By Bryan Toporek
Heading into the 2016-17 campaign, the Detroit Pistons appeared poised to emerge as a dark-horse challenger to the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Eastern Conference supremacy. Though the Cavs swept them in the first round of the 2016 playoffs, Tobias Harris would have a full offseason and training camp in Detroit under his belt, while the Pistons filled out their bench by signing Jon Leuer, Ish Smith and Basketball Twitter legend Boban Marjanovic in free agency last summer.
Rather than reignite their playoff rivalry with Cleveland, however, the Pistons will be spending the spring at home, save for the representative they send to the dais for the May 16 draft lottery. After climbing back to .500 on March 11 to take a half-game lead over the Milwaukee Bucks for the East’s No. 7 seed, they promptly dropped 10 of their next 12 games to fall out of the postseason race. Thanks to Wednesday’s loss against the Toronto Raptors, the Pistons are guaranteed to finish under .500 for the eighth time in the past nine seasons.
What fueled Detroit’s death spiral? Just as Donald Trump’s victory in November’s presidential election can’t be boiled down to one singular issue—no, it wasn’t “everyone is racist”—the same holds true for the 2016-17 Pistons.
Reggie Jackson’s knee injury is the logical place to start, though.
The first sign of trouble for this year’s Detroit squad arose in the preseason, when Jackson received platelet-rich plasma injections in his left knee and right thumb, causing him to miss the first month of the regular season. At the time, NBA.com’s John Schuhmann noted the Boston College product’s absence would be “a big setback for a team trying to take another step forward,” as Jackson ran the league’s highest number of pick-and-rolls during the 2015-16 campaign. Though head coach Stan Van Gundy told reporters he planned on diversifying the team’s offense even prior to Jackson’s health issues, per Schuhmann, the point guard’s imminent absence forced the issue.
The Pistons stayed surprisingly afloat sans Jackson, going 11-10 over their first 21 games, thanks in large part to Smith. They had the league’s 10th-best net rating over that span and assisted on 53.4 percent of their made field goals, with Smith racking up a team-high 6.4 helpers. Once Jackson returned on Dec. 4, the Pistons seemed poised to surge up the Eastern Conference standings.
Instead, they sputtered for the next two months, heading into the All-Star break with a mediocre 27-30 record. Jackson, who looked the part of a franchise point guard during his first full season with Detroit in 2015-16, seemed to lack burst upon his return, which limited his effectiveness on both ends of the court.
“Detroit pivoted into a faster, more egalitarian offense to paper over Jackson’s absence,” ESPN.com’s Zach Lowe wrote in mid-February. “When Jackson returned, he tried to mix his off-the-bounce game with Detroit’s new style. It didn’t work, mostly because Jackson wasn’t the same player. He couldn’t turn into the corner and zoom into the lane as easily.”
One look at Jackson’s season-long on-off splits speaks to how ineffective the Pistons were with him on the court.
|Jackson ON||101.7 (28th)||110.5 (28th)||-8.8 (30th)||51.2 (28th)|
|Jackson OFF||104.1 (22nd)||102.0 (3rd)||1.9 (9th)||54.1 (24th)|
“We found a groove with Ish,” starting center Andre Drummond told Lowe. “And when Reggie came back, it has been a big adjustment.”
Jackson appeared to hit a groove in January, averaging 19.6 points on 46.4 percent shooting, 5.8 assists, 3.0 rebounds and 1.7 triples in 31.5 minutes across 13 games, but inconsistency plagued him from that point forward. In the nine contests leading up to the All-Star break, he shot just 37.6 percent on 9.4 field-goal attempts per game. The long layoff seemed to energize him, as he churned out 14.7 points on 44.7 percent shooting in the first nine games after the break, but he then proceeded to shoot under 50 percent in each of his following seven outings.
At that point, with a playoff berth still realistically in reach, head coach Stan Van Gundy made the difficult decision to pull Jackson from Detroit’s lineup.
“It’s hard to put a percentage, but he’s been playing at probably about 80 percent,” Van Gundy told reporters about his $80 million point guard in late March. “… He’s seeing things he should be able to do and he just can’t do them. He’s not feeling pain, but he can’t make the plays he wants to make and we’re putting him out there.”
The Pistons officially shut Jackson down for the year Thursday, which makes perfect sense. With only four games remaining in the regular season, there was little sense in putting him out there and risking a setback to his knee. With the soon-to-be 27-year-old signed through 2019-20, Detroit can only hope he puts his knee tendinitis behind him for good over the offseason, allowing him to enter the 2017-18 campaign fully healthy.
Jackson believes there may be a silver lining to this injury-ravaged season.
“I think it’s going to be good in the long run,” he told Keith Langlois of Pistons.com. “Force me to have to play a little different, force me to have to expand my game. I truly believe there’s light at the end of the tunnel and I see it. Everything I’ve gone through so far this season will be all worth it and will make everything that much more joyful.”
While Jackson’s balky knee deserves much of the blame for Detroit’s disappointing year, Drummond’s stagnation can’t be ignored. The 23-year-old, who signed a five-year, $127 million max contract extension this past offseason, hasn’t appreciably improved on either end of the court.
Offensively, the Pistons’ insistence on feeding Drummond the ball in the post isn’t going as planned. Post-ups represented more than one-quarter of the big man’s offensive possessions heading into Wednesday’s loss against Toronto, but he’s averaging just 0.73 points on such plays, putting him in the bottom fifth league-wide in terms of efficiency. Worse yet, he’s only drawing fouls on 8.5 percent of his post-ups, which explains why he’s scoring on just 37.5 percent of such possessions. Given his dismal 38.8 percent shooting from the charity stripe, his reluctance to absorb contact around the basket is understandable.
“The Pistons are reeling, and Drummond’s rote post-ups are officially not helping,” Lowe wrote in late March. “They feel more and more like wasted possessions—a team collectively shrugging its shoulders, and dumping the ball to its franchise player because that is what you do with franchise players.”
Far too many of the Pistons’ plays end with Drummond backing down a defender one-on-one in the post, only to spin around and throw up an awkward-looking hook shot with little chance of succeeding.
On the season, Drummond has hit just 141 of his 322 attempted hook shots (43.8 percent). Though he’s ranked 37th in field-goal percentage among the 46 players with at least 100 post-up possessions on the year, he’s run the sixth-most plays of that type league-wide. Drummond is also the second-least efficient player among the 13 bigs who are receiving at least five post touches per game this season, ahead of only Memphis Grizzlies All-Star center Marc Gasol (who now touts three-point range to make up for his middling post efficiency).
Questionable shot selection and a dismal free-throw percentage largely explain away Drummond’s offensive woes, but his defensive concerns are a whole other animal. On the year, opponents are shooting 3.9 percentage points better than average with Drummond guarding them. Within five feet of the hoop, they’re knocking down 55.1 percent of their field-goal attempts, the sixth-worst mark among players defending at least five shots per game at the rim.
Dirk Nowitzki, a 38-year-old who has never been known for his defensive prowess, ranks higher than Drummond in that regard.
Drummond, 15 years Nowitzki’s junior, is also averaging a career-low 1.1 blocks per game. That’s a marked decline from the 1.9 rejections he piled up during a typical outing two seasons ago, and the fact he’s averaging his fewest minutes since his rookie season cannot fully explain it away. On a per-36-minute basis, he’s still putting up a career-low rate as a shot-blocker, which begs the question of whether Detroit can rely on him as its primary rim protector moving forward.
With Drummond on the floor this year, opponents are outscoring the Pistons by 6.3 points per 100 possessions, but when he’s on the bench, Detroit outscores its foes by 4.6 per 100. That 10.9-point differential is hardly ideal for a supposed franchise cornerstone, as not even the hobbled Jackson had such a wildly negative on-off split. It should come as little surprise, then, that the Pistons decided to “quietly explore the trade market” for both Jackson and Drummond heading into the trade deadline, per Lowe. However, they were reportedly “disappointed with the potential return,” which caused them to stand pat at the trade deadline rather than blow up their core.
That decision, while understandable, will force Detroit into a tight spot come July 1. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is set to become a restricted free agent this summer, and he may be in line for a $100 million-plus payday. If the Pistons match a max offer sheet for KCP, that alone would put them over the projected $122 million luxury-tax line unless Aron Baynes turns down his $6.5 million player option for 2017-18.
Caldwell-Pope looked the part of a max player for the first few months of the season, but a strained left rotator cuff that sidelined him for four games in the middle of January sent him spinning into a whirlwind of inconsistency. After kicking off February with a 38-point eruption against the New Orleans Pelicans, the Georgia product finished with just two points on 1-of-7 shooting two nights later against the Minnesota Timberwolves. That roller-coaster production came to define his past two-and-a-half months, further cementing Detroit’s fate as a playoff pretender.
KCP’s up-and-down nature isn’t likely to dissuade would-be suitors this summer, though. According to Brian Lewis of the New York Post, the Brooklyn Nets are expected to make him “a top priority this summer,” which should come as little surprise after seeing how general manager Sean Marks aggressively targeted restricted free agents last offseason (notably Allen Crabbe and Tyler Johnson). After speaking with numerous “league insiders,” Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free Press suggested the Philadelphia 76ers could go after Caldwell-Pope, too.
As Van Gundy reminded reporters in late March, he has full control over whether KCP will remain in Detroit past July.
“We only don’t have him next year if we decide we don’t want to have him,” he said. “There’s no team out there that can decide they’re going to have KCP next year. They don’t get that decision. It’s on us.”
Should the Pistons retain Caldwell-Pope, run back their same core and hope the health issues that sabotaged Jackson this season are a thing of the past? If Jackson does regain his old form, would he and Drummond again become the pick-and-roll dynamo they were throughout the 2015-16 campaign? Can KCP, Tobias Harris, Marcus Morris and Stanley Johnson serve as steady, complementary two-way threats to the Jackson-Drummond duo? Van Gundy must confront all of these questions over the coming months as he ponders what went wrong for this promising squad.
Given the depth of the 2017 draft class, the Pistons will have an opportunity to add another legitimate rotation piece to their young core come June. Conversely, Detroit could use that late-lottery pick as ammunition to attach in a trade, especially if Van Gundy is no longer convinced Jackson is the franchise’s point guard of the future. Optionality is not an issue in the Motor City, as Van Gundy can take the Pistons in two wildly divergent directions this offseason despite being relatively cap-strapped.
Which path Van Gundy and the Pistons choose is anyone’s guess. If he believes Jackson will return fully healthy in 2017-18, there’s some sense in bringing back the same core and seeing how far internal improvement can take them. If Jackson’s knee keeps barking and Drummond’s stagnation continues, however, the Pistons could be a luxury-tax team stuck on the treadmill of mediocrity.
Either way, this promises to be a fascinating offseason in Detroit.