The Pistons have a Dwane Casey Problem
The Pistons season is on the verge of total collapse. They sit at 17-23 after another big loss against the Sacramento Kings.
How they got to this sad place is a bit confusing. Because for all the talk of how bad this roster is, very similar and probably less talented rosters in Detroit were better over the last four seasons. Blake Griffin is having a, arguably, career season so far, Reggie Bullock is as good as ever, Reggie Jackson is having his most efficient scoring season ever, they are preventing opponent 3-pointers, wing play beyond Bullock is an issue but that’s been the case for years now. So why is it that the Pistons are so, incredibly, bad.
As a very angry Ku Khahil said on our podcast a couple of weeks ago, the fish rots from the head down.
Dwane Casey has been highly ineffective as coach, and both Tom Gores and Ed Stefanski have enabled him to be so. When Dwane Casey was hired, one of his desires was for the security of a long-term contract while the team sorted out the roster. Every time any of the new leadership has spoken about the team’s situation, they have constantly preached patience and to give Casey time, especially reinforced by Tom Gores who was present at the game against the Lakers.
All of it points to the idea that there is very little pressure on Casey to succeed with this roster. And Casey has coached exactly how you would expect when you tell a coach he can lose as much as he likes with impunity. Looking through the way this team has played, it isn’t clear that the new regime ever had any intention or desire to win with this roster. They’ve simply been killing time until they can redesign the roster more in line with Casey’s scheme.
I mean, that’s not totally unfair is it? New coach new scheme.
Couple of problems, first off the idea of trying to set your team up for Dwane Casey’s offensive scheme is a bad idea because his scheme is, at best, basically non-existent, and and worst, dumbfoundingly terrible. But that’s a conversation for another time. Let’s give the benefit of the doubt that the Raptors success in Toronto had something to do with Casey’s scheme rather than one of the best GMs in the business putting on a master-class in team-building.
For starters, this is the NBA. There isn’t college football. The NBA is a talent driven league and the best teams are the teams with the best talent and a coach who adjusts to make the most of that talent. No matter how good or successful the scheme is, trying to put round pegs into square holes is never a good idea in the NBA. This is especially true when you are the Pistons, who do not have anywhere near the talent to simply overcome a scheme that doesn’t take advantage of their talent. No team wins in the NBA by taking established players and trying to fit them into a coaches scheme, teams win by making schemes to maximize their players. That is the case today, has been the case in the past, and will be the case in the future
The Thunder are long, athletic, brutish, and poor shooters. So they built a scheme that focuses that brutishness across the entire team and lets Russell Westbrook and Paul George grind out points on the offensive end. The Warriors have two of the greatest shooters ever, so they run those two off of endless screens and actions to get them any space. LeBron’s teams have LeBron, so they give the ball to LeBron and try to have everyone else do their best to get out of the way and hit the open shots that come. The Spurs have swapped from the most boring, plodding, posting up teams in the NBA, to the most beautiful whirring machine generating 3s, back to boring mid-range chucking.
And Casey isn’t just not adjusting his scheme to maximize the roster, looking at the numbers you would think he was hired to be a stealth tank commander here to actively sabotage the Pistons in an attempt to lose as many games as possible.
Wait a minute. Earlier you said the Pistons were better the last four years. Four years ago was SVG’s first season, the one with Josh Smith where they started 5-23.
Not a typo. Their winning % still enjoys an edge over the 2014-2015 team, but the Pistons currently have the 23rd net rating in the NBA at -2.9. The 2014-2015 team had the 19th net rating at -1.1. This year’s iteration may win a few more games courtesy of some Blake Griffin heroics, but they certainly are not better.
Actively sabotaging the team is a bit over the top don’t you think?
Let’s start with Reggie Jackson.
Dwane Casey clearly doesn’t think highly of Reggie Jackson, neither do many of you. Which is fair, Jackson is a flawed player, however, think of what his flaws are and have been since arriving in Detroit. Flaw #1 is that he’s not a good shooter, flaw #2 is that he’s not a very good defender, lastly is his tendency to dominate the ball too much but he largely exercised that from his game last season so we will let that slide for now.
So when Dwane Casey arrived, he decided that the best way to use his bad-shooting, bad-defending point guard was to make him a 3 and D player. Jackson is taking 47% of his shots from deep, his usage % is down about four points to 23%, and the spread pick and roll has been almost totally excised from the offense.
To put that usage percentage into perspective, here are guys who use more of their teams possessions while they are on the floor than Reggie Jackson: Trey Lyles, Kris Dunn, and Serge Ibaka. This, on its own, is not that outlandish. Jackson’s usage rate is not too far out of line for other second-fiddles playing with a ball-dominant player. For instance, Kris Middleton is not that far ahead of Jackson. Though it is important to remember that shooters will have inflated usage rates compared to passers, since a missed shot will go on the shooters usage but not the passer, and once again, Jackson is very much a shooter in this offense.
Here’s a few point guards who takes a lower percentage of their shots from deep: Damian Lillard, Kemba Walker, and Kyrie Irving. All of those guys are far better shooters who can pull from anywhere, Klay Thompson has taken less of his shots from deep this season.
Here’s the issue, if you take the ball out of Jackson’s hands, it is going into someone’s and Griffin is already at a incredibly high usage. Jackson’s usage has dropped by just about 4 points, most of those have gone to Andre Drummond, who’s usage is up a little over 3 points from last season. And guess what, his raise in usage isn’t from getting extra lobs to finish, or even more of the juicy passing from last season. It’s because he has raised his number of post-ups from about 3 to just over 5 per game, a huge increase, and that doesn’t even take into account how regularly he faces up instead of posting up, but keep that in the back of your mind for a bit.
The biggest number to show Jackson’s misuse is his assisting. Last season Jackson assisted on 33% of teammates makes while he was on the floor, season before that 30%, and before that 36%. This season he is down to 24%, a 9 point drop from the previous season. Jackson’s facilitation remains underrated, when Jackson passes to a three-point shooter they hit 36.3% of the time, when Griffin passes: 30.2%, Ish Smith: 31%. But put that number in your back pocket for a second.
This season, per synergy, the number of possessions that involve a Jackson pick and roll are down nearly 20%, and that doesn’t even take into account that a huge number of his pick and rolls are with Blake Griffin with the only goal of getting Griffin a mis-match, also the possession only needs one pick and roll to qualify. In past seasons, Jackson would regularly run multiple sets in a row until they found something they liked. This season he pretty much gets one and then they move on to other stuff.
But why take the ball out of Blake’s hands to give Jackson more time in the pick and roll? You don’t get to run it into the ground with a guy of Blake’s capabilities around.
Let’s be clear about something, I am not asking for a total shift in the offense, Blake Griffin should be the fulcrum and then some. No matter what, Jackson is having the ball less here.
That said, there isn’t some rule that says you can’t have a few extra possessions where Blake Griffin spots up around an old-school 1-5 pick and roll of Jackson and Drummond.
This doesn’t happen very often. But lets go back to that number before. Once again, when Jackson passes to a three-point shooter they shoot just over 36%, there is a catch to that number.
The catch is that Blake Griffin has been the teams second best 3-point shooter behind Reggie Bullock, and he’s not far behind. When a pass goes to Blake Griffin for a 3-point shot he is shooting 37.1%. He’s also been effective on the pull, but slightly more-so as a catch and shoot guy.
What if, get this, the secret to the Pistons finding better spacing is to make use of the fact that they actually have one of the better stretch fours in the league at the four spot? For reference, when Jackson shoots off of a pass he is hitting just 33.5%. (take note, this is different than pure catch and shoot, he just had to get a pass and then take a 3-pointer. Some dribbling is allowed by these numbers.) Giving the ball to Jackson, and spotting up Blake Griffin is like the difference between having Tobias Harris when he first got to Detroit and Tobias Harris last season/now spotting up. Toss in that when Drummond is setting a screen and rolling defenses have to account for him, and the geometry of the floor suddenly works a lot better.
Like look at this, with Bullock and Galloway on the wing:
The Pistons finally found their perfect spread pick and roll units. Griffin spots up in the corner, the Timberwolves have to help down on Drummond’s roll, and Jackson slings a nice pass for an open corner 3.
The most frustrating thing about this, is that it isn’t complicated. Casey failing to retain any of the fun motion stuff that made Andre Drummond super effective last season stinks, but that’s hard stuff to make work. This is just running a pick and roll, this is meat and potatoes stuff.
But Joe, Jackson isn’t the same guy. He just isn’t good enough.
I mean, is he? On one hand, he sometimes gets switched onto bigs and can’t get around them. And I’m not talking fast ones, I’m talking slow ones. But on the other hand, he’s busted out some killer crossovers at times this season, and already has as many dunks this season as the last two combined. In fact, with 9 dunks through 40 games, Jackson is on pace to have more dunks than the 2015-2016 season where he had 13 in 79 games. Like, when was the last time Jackson was doing this?
And a lot of other numbers beyond just “He’s dunking more and it doesn’t look like he nearly died to get up high enough to dunk it” suggest that he’s starting to really feel spry again. Overall he’s getting to the rim less than ever before but that’s mostly due to his high volume of long-guns. Jackson is taking 27% of his twos in the restricted area this season compared to just 22% last season. (that’s still a far cry from the monstrous 38% of the 2015-2016 season but still, progress.) The more notable number is how he’s finishing when he gets there, Jackson is shooting 65.3% in the restricted area, a career high, and he’s drawing fouls on 27% of his shot attempts, just barely behind his 27.2% mark from the 2015-2016 season. That free throw rate is even more impressive when you remember, once again, he’s taking nearly half of his shots from deep and unless you are James Harden you don’t really get fouled on 3s.
So to recap, Jackson is probably not (and never will) be the same guy the Pistons traded for. But he’s getting to the rim more, finishing better than ever, drawing more fouls than ever, and with the ball in his hands and Griffin spotting up the floor balance is much better. But once again, Casey remains firm in his belief that Jackson should be used almost exclusively as a spot-up guy and playing two-man game with Blake Griffin.
(side note. I’ve done too much number diving here to try and figure out exactly, but last season Griffin and Bullock playing a two-man game was the best thing the Pistons had towards the end of last season. This season Casey has decided to largely boot Bullock to the side and have Jackson run those sets with Griffin and that’s also very disappointing.)
But perhaps the biggest impact from the decision to delete pick and rolls has been felt by Andre Drummond.
You already touched on that. His post ups are way up.
Yes I did. But it goes beyond that. First off, when you talk about Drummond’s inefficiencies as a scorer, there’s one thing that has to be mentioned. And we will take this tweet from Duncan Smith yesterday.
Now, Drummond is comically inefficient. There are no lies there. But here is something to keep in mind a moment. 46.3% of Drummond’s buckets are unassisted, once again that doesn’t take into account that a lot of the assisted buckets are still post-ups/face-ups. That is the same percentage as Joel Embiid. Using the same filters as above, he is tied for 4th in unassisted buckets. Andre Drummond is literally generating his own offense at a similar rate as Joel Embiid. Him being comically inefficient should shock no one. Imagine telling Reggie Bullock to stop spotting up and try and be a high-volume isolation scorer now, it’d be a disaster.
Last season is the only season that Drummond has been even remotely efficient as a scorer (TS% of 55.5%) and there is a clear trend for how/when Drummond gets inefficient. Drummond’s is taking about 8% less of his shots in the restricted area this season, any time in his career that he’s taken more than 30% of his shots from outside the restricted area has resulted in a plummet in efficiency. It isn’t a coincidence that the one season in the past five where Drummond was actually efficient was the one season they cut out post-ups for him.
And that is something important to remember, these were gone last season. Stan Van Gundy, who isn’t prone to mince words, totally cut them out of the offense and said that Drummond has never been a guy who complains about shot attempts. Drummond isn’t going around complaining about not getting enough post-ups. Making Drummond one of the least efficient volume scorers (although 16ppg is pushing the limits of “volume” lol) in the NBA was a decision that Dwane Casey made, not one that Drummond made.
Here’s the bigger thing though.
Other than his post-ups, Drummond is actually far less involved in the offense than ever before. One of Drummond’s best skills was not just his rolling, but his screening. Last season Drummond was 3rd in the NBA in screen assists, the year before that he was 7th. Remember that is despite playing on one of the slowest and least potent offenses in the NBA. Even outside of pick and rolls, Drummond setting screens and diving to the rim is something he is great at.
This season, Drummond is tied with 6 other players for 29th in the NBA in screen assists. When Zach Lowe called Drummond “an elite garbage man” this season he wasn’t wrong. But that isn’t Drummond’s fault. Not involving him as a screener, roller, or passer and instead using him as a post-up/isolation scorer and garbage man results in him being bad. In shocking news, when you essentially cut out a players 2nd and 3rd best offensive qualities, and have him lean into his worst, it results in a far less effective player.
The misuse of Drummond even extends to the defensive end.
Hold up, Drummond is averaging a career high in steals and nearly in blocks. Plus the Pistons have shut down three-point shooting.
Admittedly, this gripe is not as extreme as the offense. However, the Pistons now have the 14th ranked defensive efficiency in the NBA, they were 10th last season and 8th the season before that. Maybe you can argue that SVG’s struggles to shut down the 3-point line would continue to be an issue and only grow, but even if you want to be generous, there isn’t really any improvement on defense and if you don’t want to be generous they have gotten quite a bit worse.
Last season Drummond, unleashed from the paint and allowed to fully utilize his quick hands and feet, ranked 9th in the NBA in deflections, by far the highest mark of any big man in the NBA. This season he’s down to 19th, tied with the likes of Joe Ingles. Him staying closer to the hoop hasn’t even resulted in him being better at cleaning the defensive glass.
So to recap, the Pistons made an active decision to not use Drummond as a screener or roller, instead use him as though he were Joel Embiid, and it hasn’t worked. I am the biggest Andre Drummond fan in the world, and if you told me that was happening this season I would’ve said “well yeah he’s not going to be good” because we all knew that he isn’t able to do these things.
Somehow, the last 2 years, filled with injuries, internal fighting, and Ish Smith long twos, resulted in a teams that was better than this one. In SVG’s first season the Pistons were at least as good as they have been this season, and you cannot argue that this roster is even near the crap show that one was.
So what. They start running pick and rolls an everything works all of a sudden? The high-water mark for this team was 44 wins with a healthy Reggie Jackson.
Nope. Especially at this point, it’s likely that they will be too far gone. And look, I have sympathy for Casey in some spots here. Notice that I haven’t complained about the wing rotation here, that’s because the Pistons wing rotation (beyond Bullock) is not very good and was always going to be a huge challenge to get working.
And even beyond that, Jackson is a difficult player to fit into an offense with a better alpha on the floor. Drummond is similar, he’s talented and paid enough that he needs to be more involved than a Clint Capela type, but you have to get creative to do it since you can’t just give him the ball and have him score. And with Blake Griffin on the team, you can’t do all the fun motion stuff from last year, and the ball is going away from Drummond and Jackson. This roster was never going to be an easy one to work out. Simply failing to find the right ways to maximize the offense by getting three players who don’t fit that cleanly to work isn’t a huge sin.
But we knew Andre Drummond doesn’t work as a post-up guy. Everyone knew that, everyone has known that for years. So why not try literally anything else? We know that Griffin and Jackson are your best creators but Griffin is better, so why not let Jackson play without Griffin on the floor some? Jackson has barely cracked 100 minutes without Griffin on the floor this season and over 50 of them are in the two games Griffin missed. The highest used lineup the with Jackson and Drummond on the floor without Griffin (other than the two games Griffin has missed) also have Ish Smith and Stanley Johnson in the lineup. Which, yeah, you are not running spread pick and rolls out of that.
So maybe this roster was never going to work, maybe you could have Greg Popovich come over here and he would fail to get this roster to work in a cohesive way. But when the Pistons hired Dwane Casey, they hired one of the most stubborn and uncreative coaches in the NBA. By doing that, they ensured that any chance they had at figuring out this roster was killed. And as a result, the Pistons will waste a borderline MVP caliber year from Blake Griffin, have Andre Drummond’s time in Detroit probably go out with barely a whimper, and some team is going to get Reggie Jackson for nothing only to realize that he can still play.
The worst part of all of this, is that it was completely predictable. I wrote this over the Summer, when Dwane Casey’s name came up in the head coaching search.
The Pistons should not hire Dwane Casey. Here’s the important bit from that piece.
People can continue to act shocked about how bad this roster is and pretend that all the problems plaguing this team are not the same problems that plagued the Raptors for seven years, they can pretend that if only Casey gets the right roster this will be fixed. In reality Dwane Casey is closer to Mike Brown than Greg Popovich. Brown lucked into coaching LeBron James and won a bunch of games, Casey lucked into coaching one of the deepest teams in the NBA and won a bunch of games. So the Pistons need to hope that Ed Stefanski is a lot better at building rosters than hiring coaches, because Casey is under contract for five more years, and Casey didn’t change from his time in Toronto, so there is little reason to hope he will change in the future.
The fish rots from the head down.