Nylon Calculus: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope constrained by Pistons’ roster

Dec 23, 2016; Auburn Hills, MI, USA; Detroit Pistons guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (5) celebrates after making a three point basket during the first quarter against the Golden State Warriors at The Palace of Auburn Hills. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 23, 2016; Auburn Hills, MI, USA; Detroit Pistons guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (5) celebrates after making a three point basket during the first quarter against the Golden State Warriors at The Palace of Auburn Hills. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports /

After clinching a playoff berth in Stan Van Gundy’s second season with the organization, the Detroit Pistons’ recovery looked to be headed in the right direction. But Detroit’s turnaround has come screeching to a halt this season, as the Pistons currently own a negative point differential as the team clings to the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference.

Questions have been raised about the cohesiveness of Detroit’s roster, and the on-off numbers since Reggie Jackson has returned haven’t been pretty. In spite of a suboptimal environment, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is producing a career-best season. However, Caldwell-Pope remains a forgotten option offensively, ranking fifth in usage percentage and sixth in field goal attempts per 100 possessions among rotational players on the Pistons. To understand Detroit’s limited reliance on Caldwell-Pope, let’s dive into the Pistons’ roster construction.

Caldwell-Pope’s backcourt mate has had an alarming effect on his effectiveness this season. Because of Jackson’s injury earlier in the season, Caldwell-Pope has played alongside two Pistons’ points guards quite a bit. In these minutes, Caldwell-Pope’s production alongside Ish Smith has been far superior than has been the case in his time alongside Jackson.

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The first reason for the change in Caldwell-Pope’s output is the contrasting offensive mindsets between Jackson and Smith. Jackson’s usage percentage currently sits at 26.7 percent on 23.6 field goal attempts per 100 possessions, while Smith posted a 19.6 percent usage and attempted 18.4 shots per 100 possessions before Jackson returned. Still, Jackson’s score-first mentality is just one layer in this complex investigation.

Another reason that Caldwell-Pope benefits from his time alongside Smith deals with passing. Now, it’s not that Smith is necessarily a better passer than Jackson, as the two are averaging nearly the same amount of potential assists per 36 minutes this season. Instead, the difference is more so about which Detroit players end up receiving their respective passes.

When adjusting for the minutes played with their Pistons teammates and focusing on their concentration of passes and assists to the other five main rotational players, an inescapable trend appears. The pie charts below describe a situation where a smaller number of Jackson’s passes land in the hands of Caldwell-Pope, leading to a large difference in the point guards’ assist compositions.

Using the word “ignoring” to describe Jackson’s treatment of Caldwell-Pope may be a bit strong, but it’s clear that Caldwell-Pope benefits from Smith’s presence alongside him. Ultimately, given the difference in offensive mindset and assist composition, Caldwell-Pope’s usage sits at 15.8 percent with Jackson on the court and 21.8 percent with Smith on the court. And because 5.7 percent more of Caldwell-Pope’s field goals are assisted with Smith on the court, it’s not surprising that his scoring (up 9.0 points per 100 possession) and efficiency (up 2.7 percent in true shooting) jumps significantly with Smith alongside him.

Although it is apparent that Caldwell-Pope’s backcourt mate matters, his production is hampered by other players on Detroit’s roster. There are only three teams in the NBA (Toronto Raptors, Houston Rockets, Washington Wizards) that have more players in the top 50 of field goal attempts per touch. For the Pistons, Andre Drummond, Marcus Morris and Tobias Harris all find themselves on this list.

Of course, Drummond’s No. 6 ranking is understandable. At the center position, most of his touches are in prime scoring range near the basket, so it makes sense that he is high on this list. Although this is true, it remains clear that Drummond is being featured too often on the offensive end of the floor for a player with a limited skillset. Currently, the Pistons waste 4.4 possessions per game on post-ups for Drummond, resulting in .72 points per possession (13th percentile). Overall, his efficiency is among the worst in the league for a center, yet his usage (24.8 percent) is well above average at his position.

Given Drummond’s usage, there’s no surprise the effect he has on Caldwell-Pope when both are present on the floor. When Drummond is on the court, Caldwell-Pope is averaging 19.5 points per 100 posessions on a measly 17.8 percent usage. But take Drummond off of the court, and Caldwell-Pope’s scoring balloons to 27.7 points per 100 possessions, along with an equally significant rise in usage to 23.5 percent.

It’s not necessarily a cause for concern to have several players in the top 50 of field goal attempts per frountcourt touch, but it certainly can provide some context on a team’s offensive makeup. Two teams with a higher concentration of players in the top 50, the Wizards and Rockets, both feature elite playmakers. Because Wall and Harden set up others frequently, their teammates regularly catch the ball in optimal scoring positions.

But Jackson isn’t close to that type of facilitator, and he seems less willing to make plays for others at this point in his career. And with Jackson and several other Detroit teammates looking for their own shot, the Pistons pass on a lousy 27.0 percent of their drives as a team.

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In the end, Detroit’s questionable allocation of offensive usage has impeded Caldwell-Pope’s ability to show off his ability. Now, in order to realize his untapped potential, the Pistons must consider freeing Caldwell-Pope from the less promising pieces around him.

Sources: NBA.com/Stats, Basketball-Reference, nbawowy.com