Detroit Pistons Mid-Season Report: 9 Things I Like and Don’t Like So Far Non-Rookies Edition

We’ve now reached the midpoint of the NBA season, with your Detroit Pistons sitting pretty (or not depending on your perspective) at 10-26 and the worst record in the Eastern Conference. In fact, only the Minnesota Timberwolves, with a 7-29 mark, have a worse record in the NBA.

The tank is well and truly rolling on nicely, and with news that Blake Griffin has accepted a buyout, forfeiting $13.3 million to leave the franchise, the Pistons are all but set to continue this trajectory of handing minutes to youngsters and living with the results.

With all that said, here are 10 things I like and dislike about the Detroit Pistons, an article idea definitely not ripped from Zach Lowe, no sir.

Like: Point Plumlee

A much maligned free-agent signing for $25 million, no player has turned perception around more this season than Mason Plumlee. Averaging a career-high 3.8 assists (over a full season), the Pistons have used Plumlee from the high post as a passing threat surrounded by cutters.

Plumlee usually gets the ball around the elbow. The Pistons then usually enter ad-lib mode where a flurry of dribble handoffs and backdoor cuts ensue. Some of the Pistons best offense is when they let Plumlee hold the ball and read defenses.

Here’s a classic example of the gravity of Plumlee as a playmaker. He gets the ball near the 3-point line. Because of the propensity to run handoffs, Aron Baynes is right up on Plumlee, leaving the middle vacant. Also, with the lineup consisting of Svi, Bey, Ellington and DSJ, defenders are forced to stay connected because of the threat of the 3-point shot. Saddiq recognises this, faking the handoff and cutting backdoor. Plumlee’s pass is timed perfectly and Saddiq gets a wide-open dunk.

Another way the Pistons use Plumlee is in handoff situations. Plumlee excels at the art of handing off and screening simultaneously without drawing an offensive foul. Here, he runs a handoff with Josh Jackson. Because Jackson is a supreme athlete and excellent at getting downhill, all Plumlee needs to do is slightly hinder Ingram. Plumlee does enough to divert Ingram’s path to get Jackson running at a retreating Steven Adams for an easy bucket.

The last point I want to make on Plumlee is how tight his handle is for a big man. Here, he harasses DeAndre Jordan and forces a turnover. He’s then able to lead the fast break and remain poised enough to find the drop off to Jerami Grant for the easy dunk.

Plumlee is fourth among centers with 3.8 assists per game behind Nikola Jokic, Bam Adebayo and Karl-Anthony Towns. In fact, of the seven centers averaging more than 3 assists a game this season, all others are current or former All-Stars (Jokic, Towns, Adebayo, Vucevic, Embiid and Horford). In the past 10 games, Plumlee is averaging 5.4 assists per game,against only 2.1 turnovers. While Delon Wright has been out, Plumlee has been the defacto playmaker with better than expected results on the court.

Dislike: Assist Percentages Minus Point Plumlee

This gripe is more a product of the lineups rather than actual player skill, but according to NBA.com’s on/off splits, there is a stark contrast in how the ball and offense moves when Mason Plumlee is on the court compared to off.

When Plumlee is on the floor, the team’s assisted field goal percentage is 66.7%, the highest mark on the team among rotation players. When Plumlee is off court, that number plummets to 58%, the lowest on the team.

Let’s compare that with Isaiah Stewart, his primary backup. When Stewart is on court, the assisted field-goal percentage is 57.6%. The only player with a lower mark in the rotation was Derrick Rose, known for scoring rather than playmaking. When Stewart is off court, that percentage jumps up to a team high 65.7%.

Centres Assisted FGM%

Centres Assisted FGM% On Court Off Court
Centres Assisted FGM% On Court Off Court
Mason Plumlee 66.7% 58.0%
Isaiah Stewart 57.6% 65.7%

This is mainly a product of the lineups and usage. While it’s obvious that Stewart doesn’t have the playmaking polish of someone like Plumlee, he is also often used in lineups with ball-dominant guards like Derrick Rose, Josh Jackson and Dennis Smith Jr. Meanwhile, Plumlee often shares the floor with a more deferential guard like Killian Hayes or Delon Wright.

The playstyle of the bench unit is focused more around isolations, letting guys like Derrick Rose (previously) and Josh Jackson create off the dribble, with less of a focus on sets and handoffs. Just take a look at the usage rates of all the guards to play significant minutes for Detroit this season:

Guards Usage Rate

Player Usage Rate
Player Usage Rate
Derrick Rose 28.1%
Josh Jackson 25.4%
Dennis Smith Jr 20.7%
Killian Hayes 18.5%
Delon Wright 15.7%

The two highest are a pair of guys who largely played off the bench in Rose and Jackson. Meanwhile, you look at the man who has started the majority of the season at point guard in Delon Wright, and his usage rate actually ranks second lowest on the team, with only Isaiah Stewart finishing possessions less.

It’s no secret there’s a real contrast in play styles between the starters and the bench. The starters play a controlled, halfcourt tempo offense relying on cutting and dribble handoffs. When the bench comes in, it’s all about high tempo, running in transition and creating off the dribble.

Like: Jerami Grant Attacking the Basket

Jerami Grant was brought to the Pistons on a $60 million contract with the chance to showcase himself in a featured offensive role. It’s safe to say that the early dividends have been positive. Over 23 points per game, 5.3 rebounds and nearly 3 assists, plus 1.9 “stocks” per game on shooting splits of .433/.363/.889, he’s definitely lived up to the contract.

While his entire game has shone, I want to highlight specifically how good he’s been getting to the rim.

Here, Grant showcases his pure length and athleticism. He doesn’t have the benefit of a screen or handoff, and is being worn by a pretty good defender and known supreme athlete in Zach LaVine. Grant sizes him up before using a quick first step to gain leverage on LaVine. From there, he’s able to shield LaVine away before contorting for a tough finish, putting all his length on display.

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, yes, I’m featuring Grant’s 43 point explosion.

In this clip, Grant is being guarded by Patrick Williams, who apparently Troy Weaver tried to trade up for in the draft. Williams cuts Grant off, so Grant passes out and resets. On take two, he gets enough assistance from Plumlee to trap Williams before finishing through a lot of uncalled contact.

I wanted to feature this clip for two reasons. It has Killian Hayes in it, and it’s a poster dunk.

With Grant in a featured role, his shots have gone up, but his 3P% is actually a very respectable 36%, meaning defenders have to close out on him and respect the shot. Here, Grant Williams closes out, so Jerami takes advantage of his status with a fake to get rid of Williams. From there it’s a case of finishing strong, and that he certainly does.

Then there is the handoff game. A lot of the Pistons offense runs through Mason Plumlee (see above), and one way they exploit Jerami’s athleticism is through middle handoffs. This gets Jerami turning the corner driving with a man on his hip. If the defender goes under the screen, Grant can get a good shot off, but more often than not the man chases over, leading to multiple driving opportunities.

I also wanted to take this opportunity before I move on to come clean. I had planned to talk about the whistle Jerami gets as my next “dislike” but wanted to check some stats before committing to it.

There are 50 players in the NBA who average at least 15 field goals attempted per game (Jerami is at 17.8). Jerami ranks 12th in Free Throw Rate (number of free throw attempts per field goal attempt) at .353. Also, according to Basketball Reference, only 22.7% of his FGA actually come at the rim (0-3 feet), which is a career low. So while the eye test may give the impression of a poor whistle, relatively speaking, Jerami gets to the line a fair bit, tied for 14th in the league with 6.3 attempts per game, along with Kawhi Leonard, and actually ahead of LeBron James.

So sorry to dispel that narrative, despite what my tweets may say. Anyway, moving on.

Dislike: Everything About Sekou’s Role

Caution, I am a known lover of all things Sekou.

We knew Sekou Doumbouya was a project. Coming into his second season, the hope was he’d be able to build on the flashes he showed last season, especially when he started late in the season in some big performances, including a dominant showing at Boston.

At least based on the eye test, Sekou seems to have the shortest leash of anyone in the regular rotation. Take the last game before the All-Star break. Saddiq Bey, who has been brilliant all season, struggled all game. Conversely, it was one game Sekou had some momentum, and had even buried two threes (shooting 25% on the season).

Bey ended the game shooting 4-of-12, including 2-of-8 from three, and was routinely torched by All-Star Julius Randle and RJ Barrett on defense. He played over 35 minutes.

Sekou, in comparison, shot 4-lf-7, including 2-of-3 from three, and showed slightly more resistance on defense. He played 15 minutes.

I’m not saying Sekou needs to play 25 minutes a night or at the expense of Saddiq Bey. My point is there appears to be a minimal role for Sekou regardless of performance. Casey, at least right now, doesn’t appear to trust him in closing time, and is routinely the last sub in and the first sub out in the main rotation.

A lot of Sekou’s role on offense is, to put it politely, being a traffic cone. Most of the offensive sets involve him standing in the corner or occasionally setting a (too often ineffective) screen. The only offense Sekou gets is self generated, and he has shown a remarkable propensity to make good cuts and provide options to teammates in the lane.

Sekou is shooting 55.9% in the restricted area this season. All other shots, he is shooting an absolutely woeful 20.7%. It baffles me why he’s standing in the corner most plays. He’s also shooting 23.3% on all jump shots. It appears to be a touch problem more than a form problem, but he has shown he can do damage by cutting, the problem is with the way the offense is constructed, no one looks for him.

I do think the team needs to involve him more often, especially early offense in transition. Sekou is 6-foot-8 and 230 pounds, he’s a big, athletic forward, so when he has his man pinned in jail on a fast break, you feed him the ball. He gets fouled more often than not, or he has a smaller man on his back and he can go up. Thus far, the only two players I’ve seen make a concerted effort to involve Sekou in these scenarios are Josh Jackson and Mason Plumlee.

Lets take a look at the numbers with that three-man lineup (Sekou, Josh and Mason):

Jackson-Doumbouya-Plumlee

3 Man Lineup MIN ORtg DRtg Net Rating Ast/TO TS% Pace
3 Man Lineup MIN ORtg DRtg Net Rating Ast/TO TS% Pace
J. Jackson-Doumbouya-Plumlee 47 102.0 101.0 1.1 1.78 57.90% 103.41

Not only does this three-man unit actually have a positive net rating, but they play with a fast pace. The pace statistic measures on average how many possessions a team or lineup uses per game. In an extrapolated 48 minutes, this three-man unit would generate 103 offensive possessions. For reference, the Pistons as a team have an average pace of just over 98.

Playing at a higher pace generally means you turn it over more, and while the assist to turnover ratio isn’t great here, it isn’t terrible. It can also be mitigated with a controlling guard like Delon Wright, instead of say Hayes or Smith Jr.

Going forward I’d like to see Sekou play more with Josh and Mason, as they allow him to run in transition and look for him when the matchup suits, rather than ignoring him in the corner.

Like: Josh Jackson Transition

Josh Jackson is the quintessential “reclamation project.” Signed on a two-year deal for $9 million, it was deemed a low-risk, high-reward proposition for the Pistons. Hometown kid with doubtless talent and a former lottery pick, if it worked out, great, he’s cheap and productive. If it didn’t, well, it’s a deal you can rid yourself of pretty easily.

I think it’s fair to say it’s worked out. Jackson does many things well, but in particular I want to highlight how well he plays in transition.

This is a case of eye test vs. actual numbers. Jackson is in the 22nd percentile among all NBA players for transition points per play (PPP) at 0.96. To me, that isn’t reflective of his ability in transition. For example, Wayne Ellington is 1.86 PPP, the 99th percentile, but far lower frequency.

Josh Jackson In Transition

Transition Games Played Poss/G Frequency PPP FG% eFG% FT Freq% TOV Freq% And 1 Freq% Score Freq%
Transition Games Played Poss/G Frequency PPP FG% eFG% FT Freq% TOV Freq% And 1 Freq% Score Freq%
Josh Jackson 32 3.5 22.90% 0.96 50.70% 55.30% 18.90% 19.80% 6.30% 45.90%

Yes, the numbers are fairly pedestrian here, what hurts Jackson is turnovers. However, it’s one of those things that you accept because it pushes the pace and gets the team running. For comparison, Josh Jackson scores 0.79 PPP in isolation situations according to Synergy, and 0.77 PPP as the pick and roll ball handler.

Take a look at this run out from Jackson. He gets the rebound and is the last man up the court but recognises the Warriors defense isn’t properly matched up. A nice high-step dribble to get past his man and he’s through the paint, drawing the and one from Wiseman.

Another example of Jackson pushing off a miss. This time he gets ahead of the pack and only has a retreating Kyle Anderson as resistance. With his long arms and athleticism, he’s able to stretch out over Anderson, drawing another and one opportunity in the process.

Dislike: Return Value in Trades

Troy Weaver has been magnificent in his first season as GM of the Pistons. He has been aggressive and followed his strategy. His first draft haul has already looked like a major hit, while his free agency class is already looking underpaid.

However, there’s still fair criticism, and that has to be the value he has gained in trades.

Take a look at Bruce Brown as the critical example. He was effectively given away to Brooklyn for free. The man he was traded for, Dzanan Musa, is no longer in the league, currently playing in the EuroLeague for Anadolu Efes in Turkey.

The thing that confuses me with the Bruce trade, at least compared to trading away Luke Kennard, is the relative difference in expected salaries and contributions. Luke Kennard was due a rookie extension after this season, and given his concerns with his knees, the Pistons clearly felt that he wasn’t on the timeline.

Bruce Brown is the same age, but on a much cheaper contract now and likey going forward (with a minimal cap hold, to boot). He provides NBA level defense at multiple positions, something few players do. He was also learning how to be a point guard on the fly, and doing a fairly decent job. To get rid of him for minimal cap relief and a guy you’re going to cut seems iffy.

Then you look at the Luke Kennard trade. I don’t know what the discussions were, maybe the Clippers weren’t totally convinced, and maybe Troy Weaver just really wanted him gone, but four second round picks shocked me when I heard it and I still haven’t truly recovered.

The argument against that is “oh second round picks can be bought.” Yes, that’s true, but it happens far less frequently than you think, and owners aren’t exactly rushing to spend their own money for a guy who, statistically speaking, probably won’t be much more than a fringe NBA guy at best.

The last trade was Derrick Rose to the Knicks. When the rumours bubbled up that the Knicks and Pistons were close to a deal for Rose, the trade machines began whirring. New York have several first-round picks to offer, plus a host of young guards. Therefore, the eventual deal being Dennis Smith Jr and a second rounder was a little underwhelming.

The early returns on DSJ have been promising. For a guy who had pretty much been frozen out in NY, it was always going to take him some time to acclimate. And while his shot selection is a little frustrating, he’s provided solid point guard play. The real disappointment is the second round pick.

Derrick Rose was being spoken about as a contending option last year, worth a late first rounder. The Knicks own a Mavericks first rounder from the Porzingis trade. Everyone thought that would be on the table.

Troy Weaver has done a great job as a GM so far, and is even being spoken about as a candidate for Executive of the Year. One thing he has to improve on, in my opinion, is getting dollars for dollars in the trade market.

Like: Delon Wright Rejecting the Screen

This was something I first noticed on Twitter, and I can’t explain why it’s such a thing, but Delon Wright turns into Chris Paul when he rejects the screen. His first step and crossover dribble is quick enough that he can fool a defender into jumping the screen, only for Wright to then dart to the rim, either to score or create for others.

Here Wright takes a pass from Plumlee and waits for the big man to trundle over to set the screen. Wright waits until the defender is preoccupied with the looming screen before quickly making his move back the other way. By that time, the defender has already begun chasing over the screen for a man that isn’t there, and Wright converts at the rim.

In this clip, Delon quickly crosses over away from Isaiah Stewart’s screen. Malcolm Lee is wrong footed enough and Stewart, for extra insurance, is smart enough to re-screen Lee to give Wright extra space. Wright then explores the baseline, collapsing the defense before finding Blake in the corner for the three.

It’s a weird, unexplainable phenomenon why Delon is so good when rejecting the screen, but if he could do more of it that’d be grand.

Dislike: The Stretch Provision

A quick and nasty one here. The stretch provision is a horrible way at the best of times to save money. It should never be used when the money you’re stretching is only a few million to begin with.

During the course of the offseason, the Pistons applied the stretch provision to Zhaire Smith and Dewayne Dedmon and waived Dzanan Musa, the player acquired for Bruce Brown. Note; Dedmond’s cap hit also applies to 2023-24 and 2024-25.

Pistons Stretch Provision

Player Position 2020/21 2021/22 2022/23
Player Position 2020/21 2021/22 2022/23
Zhaire Smith G/F $ 1,068,200.00 $ 1,068,200.00 $ 1,068,200.00
Dewayne Dedmon C $ 2,866,666.60 $ 2,866,666.60 $ 2,866,666.60
Dzanan Musa F $ 2,002,800.00

When the stretch was announced, Pistons fans immediately descended into a pit of collective despair, as memories of paying Josh Smith to go away were resurfaced.

Granted, the difference here is while the cap hits are relevant to the team, they likely won’t be in a position of contention anyway, so the dead money isn’t as obstructive.

The point is, however, having dead money sitting on your cap sheet for years when a few million here or there is the difference between being a competitive free agent destination and relying on exceptions, is poor financial management.

Like: Dwane Casey

Despite my frustrations with the handling of Sekou, Dwane Casey has done an exceptional job with how he’s handled this young squad this season. He made it clear at the start of the season that youngsters would have to earn their minutes, and that has been paid in full.

Saddiq Bey is now the clear future at small forward, Isaiah Stewart has made the backup center his own after seemingly having to fight Jahlil Okafor for it, and even Sekou Doumbouya is slowly working his way into the rotation. Saben Lee may have been a surprise minute-getter with injuries, but his readiness to perform speaks to good coaching.

Dwane Casey, for all his tactical faults, is known as a players coach, and good with young players. He is the right man for this rebuild. He has showcased his stud free agent signing, put the ball in the hands of his creative center, ran plays to focus on his array of shooters, and above all, has this team playing their collective asses off every night.

Effort cannot be quantified, and right now, this team is playing like a group that loves their coach. Projections listing him among the favourites to be fired next are just lazy aggregators looking at team records. Dwane Casey is doing exactly what is being asked of him this season. Play the young guys, be competitive and display effort, take your lumps, and restore pride and energy in the franchise after years mired in no mans land.

Good job Dwane, keep it up, ignore my tweets.

Bonus Like: #PistonsTwitter

This season has been one of the most fun in recent memory, which belies the fact the Pistons are currently the second worst team in the NBA.

The fact that the team has no expectations, deluded or otherwise, for the first time in five or six years, has made watching the games an enjoyable experience. Cheering for young guys to play well but still lose has been remarkably, and surprisingly, refreshing. In fact, the fun we’re having #online has even caught the attention of other factions of Detroit sports Twitter.

Let’s keep having fun, Pistons Nation, and remember, #FadeForCade.

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