t hold up his end, Andre didn’t either. He cleans that glass at an incredible rate, gets tons of steals for a big man, and tons of deflections even without the “big man” caveat, can hold his own against almost any switch that might come his way, while still providing decent paint/rim protection, and the threat of him on the offensive glass helps your defense as well. He is good enough that he makes you a better defensive team, and he can be an important member of an elite defensive team, but he needs to be more than that for the Pistons unless they make some serious roster changes to bring in more high level defenders. Essentially for instance, if you put him on, say, the Spurs, alongside Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Pop as the coach, they would be an even more elite defensive team than they are already. But he can’t single handedly make a good defense in the way Rudy Gobert can. He may not need to be quite Gobert, but he needs to be close.
The place where there is real question as to how much blame to give him is on the offensive end. Andre did not make any great leaps in his offensive game, he was a bit more comfortable handling the ball and passing which was good, but his post ups still didn’t draw double teams and his foul shooting made people totally unafraid to just foul him and he was afraid of contact to avoid getting fouled which resulted in a post up game that ignored his best advantage of that he is freaking huge. And on top of all of it, the “Drummond effect” which had been pretty clear by any measure before this year was not so clear this year. Which is just his ability to suck in defenders in the pick and roll and create space for teammates and generally help you to have a functioning offense. I don’t know for sure how much of that is that I had maybe overestimated Andre’s effect on the pick and roll or how much is that Ish Smith is a bit of an anomaly as a heavy minutes point guard. Andre has made quite a few bad point guards look good in the past in his career, but Ish was so un threatening as a scorer that it kind of neutered his chances of impacting the game with rolls to the hoop since teams just ducked waaaay under every screen without fear, and other than the occasional spurts of Ish suddenly nailing midrange jumpers (which FWIW were some of the most fun moments of the season) the pick and roll was largely ineffective for the Pistons. So for instance, even though Beno is an objectively worse player than Ish Smith (at this point in his career at least), I feel almost as if Beno’s ability to actually shoot and a bit more finishing zest would’ve resulted in better numbers/generally positive impact by Andre in the pick and roll, even if the Pistons would’ve been worse off on the whole. Essentially, Andre’s rim running opens up holes in the defense, and he spent a lot of the season playing with one point guard who was not able to take advantage of those holes (Ish) and another who was not able to take very good advantage of it (hurt Reggie). Either way, regardless of who is running the point next year (assuming Andre returns) it will be something to watch very closely, because if we get very far into next season and the team offense returns with Andre are still poor, there might actually be a problem.
Regardless of it all, Andre didn’t regress like many have claimed, he improved in most areas, and his counting stats went down a bit mostly because he didn’t play as many minutes and the Pistons played at a pretty slow pace. Enough of the advanced numbers were better, and the unique point guard situation can combine for enough optimism that if the Pistons run back with him again I will be very optimistic heading into the season, but this season was certainly a season that even his biggest fans have to admit makes you a little wary going forwards.
Jon Leuer: A not insignificant amount.
I am of the opinion that some of this isn’t totally his fault. He is not good enough to be a regular starter/heavy minutes player and it isn’t his fault that they kept trying to make him one. That said, you have to admit that he was disappointing this year, and it is made even worse by the fact that they actually paid him pretty good money. I like Jon Leuer, I think he will end up being ok, but 29.3% from 3 is not going to cut it. He still managed to be an efficient overall scorer, but by the end of the year his outside shot was totally gone and opponents knew it, which only added more pain to the Pistons already cramped offense. I still have hope he will work out, but it was an unimpressive first year for Jon Leuer in a Pistons uniform.
Stanley Johnson: A very wee bit.
He’s still super young, it started to click defensively later in the year and that is the most important thing for him to get going forwards. He may end up being a good offensive player or he may not, but his first step is to dominate defensively. That said, he was terrible early in the year and it was a problem for the Pistons. It may not have made a big difference, but if Stanley had played early in the season the way he did later I have to think the Pistons may have gotten one or two more wins.
Darrun Hilliard: More than Stanley.
With Stanley’s early season struggles, Hilliard got his shot with a stretch of games where he was in the rotation, and he played absolutely horribly. I’ll talk more about him in his season recap post, but man, his play in that stretch was a problem.
SVG President of basketball operations: Very little.
I liked pretty much all of the moves they made at the time and I still do. Right now the only move that looks like a mistake is signing Jon Leuer instead of just keeping Anthony Tolliver who had a career year. But the reality is that with Tolly’s age and the length of Leuer contract, it is too early to pile on that move yet. Other than that, it wasn’t his fault that Reggie was hurt. I think that the Pistons probably got the best talent that was available to them, Ish Smith looks like a home run move, Boban looks super promising in his limited minutes this year, Jon Leuer was still often a positive despite his horrid shooting, picking up Beno on short notice ended up being a really great move as well. Not going to pin much of that blame on the front office.
SVG: Coach. A lot and none.
Two side here. On one side, the Pistons showed all of the peripherals of a very well coached team. The low turnovers, excellent fast break defense, cleaning the defensive glass, finishing the season as a pretty good defense despite a lack of good defenders on the roster. And he should get a lot of credit for all of that, and there is an argument that without SVG’s excellent coaching the Pistons may well have been a truly horrible team instead of just mediocre. That said, there are some things that I have gripes with in no particular order. First off, every game that Boban got real minutes in made it more and more frustrating that he didn’t play the rest of the time. Aron Baynes is good, but Boban might be awesome, he should’ve gotten playing time. Secondly, I don’t know how I feel about his “motion offense” that he wanted the Pistons to do more of this year, once again, Reggie Jackson being healthy would’ve been a big help, but the offense was miserable this year, and yet he seemed hesitant to make any major changes. Some of the changes he did make were not ones I was a fan of either, whether that was cutting KCP out of the offense after the all star break, giving more shots to Marcus Morris that didn’t come out of the pick and roll, not just giving the ball to Tobias more often, letting their best 3 point shooter (Reggie Bullock) rot on the bench all year while always talking about how their bad 3 point shooting was a big problem, all the stuff they did with Jon Leuer as Leuer slowly fell apart as the season went on. So I don’t know for sure, I do think that SVG’s unwillingness to get creative was a major hindrance to the offense, but the more I think about the state of the roster this year, the more I think he did a really nice job this year. Like a lot of the rest of the team, next year will be really important for SVG the coach. The only difference being that we know for a fact that SVG will be there next year.
All in all:
There is plenty of blame to go around. But there is still reason to think it will improve. The Pistons biggest problem was easily the ability to create 3s and other good looks, and that is clearly the area Reggie being out/hurt made the biggest difference. In the end though, the reality is that the Pistons were not that good this year for exactly that reason. They just were not that good. They were theoretically on the very lower end of talent level where they could still be a really good team if they played the right way. With Reggie's injury they just didn't have enough talent to stay with it.