The Pistons are unique. They’ve amassed a vast collection of young talent without regard for the trivial things, like “positional overlap,” or “fit,” or “shooting,” or “defense.” Years of losing mean that heads will roll if things don’t turn things around with a quickness.
The first guillotine already dropped when former head coach Dwane Casey
was fired moved to the front office, and owner Tom Gores (to my shock and his credit) reset the coaching job market by giving former Phoenix Suns coach Monty Williams a record-setting $78.5 million contract.
That kind of money signals that Gores’ patience is at an end. This team hoped to be at least a play-in contender last season, but former #1 overall pick Cade Cunningham’s early season-ending injury sank the playoff ship before it even left the harbor. This year will be the last for the status quo. General manager Troy Weaver seems unlikely to survive another bad season (despite several years remaining on his contract), and by the trade deadline, several players could find themselves dangling like worms on a fish hook if positive steps aren’t made.
I’ve already talked about the Piston’s trio of talented playmakers, so I don’t want to get into that too much more. Former top-five picks Cade Cunningham, Jaden Ivey, and Ausar Thompson have a lot of redundant skills, but there are also easy-to-visualize ways for them to coexist happily — namely, by two of the three developing a workable three-pointer.
Cunningham was reportedly a superstar in scrimmages against the USA’s World Cup team, and there are wide expectations for him to make a leap in his third year. He was a fantastic shooter in college, but injuries and inconsistency have hampered his development. Last year’s fifth overall pick, Ivey, struggled initially but found his stride as the year went on, impressing with his speed and improved command of the pick-and-roll. This year’s fifth pick, Ausar Thompson, should bring a level of athleticism, secondary playmaking, and off-ball cutting savvy that could further unlock the Pistons.
But we haven’t looked at what Detroit wants to do in the frontcourt.
The Pistons remained true to their strategy for the power forward and center positions: gather a bunch of talent and let them figure it out. In the last two seasons, the team traded for two different former second-overall picks, Marvin Bagley III and James Wiseman, to supplement homegrown youngsters Isaiah Stewart and Jalen Duren.
Unfortunately, Wiseman and Duren can only play center, and Bagley and Stewart might be best as small-ball fives. There isn’t much positional flexibility. Only Stewart has shown much of an outside shot, and the other three have all struggled to various degrees with defense.
I’m not a fan of either Bagley or Wiseman, who are non-stretch scorers who bring little else to the table (although Bagley dabbled with the occasional corner three last season). Thankfully, those two will be battling for the backup center spot, as the Pistons have seemingly settled on starting the only pairing that makes sense: 22-year-old Isaiah Stewart and 19-year-old Jalen Duren.
Most pundits will say that Stewart’s ability to space the floor is the heaviest question mark weighing down this duo’s potential, and they’re right. Last year was Stewart’s first go as a stretch-four, and while the overall numbers (32.7% on 4.1 attempts per game from deep) won’t blow you away, a shoulder injury around the start of the 2023 calendar year hampered his accuracy. To that point, Stewart had shot 38.1% over 29 games.
While it’s possible that the early burst was an outlier, it’s at least as possible a shoulder injury artificially depreciated his three-point percentages. I believe that Stewart can become functional from the three-point line, which would open up the paint for Duren’s rim runs. Although Duren’s finishing touch was iffy at best, his remarkable athleticism made him an easy target rolling to the hoop. The return of Cunningham, the team’s best passer, should further unlock Duren as a roll-man. He also showed some promise on short midrange jumpers last season (something he further flashed in this season’s Summer League).
Duren also might be one of the best passers I’ve ever seen to barely average an assist per game — the stats lie! Although the Pistons have a surprising amount of mouths to feed, I’d love to see him get a few more opportunities to work out of the high post and pick out cutters like a younger Bam Adebayo. The recognition, reaction speed, and touch on this lob pass is rare for any big man, let alone a rookie:
Stewart had a few nice playmaking moments toward the end of the year, but it will never be his strength. To maximize the offensive side, Stewart will have to get better at finishing. Despite his size, he has little vertical burst and limited ability to score in the paint, and he was one of the worst big-man scorers at the rim last year. He needs to harness his energy on drives and stay under control. Many of his misses were ugly little half-hooks he barfs up after plowing wildly into the paint without a plan:
But viewed through a different lens, Stewart’s play was understandable and even exciting. Stewart has said he never played anything but center before last year, and it’s admirable how quickly he put into action what he had only been practicing for a little while. He had never been a three-point shooter, much less a guy who could put the ball on the floor and drill his way into the teeth of the defense. Some growing pains should be expected.
Overall, I’m optimistic that Duren and Stewart will bring just enough shooting and playmaking together to make their pairing work on offense, particularly given the offense-oriented perimeter players around them. (They’re also both excellent offensive rebounders, which helps clean up the at-rim misses). Both should make substantial strides forward.
Unfortunately, Duren and Stewart have a much harder task: getting the Pistons to defend anyone.
While neither Stewart nor Duren is a great individual rim protector, at least not yet, that wasn’t actually the problem. When the two played together, the other team got to and finished at the rim at roughly league-average rates — not fantastic numbers, but not a bleeding wound. However, opponents couldn’t miss jumpers: opposing teams shot an outrageous 53.1% from the long midrange and 44.3% from the corner, both bottom-decile figures for any two-man pairing. They also gave up corner threes, the most valuable non-layup shots in the league, at a bottom-decile rate. Letting the other team take and make a ton of corner threes is an easy way to sink a defensive rating!
Some of this is bad luck, and some of this is schematic, in ways both obvious and subtle. As the power forward, Stewart was often stationed on stretch-fours in the corner. The Pistons played a conservative defensive scheme that required Stewart to aggressively help in the paint, which helped keep opponents away from the rim but left the perimeter vulnerable. This scheme gave up many corner threes and made it very difficult to force turnovers (the Pistons were one of the league’s worst teams at getting out in transition, further suffocating the offense).
It wasn’t purely on the coaching staff. Sometimes, it was difficult even to tell what the Pistons were supposed to be running on defense. Here, Jaden Ivey calls for a completely unnecessary switch, marooning poor Stewart in no-man’s land like a misbehaving pirate:
Communication issues were rampant in Detroit. I’m not sure exactly what Stewart was trying to tell Bojan Bogdanovic and Saddiq Bey here, but it probably shouldn’t have been, “Let’s all leave this guy wide open in the corner:”
This inability to defend corners in transition happened all the time.
Transition defense is low-hanging fruit for new coach Williams to fix, and he’ll help significantly. Communication issues can be hammered out with mindfulness and repetition.
I’m curious to see if the Pistons lean even heavier into switching for their base defense, something they did to varying degrees last year as they dealt with one injury after another. Stewart might be even better on the perimeter than in the paint. He’s far quicker than he looks and has a fantastic ability to stay balanced and stop on a dime despite his heft. Here, Kyrie Irving makes the pull-up jumper, but Stewart does as good a job as a 6’8”, 250-lb oak tree could in challenging the shot:
Stewart can be caught ball-watching and could stand to improve his lateral quickness, but his defense was impressive for his first year playing so much on the perimeter.
Stewart’s rim protection numbers are better than I expected from watching the tape, where he often felt too ground-bound to be a significant roadblock. But opponents take significantly fewer shots at the rim when he’s on the floor (although they make up most of that with corner threes, so, hmm) and shoot just 60% against Stewart when they make it there (~5% less than expected).
Those numbers are nearly identical for Duren, who should be much improved on defense with a year under his belt. He’s bouncy and exceptionally strong, but despite his physical tools, he was often a half-step slow to react on defense. You could see the gears turning in his head as he tried to puzzle out what he was supposed to do, and that decision paralysis sometimes made it appear that Duren wasn’t giving a full effort.
His defense was not helped by a tendency to shrink himself like Alice eating a snack. Duren constantly had his hands at his side and took strangely non-threatening angles, particularly when guarding the pick-and-roll:
But sheer athleticism gives a margin for error. Duren’s block rate, steal rate, and foul rate were all slightly above the median, a solid foundation for a rookie. Even when Duren gets beat, he can still get up and punish the basketball for its sins. Here, Duren botches the initial pick-and-roll coverage but recovers in time to obliterate Raul Neto’s layup:
Duren and Stewart would benefit tremendously from any kind of help around them. Besides Killian Hayes, the brick-laying point guard who may finally fall out of the rotation this year, the Pistons’ best perimeter defender next year might be… rookie Ausar Thompson? Perimeter defense was a massive issue last season; it will remain so, barring a trade.
Duren and Stewart are expected to bail out their teammates far more than is reasonable. Duren struggled defending the pick-and-roll, but he also was put in untenable positions over and over again. Ivey, in particular, couldn’t get around a screen to save his life. The communication issues I highlighted above made things even worse.
Given the Pistons’ roster, I’m unsure how much improvement can be made around them (although coach Williams has a good defensive reputation). Unfair though it may be, Stewart and Duren will be thrown into the deep end without floaties once again. They’ll have to do some serious swimming to keep the team treading water defensively. If they can’t, we may see some significant changes in Detroit next summer.