NBA Season Preview 2017-18: Can the Pistons revive their offense?


Stan Van Gundy’s teams were known to win with a barrage of 3s, from Miami to Orlando to Detroit. In 2016, the Pistons made the playoffs in part because of placing fifth in free throw rate and 10th in 3-point rate, but last season was a turn for the worst. The Pistons became only the 11th team to finish 27th or worse in both 3-point rate and free throw rate, two of the most efficient ways to score in basketball.

The Pistons instead won games by owning the possession battle, averaging 4.8 more scoring opportunities per 100 possessions than their opponents, most in the league. Scoring opportunities are shooting possessions from the field and trips to the free throw line, plus extra free throws from fouls like technicals, but it is largely a measurement of how well teams take care of the ball. Teams can only extend possessions with offensive rebounds while they can only shorten opposing ones by either limiting those with defensive rebounding, or by forcing turnovers.

Detroit was 12th in offensive rebounding rate last season, an average, reasonable mark, but where they excelled in the possession battle was by becoming only the eleventh team to finish second or better in defensive rebounding and turnover rate, respectively. When comparing those marks to league averages, Detroit was the seventh-best defensive rebounding team and placed 38th in turnover rate since 1974.

Some of that comes from the contributions from Andre Drummond, who enters his age-24 season with still room to grow despite leading the league in both offensive and defensive rebounding rate. The Pistons also traded for Avery Bradley, who can supply shooting, on-ball defense, but was also seventh in defensive rebound rate among guards. Bradley actually rebounded better without Al Horford on the floor for Boston, grabbing 17.3 percent of available defensive rebounds compared to 15.1 when Horford, notorious for below-average rebounding as a big, was on the floor, per NBAWowy. Boban Marjanovic, a backup center for Detroit with similar rebounding numbers, should also see more minutes after the departure of Aron Baynes.

Bradley, along with several returning Pistons, have also taken care of the ball very well, but a problem with excellent ball control is it can be symptom of inefficient offense. Mid-range shots are low risk shots defenses will happily concede as opposed to 3-pointers or layups. Mid-range shots are also low reward, and the Pistons led the league with 33 percent of their field goal attempts coming from 3-to-16 feet.

Some of those shots were from post-ups, where Andre Drummond used up 27.5 percent of his shots, via Synergy data, but finished 10th-worst in points per play, minimum 50 plays. Post-ups generally come with added benefit of an unusual passing angle to cutters or spot-up shooters on the weak side, but Drummond’s only averaged about one assist per 36 minutes throughout his career. It is also very easily to make him earn points at the line, shooting under 40 percent on free throws for most of his career.

A healthy Reggie Jackson will return, a player mentioned late relative to his value, but he most importantly provides a threat off the dribble that a newcomer like Bradley and a prospect like Stanley Johnson haven’t consistently shown.

Despite the struggles of the Pistons’ most valuable players last season, they showed they could win the ugly part of the game in the possession battle. Some of that’s because of Drummond, but a return to the postseason should start with him touching the ball less outside the restricted area and embracing being the lob threat. His commitment to defense away from the rim needs to also improve, a physical specimen but one who allowed too many ball handlers to turn the corner on him last season.

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A performance from Jackson much closer, or even better than his 2016 campaign would also turn Detroit into a threat to climb the ladder in a weakened playoff race in the East. Jackson struggled to finish around the rim at nearly 50 percent shooting, but his assist rate also shrunk. For a team with talented, but limited players, Jackson’s ability to get others open looks and Drummond’s gravity around the rim will be essential for an offense that fell off the tracks last season.

Detroit finished in the top 10 in defensive efficiency last season. To return to the playoffs, they’ll need their offense to come back to life. At times, they got by last season in gritty fashion, but they’ll need more in order to ascend rather than continuing to be stuck in mediocrity.