As they entered the last full week of December, the Detroit Pistons owned a depressing troika of bottom-three NBA marks — the league's third-worst record, at 5-23; its third-least-efficient offense, averaging just 97.6 points per 100 possessions; and its third-worst "efficiency differential," with opponents outscoring them by a whopping 8.2 points per 100 possessions. Despite the presence of some intriguing young talent in the locker room and (for the first time in several years) a bona-fide NBA leader on the sidelines, the Pistons desperately needed an overhaul, some tiny spark to shake the sheets and catalyze the combustible elements that had thus far refused to catch fire.
Well, as we learned, new Pistons boss Stan Van Gundy doesn't do "tiny." He prefers "all-cleansing inferno." Thus, the stunning Dec. 22 decision to waive underperforming forward Josh Smith — just 17 months into the four-year, $54 million contract he received from Van Gundy's predecessors — under the belief that the Pistons would be better off eating the remaining $27 million they owed him and allowing him to ply his trade elsewhere than continuing to pay him to wear Detroit's red, white and blue.
“Our team has not performed the way we had expected throughout the first third of the season and adjustments need to be made in terms of our focus and direction,” Van Gundy said in a statement.
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The immediate returns of that shift, as you probably know, have been simply stunning. Seven straight wins, six of 'em by double-digits, with five coming on the road, highlighted by impressive dispatches of the defending champion San Antonio Spurs and 26-11 Dallas Mavericks on consecutive nights in a brutal Texas back-to-back.
"Right now, they’re one of the best basketball teams in the NBA, just with the way that they’re playing together and how hard, and the kind of energy they’re playing with," Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said after a loss in which his Mavericks never led and in which the interior duo of Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond (37 combined rebounds) nearly outrebounded Dallas (43 total boards) by themselves. "You’ve got to admire what they’re doing."
The remarkable turnaround has given Van Gundy's new-look crew a new lease on life, with the Pistons now sitting just 2 1/2 games out of the No. 8 seed in the East. While that certainly illustrates the punchlessness of the lower tiers of the conference, it also indicates just how unthinkably far the formerly moribund club's come in a little over a fortnight, and begs the question: if the Pistons keep playing anywhere near this well, how much different might their position in the East's shuffled-up hierarchy look come springtime? (For what it's worth, the postseason prediction model created by former ESPN.com writer John Hollinger gives the Pistons a 60.4 percent chance of making the playoffs as of Friday.)
With a suddenly fascinating matchup against the similarly surging and East-leading Atlanta Hawks on tap in Auburn Hills on Friday night, let's take a look at just what's gone right for Detroit over the course of this seven-game streak, and try to get our arms around how likely it is to continue going right as Smith's exorcism continues to get smaller and smaller in the Pistons' rear-view mirror.
• Styles make fights, and fit matters. Many observers saw the Pistons' problem coming as soon as Joe Dumars got Smith to put pen to paper — a frontcourt of Smith, Drummond and Monroe featured three very large men who did their best work from the elbows and in, and precisely zero reliable shooting from midrange or beyond. It's awful tough to build a balanced and effective offense in today's NBA when defenses can sag off the perimeter without fear of being burned by open outside shooters; true to form, the Pistons struggled to score when the three big men shared the floor.
Under Maurice Cheeks and John Loyer last season, the Pistons averaged 102.5 points per 100 possessions with Smith, Drummond and Monroe together on the court, a bottom-third-of-the-league offensive efficiency mark. Seeing the spacing issue — and, even more damningly, the defensive problems that followed from a lineup tilted more toward size than speed, as Detroit allowed 110.5 points-per-100 in Smith-Drummond-Monroe minutes last season, which would've placed dead last in the NBA — Van Gundy tried to stagger the trio, running them out for just 174 total minutes over 15 appearances this season. Detroit fared far better defensively in those minutes than it had last year, allowing just 101.6 points-per-100, but the spacing issues got progressively worse, choking out the Pistons offense to the tune of just 98.4 points scored per 100 possessions, a pitiful mark that would rank 29th among 30 NBA teams over the course of this full season, ahead of only the barely trying Philadelphia 76ers.
Van Gundy's a dynamite coach, one of the sharpest X's-and-O's minds the game's got, but even he couldn't figure out how to build an at-least-middling offense around three players engaged in a near-constant turf war that choked off dribble penetration and did a lot of opposing defenses' work for them. Smith's absence means redistributing his minutes and his touches to other players, and thus far, Detroit seems to be thriving on this particular flavor of socialism:
Josh Smith was using 18 possessions a game for Detroit for 12.8 pts. The new spread of those 18 possessions is garnering 20.2 pts.
— David Locke (@Lockedonsports) January 8, 2015
"Spread" is a key word here, because it's not merely the redistribution of Smith's minutes that matters; it's the type of players to whom they're being redistributed, and the type of offense said players allow Van Gundy to operate.
Detroit's primary Smith replacements have included Jonas Jerebko (13.9 minutes per game before Smith's exit, 22.1 since) and recent addition Anthony Tolliver (12 minutes per game over five contests since his trade from the Phoenix Suns). Neither Jerebko nor Tolliver are as dangerous as Dirk Nowitzki out on the perimeter, but they're more credible long-distance threats than Smith, and when they're on the floor, their defenders have to hew a bit closer to their marks, creating clearer driving lanes for the likes of Brandon Jennings and D.J. Augustin when they come off screens and attack in the pick-and-roll. (It certainly doesn't hurt that Jerebko's actually coming through when he gets left alone, making 50 percent of his 3-balls over the past seven games.)
Combine the Smith-for-Jerebko/Tolliver trade with more minutes for finally healthy marksman Jodie Meeks, some decent stretches from respectable-enough veteran wing Caron Butler, and a savvy decision by Van Gundy to split up Drummond and Monroe rather than trying to force-feed them into the lineup at all times and all of a sudden, the Pistons' half-court sets have some room to breathe.
Here's a screenshot of one pick-and-roll Pistons possession from the Smoove era, during a Nov. 17, 2014, matchup with the Orlando Magic:
As Jennings enters the paint after taking a high screen from Monroe, he's running smack into a Drummond post-up. (And a not-so-hot one, thanks to Magic center Nikola Vucevic pushing him a couple of steps further away than Van Gundy would probably like.) Check out how far Tobias Harris (No. 12 in blue) has moved away from Smith (No. 6 in white) at the bottom of the screen to help on the drive — a move he could make because he wasn't at all concerned about Smith making him pay from just above the break on the right wing.
With Evan Fournier stationed between Jennings and screener Monroe trailing the play, the point guard is surrounded by four Orlando defenders with no real viable options for making something happen; the result of the play is a turnover. (And a pretty funny one, at that.)
As Jennings drives to left into the paint after taking a right-wing screen from Monroe, he's got three pretty viable shooting options in front of him — Meeks in the left corner, Jerebko on the left wing and Butler at the top of the key. The Kings don't necessarily play them all straight up — Gay, in particular, has sunk below the free-throw line to help on the drive — but Jennings has more room to move and, with Monroe fanned out along the right block, only on-ball defender Darren Collison to beat to get a layup. He's able to use his quickness to turn the corner on Collison, put up a scoop shot with his strong left hand, and get a bucket plus the foul.
• Bombs away, and get a move on. The difference in spacing, floor balance and outcome help point toward the massive chasm between the Pistons' offensive effectiveness prior to Smith's ouster and the avalanche of buckets that have come since.
Before waiving Smith, the Pistons averaged 97.6 points per 100 possessions, attempted 23 3-pointers per game, and connected on 33 percent of them. Over the last seven games, they've roasted opposing defenses to the tune of 111.5 points-per-100, thanks in large part to jacking up nearly five more 3-pointers per game and cashing in on a scorching 40.7 percent of them. The Pistons have generated more than 31 percent of their total points from beyond the arc during this run, the fourth-highest score in the NBA during that stretch — as he did with the Magic, Van Gundy's emphasizing the long ball with personnel who can handle that job, and it's paying major dividends.
Detroit's effective field-goal and True Shooting percentages have gone through the roof. The Pistons' distribution of shots, and the success rate on them, is some real night-and-day stuff when you check 'em out side-by-side:
Meeks has been every ounce the rocket launcher Van Gundy hoped for in free agency, averaging 16.1 points per game on 58.8 percent shooting from deep during the streak.
"I don't think [Smith's absence] is the reason" for the offensive explosion, Meeks recently told Pistons.com's Keith Langlois. "It's a lot of things. Maybe roles were expanded, maybe we just finally clicked. This is how the offense is supposed to be run."
The ever-mercurial Jennings has been a big part of the solution, too, turning in arguably the hottest five-game stretch of his career before tapering off in the wins over San Antonio and Dallas ... where his slack was very capably picked up by Augustin, who popped for 45 points in 44 minutes during the Texas trip, headlined by a blistering fourth quarter against Dallas in which he repeatedly burned the Mavs in the pick-and-roll, scoring 17 points on 6-for-8 shooting in the stanza.
“I have just been trying to be aggressive these last few games," Augustin said after the win. "I’ve been attacking and looking for my own shot. Things just opened up for me tonight.”
And with defenses having to pay more attention to the Pistons' resurgent shooters, and Detroit's point guards pressing the action off screens, that's created more room and opportunity for Drummond to play like the pick-and-roll-finishing, board-crashing monster he looked like last season:
... and for Monroe to flash the interior scoring and passing skills that had all too often been restricted by previous attempts to force him to play power forward next to Drummond and Smith in that giant lineup:
Things have opened up for the entire team, really. With Van Gundy splitting up Drummond and Monroe, ramping up the minutes for Jerebko and Tolliver, and judiciously deploying a slew of capable-enough-to-very-good deep shooters — Meeks, Augustin, Butler, Jennings, Kyle Singler and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope — on the wing and in the backcourt, he's made the Pistons about as close as he can at this stage to the sort of team with which he won in Orlando, as Jonathan Tjarks writes at RealGM:
What is happening in Detroit is a lot bigger than Josh Smith. This is the triumph of four-out basketball in action, a team being radically transformed from one of the worst teams in the NBA to one of the best merely by doing a better job of spacing the floor. By releasing Smith and making a few tweaks to their rotation, the Pistons went from 1-2 three-point shooters to 3-4 three-point shooters on the floor for most of the game. When guys are allowed to play in space, the game becomes really easy. [...]
All that success on offense, in turn, is having a tremendous impact on the defensive side of the ball.
“We have gotten better on both ends of the floor,” Stan Van Gundy said. “Everybody we put in contributes. When the ball goes in, it helps. It gets your energy up and you defend a lot better.”
The numbers seem to back up Van Gundy's position. Before Smith's exit, the Pistons were allowing 105.8 points per 100 possession, which ranked 24th out of 30 NBA teams. Over the last seven games, they've put the clamps on, allowing just 94.3 points-per-100, significantly stingier than the Golden State Warriors' league-best defensive efficiency rating thus far this season. They're holding opponents to just 42.8 percent shooting from the floor and 30.5 percent from beyond the arc, showing more activity in getting out to shooters and in getting their hands in passing lanes.
That increased energy is translating into turnover creation — Detroit's forcing cough-ups on 16.4 percent of its opponents' possessions over the last seven games, up from 14.2 percent over the first 28. That, in turn, has fed the Pistons' transition game, as Detroit has racked up 18.4 fast-break points per game during their streak, up from 11.9 per contest before getting rid of Smith.
Detroit's not playing at Warriors-like warp speed or anything, averaging a middle-of-the-NBA 97.61 possessions per 48 minutes, but that's an increase of two possessions per game over where they were before, and if those two possessions are runout layups, that can make a big difference on a nightly basis. Plus, as SB Nation's Mike Prada notes, the increased pace isn't just about fast-breaking; it's about getting into the frontcourt faster, forcing the defense to backtrack in transition, getting into your sets quicker and having more time to take advantage of the acres of space you've got in front of you now. Detroit's sure been doing that lately.
Whether they'll be able to continue to do so, of course, remains to be seen. The next three weeks ought to go a long way toward helping us find out, as Detroit faces a pair of meetings apiece with the East-leading Hawks and the third-seeded Toronto Raptors in addition to matchups with the recently reloaded Cleveland Cavaliers (who figure to have LeBron James back in the fold), Anthony Davis' New Orleans Pelicans, and a pair of surprisingly tough outs in the Indiana Pacers and Milwaukee Bucks before closing out January by welcoming their ol' buddy Josh back to town when they take on the Houston Rockets.
It's likely, as Seth Partnow of Nylon Calculus writes, that the Pistons' scintillating shooting will come back to Earth, and that even with Drummond plugging the middle and Van Gundy's schemes in full effect, Detroit won't be able to keep shutting down the opposition like they're the league's best defense. Some of this stuff, though — the spacing, the rotations and, perhaps most importantly, the attitude — seems like it could be sustainable.
"One of the things I really liked [in the win over the Mavericks] is we finished with almost an entirely different group than we finished with last night [against the Spurs]," Van Gundy said Wednesday. "At one point, with 4:40 to go, I turned to my assistants on the bench, I said, ‘Do we want any subs?’ And I had Brandon and Andre standing up going, ‘Hell no!’ You know, this group is rocking. So that’s what we’ve got right now, attitude-wise. It’s different people every night and nobody seems very concerned about it. They just want to try and win games.”
Whether you chalk that up to removing Smith from the locker room, the structural difference that his absence has made on the court or just a streak of unsustainably hot shooting, the Pistons are doing just that these days, transforming from a team nobody wanted to watch into a team nobody wants to play. What a difference a few weeks, and a few tweaks, can make.
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