The Detroit Pistons own a 29-32 record 61 games into the 2016-2017 regular season. The young Pistons, led by Stan Van Gundy, entered the season with high expectations. Now, considered to be one of, if not the, most disappointing teams in the NBA this year, Detroit is at a crossroad.
Stan Van Gundy told the media early Friday afternoon the following on the starting lineup:”We haven’t ruled out (anything). I don’t even know who will start (Saturday). We’ve got to get better energy off the start of the games.”
He continued with the following on starting point guard and center respectively, Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond: “Those are the two guys. (The energy they play with) has got to go up. Andre (Drummond) picked up his energy the other night but that’s got to be on a consistent basis, and we need more energy out of Reggie (Jackson).”
Van Gundy told the media that he has not ruled out moving Ish Smith into the starting lineup for Reggie Jackson. Jackson missed Detroit’s first 21 games of the season after undergoing platelet-rich plasma treatment on his left knee for knee tendonitis. Since returning, Jackson has yet to return to the form he played at last season. This year Jackson’s averages have dropped to 14.7 points and 5.5 assists per game in just over 28 minutes per game. To go along with his drop in common statistics, Jackson has worsened as a defender. Even with Stan Van Gundy’s efforts to hide Jackson on the least talented offensive player when on defense, Jackson has struggled to show very much capability on defense. That is why Jackson has found himself on the bench late in games for Smith.
Detroit needs to figure out their struggles as soon as possible. If that means Jackson needs to move to the bench for some time or even for the rest of the season, then so be it. Smith has filled in for Jackson marvelously this season and has far outplayed his contract that pays him a mere $6 million annually.
Before Jackson returned, Smth averaged 10.8 points and 6.7 assists per game. Since moving to the bench, Smith’s numbers have taken a dip, as expected when playing fewer minutes. He is averaging just seven points and 4.2 assists per game. However, when he is Detroit’s offense just flows so much better. His mid-range efficiency, 44.9 percent, makes sure the defense does not sag off him and just allow him to shoot. Smith is able to draw a hefty amount of defensive attention which then allows his supreme playmaking to take over when he cannot find his own shot.
Post All-Star break, Smith has been even better. He is scoring just 6.8 points per game but is dishing out seven assists per game. In a comeback win against Charlotte to start the second half of the season, Smith came off the bench to hand out 16 assists. He has been a plus/- 8.8 since the All-Star Break.
However, if Smith is swapped into the lineup for Jackson, then Tobias Harris should follow.
Harris was moved to the bench in place for Jon Leuer earlier in the season. The move was made in part to relieve the lack of touches that they starting five was getting now that Jackson and his high usage was back. Leuer, a lower usage forward, was placed into the lineup to help stretch the floor on offense and contribute mainly on defense. Since moving to the bench, Harris has flourished.
In the 23 games, Harris has come off the bench, he has averaged 16.6 points and 5.3 points per game. Besides his free throw shooting, Harris’ efficiency has risen. He is shooting 51.6 percent from the field, nearly five percent better than what he was shooting when he started. He is also shooting a respectable 35.7 percent from the three-point line. His plus/minus went from a +/minus 2.0 when he starting to a plus 2.5 when coming off the bench. While making all these improvements, Harris has played about five minutes less per game coming off the bench, averaging just 28.8 minutes per game.
As Steve Shea, the author of Basketball Analytics points out, the more Tobias Harris is being used in Detroit’s offense, the better the Pistons are.
The more DET involves Tobias in the offense, the more they win.
— Steve Shea (@SteveShea33) March 2, 2017
One of the biggest factors that have helped improve Harris’ play is that he spends the majority of his minutes on the floor with Smith. More specifically, with Smith and Stanley Johnson on the floor, Harris is playing his best basketball.
For the month of February the three-man lineup of Smith, Johnson, and Morris had the best net rating in the NBA, at 27.2. The three-man combo has an offensive rating of 114.3 and a defensive rating of 87.1 over the second month of the calendar year. What helps make this group work is their well-defined roles on the team.
Smith, as the point guard, is the distributor. He creates for the designated scorer, Tobias Harris. Harris is well known for his ability to score in a multitude of ways by himself. Johnson is a defensive stopper. Johnson has proven to be one of Detroit’s best defenders this season, only clearly behind Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in that area.
Detroit had three of the ten best three-man lineups in the month of February. In all three lineups, two of Smith, Johnson, and Haris were included. It is clear that these three players are playing some of the best basketball on the Pistons.
One lineup that Van Gundy should entertain going to more is the following: Ish Smith, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Stanley Johnson, Tobias Harris, and Andre Drummond.
Smith and Harris alone have a net rating of 20.1.
In a season full of questions, one thing is clear. Ish Smith and Tobias Harris make each other better players. Stan Van Gundy needs to make sure that Smith and Harris share the floor as much as possible.
Detroit’s new starting lineup, if changed as proposed, would be the following: Ish Smith, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Marcus Morris, Tobias Harris, and Andre Drummond.
This is the starting lineup that the Pistons began the season with. That starting lineup led Detroit to an 11-10 record in the first 21 games of the season. The lineup holds a net rating of -1.0, but considering the Pistons current starting lineup net rating of -15.5, the Pistons could settle for the -1.0 net rating.
Stan Van Gundy and his coaching staff have a great deal of thinking to do. The starting lineup he is currently trotting out there is not working, but making sure the right changes are made to the lineup are more important than making changes to the lineup for the sake of changing it.
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