ESPN's Zach Lowe Puts the Pistons' Flaws Under the Microscope

The Detroit Pistons are having a ho-hum year.  There was a fair amount of buzz surrounding the 'Stones before the season, but a rather uneventful first 56 games of the campaign has discarded them from almost any national hoops conversation.  On Wednesday, one of ESPN’s finest writers, Zach Lowe, put the Pistons under a microscope.  And the results are not all that pretty.

Reggie Jackson

Lowe goes into detail on the Pistons' lack of chemistry, specifically the tension between Reggie Jackson and his teammates.  Also written about at length are Andre Drummond’s ongoing struggles at the defensive end and whether, in his fifth year, there is still a realistic expectation from the organization that his game will ascend much higher.

Following are some of the juiciest passages from the article.
(Full article can be read here)

On Drummond’s struggles in trying to master Stan Van Gundy’s preference for aggressive defense against the pick-and-roll:

  • "There’s a tug of war going on between us,” Van Gundy said.

On Reggie Jackson and his balky knee, which has forced Kentavious Caldwell-Pope into defending smaller, faster point guards on a nightly basis:

  • The fact that Caldwell-Pope was guarding Lowry at all is a sore spot. Caldwell-Pope chases opposing point guards because Reggie Jackson, alleged franchise player at that spot, hasn't been able to since recovering from a knee injury. The Pistons usually hide Jackson on the least-threatening wing player, a reprieve that draws shade from teammates -- including during an infamous players-only meeting in December, when a few guys hammered Jackson for his desultory play.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope

On the surprisingly strong play of Ish Smith, and the debate as to whether the Pistons were a better team when Jackson was on the injured list:

  • Detroit has played better, and with peppier spirit, when Ish Smith replaces Jackson. They run more, and fast-breaking helps the Pistons sidestep their crippling lack of 3-point shooting; opponents can't clog the paint if they don't have time to set up. Detroit ranks an ugly 24th in points per possession after opponent makes, but scores at a top-10 rate when they snatch a defensive rebound and flip ends.  

    “We found a groove with Ish,” Drummond said.  “And when Reggie came back, it has been a big adjustment.

    “Reggie came back,” Van Gundy added.  “And we’ve struggled ever since.

On the possibility of a major shake-up at the February 23rd deadline:

  • Detroit has quietly explored the trade market for each of its franchise centerpieces (Drummond, Jackson), according to sources across the league, and come away disappointed with the potential return. (Van Gundy himself has said anyone is available for "the right price.”)

On Jackson’s struggles since returning from injury, his preferred method of offense, and occasionally turbulent relationship with teammates:

  • “Distress signals blared: Jackson pulled up for more midrange jumpers, and produced fewer drives, free throws, and shots at the rim. He's shooting a ghastly 49.5 percent in the restricted area.  His lifeless play produced a well-documented outcry for more ball movement in a December closed-door meeting.  The drama sapped Jackson’s spirit.  He no longer understood his place on the team.  Uncertainty still gnaws.

    “It’s hard,” he said.  “Stan told me it would be all pick-and-roll.  We had success that way.  Now, we didn’t know what we were.  Are we a pick-and-roll team?  Are we a movement team?  We didn’t have an identity.

    Jackson’s personality has never absorbed easily into a team environment.  He’s both quiet and intensely self-confident.  “In an ideal world, if I could run pick-and-roll on every play and it would lead to a championship, that’s what I want,” Jackson said.

    Teammates and coaches in Oklahoma City rolled their eyes at Jackson’s habit of writing “SPG and “HOF  --  for “starting point guard” and “Hall of Fame”  --  on his shoes while serving as Russell Westbrook’s backup.   

On the lack of multiple playmakers within Detroit’s offense:

  • Detroit hasn't collected a lot of intuitive playmakers -- guys who drive-and-kick instantly upon catching the ball, or think one step ahead of defenses. Caldwell-Pope has two speeds -- sprint and stop -- and usually makes only the most obvious pass upon encountering resistance. He doesn't prod defenses. Harris and Morris can pass, but they are most comfortable stopping the ball, surveying the scene, and shoulder-shaking into long 2s.
Stan Van Gundy (file photo)

On the Pistonsstagnant offense, and Drummonds idea of what will work (with a veiled shot at the coaching staff):

  • Van Gundy doesn't trust the team to improvise, either. He calls a set play after every opponent basket, and nixed a brief experiment allowing Jackson to direct the offense. (Some players have a hard time hearing Jackson when his mouthpiece is in.) "We are not a team that just comes up and plays in a flow," Van Gundy said.

    Detroit's offense feels aimless, without a defining tentpole. "Good things still happen when we run the pick-and-roll," Drummond said. "But I can't control what plays we run.
                  Andre Drummond

On the (at times) icy relationship between Van Gundy and Drummond, and Drummonds continued shortcomings on the defensive end:

  • They have their tense moments. Both are close with Tom Gores, the Pistons' owner, and each freely admits they talk with Gores about the other in terms that might not always be the most flattering.

    "Whatever we talk about with the owner is between us," Drummond said. "But Stan and I leave nothing unspoken.

    "I think we like each other personally," Van Gundy said. "Like most young bigs, he needs to be pushed really hard. Sometimes, he's more willing to hear hard coaching than others.

    Van Gundy pushes Drummond hardest on defense, and the progress there just hasn't come. Drummond sags back in his comfort zone, but he's not the imposing deterrent he should be.  Hell leap to block shots that never come, and doesnt always work his way back into the action.

On Drummonds work ethic and pick-and-roll defense:

  • On too many nights, Drummond flat doesn't try hard enough. When Drummond parks himself in the paint, point guards just drive right at and around him. That's a trend to watch: Point guards have gotten so good attacking conservative defenses that the sit-back scheme might not work anymore unless you have an All-Defense-level guy like Rudy Gobert on the back line.

    That's why Van Gundy is urging Drummond to scamper up higher. Jackson recommended the same look. "We have to be more aggressive," Jackson said. "When you see centers drop back, as a point guard, it's like a drill with a cone.

On the Pistonsglass-is-half-empty future:

  • The bigger-picture downside is severe: an average team with limited upside, and trade chips that won't yield enough for Detroit to change directions without tanking.

Or if the glass is half-full:

  • Theyve perked up lately, and have the easiest remaining schedule in the East.  Drummond is only 23.  Jackson gets healthier every day, and the team is projecting unity around him.  Reggie is my best friend,Drummond said.  Ill always have his back.  We are going to figure this out.

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