The pull-up problem in the Detroit Pistons offense

Oct 27, 2015; Atlanta, GA, USA; Detroit Pistons forward Marcus Morris (13) celebrates a basket with guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (5) in the third quarter of their game against the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena. The Pistons won 106-94. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 27, 2015; Atlanta, GA, USA; Detroit Pistons forward Marcus Morris (13) celebrates a basket with guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (5) in the third quarter of their game against the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena. The Pistons won 106-94. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports /

The Detroit Pistons have lacked consistency all season long. An offense that was highly serviceable just a year ago has suddenly become a liability, seemingly to the bewilderment of head coach Stan Van Gundy. The answer to many of these problems may lie in an overreliance on pull-up jumpers.

The Detroit Pistons offense has completely fallen apart since the return of point guard Reggie Jackson, prompting speculation over his future in Motown. When you add in Andre Drummond‘s surface level regression and shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope‘s nearly inevitable $20 million plus new contract looming after the season, you’re left with a myriad of questions about the future of this team’s core.

A common sentiment among many Pistons fans who feel the team should be blown up is that Caldwell-Pope isn’t worth a $20 million contract. Many cite an apparent lack of shooting consistency from three on a game to game basis.

When looking at the bigger picture however, it becomes clear that per-game sample size and overall field goal percentages being affected by increased three point attempts are really the issue. KCP isn’t really any more or less consistent than just about any other NBA shooter. More importantly, a three-point shot is inherently a far more valuable shot than a two pointer.

KCP might be shooting a touch under 40 percent on his threes, but when using effective field goal percentage, or eFG to adjust for three-point value, we see that his eFG on threes alone is the equivalent of hitting 60 percent of his twos. League average on shots within six feet of the rim (basically dunks and layups) is 58 percent this year. While there is some streakiness to an individual’s three-point shot, a KCP three is clearly worth shooting.

There is, however, a type of shot that has become a large part of the Pistons offensive game, one that may help explain their inconsistency both on a game-to-game basis, or even their inconsistency within the flow of a given game. This shot, the pull-up, offers no perceptible value to the offense and may help explain several struggles the Pistons have experienced individually and as a team on the offensive end this season.

Detroit leads the league in pull-ups, at 27.4 per game. Pull-ups are some of the worst shots you can possibly take. Going from driving the ball to a fluid shooting motion is a difficult task and the numbers reflect that. The best pull-up shooting team in the league, the Los Angeles Clippers, have an eFG of 46.6 on pull-ups. For comparison, the team with the lowest eFG during the course of the 2016-17 season overall, the Chicago Bulls, have an eFG of 47.1 percent on all of their shots.

Over a quarter of the Pistons shots come on pull-ups, but they rank sixteenth in effective field goal percentage on those shots, scoring 22.7 points per game for an eFG of 41.4 percent, or .828 points per shot. Andre Drummond produces .862 points per trip to the free throw line this year. Essentially, the Pistons would produce four more points per 100 possessions offensively if teams elected to put Drummond on the line rather than let Detroit shoot a pull-up.

Speaking of Drummond, he actually does have a large part to play in both the positives and negatives of Detroit’s pull-up game. Lets start with the positives, which are seemingly as always linked to his play with Reggie Jackson.

Jackson is by far the most prolific pull-up artist on the Detroit Pistons, shooting seven per game, but unlike most of his teammates, he’s actually quite good at them. The reason for this is pretty simple, he gets far better looks than anyone else due to the pick and roll with Drummond.

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Jackson loses his man on the Drummond screen and darts to the top of the key, which forces Drummond’s man into no-man’s land since he can’t step up to contest the shot for fear of Jackson blowing by him for an open layup as the other three Pistons in this play are parked on the corners. Jackson gets left wide open, Jordan Clarkson rushes to contest the shot and fouls him way after the shot is gone for the easy and-one.

That’s a great shot in any modern offense and Jackson gets a ton of those looks. He also shoots 2.2 pull-up threes per game, hitting 37 percent of them. His outside shooting appears to be sustainable as well, as he shot 35 percent on pull-up threes last year.

Who then, are the biggest reasons for this plethora of bad shots? One, Marcus Morris, should come as no surprise to even casual Pistons viewers. His tendency to receive a good look past the three-point line and electing to dribble into a contested two can be maddening to watch at times.

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Yep, that’s Morris passing up a catch and shoot three with four seconds left on the shot clock in order to dribble into a pull-up 19 foot jumper with Boogie Cousins’ hand in his face. Fun times.

Morris shoots 5.8 pull-ups per game, higher than several far more offensively impactful players across the league like Gordon Hayward, Bradley Beal and Zach LaVine. Even more noticeably, almost half of those players pull-ups come on threes, heavily indicating that those shots come either in transition or with the defense breaking down in some manner. Morris, on the other hand, shoots less than one pull-up three per game.

That might not be a bad thing either, considering Morris only hits 24 percent of his pull-up threes. The vast majority of his shots come from inside the three-point line and again, it shows. Morris has an eFG of 42.1 percent on pull-ups, a simply atrocious number that becomes even less defensible when taking into account that Morris shoots 12.7 shots per game, meaning nearly 46 percent of Marcus Morris’ shots come on pull-ups.

The second culprit is none other than Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Despite growing tremendously as a three-point threat this season, KCP has undoubtably regressed inside the arc, currently shooting the worst mark of his career from two.

A massive reason for this is the difference in the quality and location of his shots. His shots within 10 feet of the rim are down 8.2 percent, while his pull-ups have increased by 7.4 percent. KCP is also a terrible pull-up shooter, with his eFG matching Morris’ perfectly at 42.1 percent. Unlike Morris, the majority of KCP’s increased pull-ups have come from the three point line, where he’s shooting six percent more pull-ups this year.

This is to Caldwell-Pope and the Detroit Pistons’ detriment. KCP is not a good pull-up three-point shooter, hitting 34 percent of his long-range pull-ups this year. His strength lies in his catch and shoot abilities, as he’s a scorching 43 percent shooter in those opportunities. But while his pull-up threes have increased this year, his catch and shoot threes have bafflingly decreased. This is a trend that should be reversed by coach Stan Van Gundy.

Where those pull-up KCP threes are coming from is almost entirely in transition opportunities, which has hurt both his transition game and has left the Pistons vulnerable in some key areas. KCP ranked in the 69th percentile of all NBA players last season, this year he’s fallen to 59th percentile. His score frequency is down from 54 percent to 46 percent while his points per play is only down from 1.19 to 1.15, indicating that he’s sacrificed his highly efficient rim-running transition game from last year in favor of pull-up transition threes.

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Lets compare that KCP transition three to a catch and shoot opportunity, albeit a slightly unconventional one.

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Anyone who’s ever played pickup basketball with me knows I’m no expert on how to shoot a basketball, but the difference in quality of form and footwork between each of these attempts is obvious.

KCP’s transition pull-up threes are killing his game from inside the three-point line and hurt his ability to be as effective threat from outside as he could be, but they’re also hurting the Pistons transition offense and opportunities to get to the free throw line.

As we’ve already seen, the basic scoring percentages indicate that these are inherently poorer shots, but in the function of how the Detroit Pistons offense works overall, they may actually be a bigger problem than first meets the eye. Detroit boasted the fifth best free throw rate in the NBA last year, largely as a function of Andre Drummond’s bloated attempts. While his attempts have decreased by 2.7 per game this year, that doesn’t explain the overall team drop from 25.5 attempts per game in 2015-16 to the 19 attempts per game this season.

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Here’s where KCP comes in. While his points per play numbers haven’t necessarily taken a massive hit, his transition free throw rate has plummeted from 14.7 percent to 4.1 percent. Marcus Morris’ transition free throw rate has dropped as well, from 15.9 percent to 10.5 percent. The Pistons overall transition free throw rate has dropped from a respectable 14.6 percent in 2015-16 all the way to a league-worst 9.8 percent this season.

Let’s revisit Drummond. Earlier, I mentioned that Drummond has a large role in the negative aspects of what Detroit’s increased pull-ups have brought to the offense, but unlike his post-ups, free throws and defense, there isn’t really much he can do about this.

Drummond’s ugly ON/OFF splits have been a talking point for many of his detractors this year. One of the most baffling areas the Detroit Pistons have been worse at with him on the floor is rebounding percentage, where they’ve been a stunning -3.4 percent worse with him on the court, down from +.9 with him on the court last year. Their offensive rebounding rate has dropped from +2.2 percent with him on to +.05 percent with him on.

Additionally, Drummond’s offensive rebounds per 36 minutes are down to 4.6, almost a full rebound lower than last year. His defensive rebounding numbers however, lead the league. Why, if Drummond seems to be more unstoppable than ever on the defensive glass, is his offensive rebounding decreasing so rapidly from historically great just a couple of seasons ago to simply very good?

The answer seems to, once again, lie in increased pull-ups. Jackson, Morris and KCP combine for 18.2 pull-ups per game. Add in another 3.3 for Tobias Harris and you’ve got 21.5 of your 27.4 pull-ups in the starting lineup alone.  Pull-ups in general, but especially in transition, create long rebounds that other teams can often take the other way. For the Pistons, on top of cratering their free throw rate, the increased pull-ups have also negated a large part of Drummond’s ability to wreak havoc on the glass.

That also helps explain Detroit’s drop in second chance opportunities this season, where they’ve dropped from 14.9 points per game, second in the NBA, to 12.7 points per game, all the way down at 14th. This may also help explain why teams seem to rain hellfire on the Pistons from three with Drummond on the court, as more pull-ups, including on transition threes, means more rebounding opportunities for opposing guards to immediately take it the other way.

The best answer for helping raise Detroit’s offensive rebounding might be to go back to an earlier SVG strategy. It’s a small sample size, but Drummond averaged 4.6 offensive rebounds per game, more in line with his career averages, during a seventh game stretch with Jon Leuer and his 1.3 pull-ups per game in the starting lineup instead of Tobias Harris or Marcus Morris (leaving out the Portland game that Leuer only played six minutes in due to injury). Perhaps moving Morris’ pull-up heavy midrange game to the bench in favor of Leuer would create even more opportunities for Drummond to work the offensive glass.

The bottom line is that the Detroit Pistons aren’t necessarily broken at their core. There’s a functional, relatively effective offense somewhere in there, one we got a glimpse of last year following the Tobias Harris trade, but it’s being muddled by poor shooting and even poorer shot selection. Several things a less-talented Pistons team did last year aren’t being repeated this season and as a result, the Pistons are limiting the abilities and impacts of arguably their two most important players to the detriment of the unit overall. With a few tweaks however, the Detroit Pistons may have enough firepower to make their way to the playoffs once again, with an opportunity to make some noise in a crowded Eastern Conference.

(Video courtesy of 3ball)

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