The anatomy of a typical Piston first quarter

Mar 22, 2017; Chicago, IL, USA; Detroit Pistons guard Reggie Jackson (1) reacts during the second half against the Chicago Bulls at the United Center. Mandatory Credit: Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 22, 2017; Chicago, IL, USA; Detroit Pistons guard Reggie Jackson (1) reacts during the second half against the Chicago Bulls at the United Center. Mandatory Credit: Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports /

The Detroit Pistons were known for slow starts and bad first quarters last season. We’re going to take a look at a typical first quarter and figure out why.

The Detroit Pistons had a pattern for most of the season. They would start slow, take poor shots, be a step slow defensively, be down 6-10 points halfway through the first quarter. Sometimes the bench would rally and the Pistons would win, sometimes they trailed by too much or the bench never got it together. Either way, the starters almost never got off to a good start, and the first quarter was usually when they were at their worst.

There were platitudes about energy, getting off to better starts. Expressions that certain players had to bring it, play harder with more consistency. But what if there was another way to describe the Pistons starts? A way to quantify what they were doing and why it was so consistently unsuccessful, and a way forward to avoid falling into the same pitfalls going into next season can only be of help.

The Pistons were 21st in first quarter offensive rating, scoring just 102.7 points per 100 possessions in opening stanzas. They also had the second-worst true shooting rate in the NBA in first quarters with a woeful 51.3 clip.

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In this piece we’re going to look at a typical Detroit Pistons first quarter from this past season. We’re going to look at the kind of shots and locations the Pistons took, and we’re going to look at the expected value (or EV) of each shot they took in this specific first quarter. This EV will be based on a simple calculation of (FG% * 2) for two-pointers and (FG% * 3) for three-pointers. We’ll use’s shooting by range stat page to determine the varying field goal percentages by range.

The quarter that we’re going to examine is the first quarter of a game between the Pistons and the Indiana Pacers at the Palace of Auburn Hills on December 17th. The Pistons lost this game 105-90 and were outscored 27-26 in the first quarter. This is an entirely reasonable first quarter output, and this loss was due more to a 15-point second quarter than any specific failure in the first quarter.

Let’s dive in.

The first shot of the game is taken by Tobias Harris. It’s a 19-foot jump shot late in the shot clock. Remember, this is the first possession of the game, and it results in a late clock long two. This might be the most Piston way to start a game all season.

Harris has an expected value of 0.96 points per attempt from 15-19 feet.

He also takes the next shot, a spot up miss from 26 feet out on a drive and kick from Reggie Jackson. His expectation from there is slightly higher at 1.014 points per attempt.

Jackson scores the first points of the game for the Pistons on a spot up three, assisted by Tobias Harris. Remember, Jackson was among the best three-point shooters on the team, and he has an outstanding expectation from the corner, hitting 43.8 percent of those shots. His expectation on that success rate is 1.314 points per shot.

Andre Drummond takes and makes the next two shots, a seven-foot hook shot and a nine-foot hook. It’s been well-documented on this site and elsewhere how poor his hook shot is and how mediocre his offense is when he gets outside five feet. Both shots go, but his expectation on both shots is a mere 0.81 points per attempt.

Tobias Harris takes the next two shots, splitting them. He misses the first, a 12-footer with an expectation of .898 points per attempt, but he hits the second, a 26-foot three-pointer with an EV of 1.014 points per attempt.

At this point, the Pistons have a 10-7 lead and they’re 4-of-7 from the floor. The shots they’ve taken have a combined EV of 6.82, meaning their average expectation per field goal attempt is 0.974 points.

The Pistons score their next points on a transition three from Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Jackson spots him across the arc and finds him for a wide open triple. Thanks to a late-season swoon, this shot has an EV of just .954 points per attempt, but at the time it was closer to 1.2 points per attempt.

KCP makes the next shot, also a three, and then misses a third three. Again, the EV for each shot is .954 points per attempt.

Tobias Harris follows that up with a missed three, with an expectation of 1.095 points.

Following that comes perhaps the wildest layup you’ll ever see from Reggie Jackson. While we’re going to assign this attempt a value of .968 (which itself is a dreadful rate at the rim), we can be honest and say this was basically a zero-chance attempt.

Drummond collects the rebound, misses a put back which has a 1.248 points per attempt EV, and a jump ball ensues which leads to a layup from Tobias Harris. That layup has a value of 1.308, significantly better than both Jackson and Drummond’s rate at the rim.

The next attempts come from the free throw line via Reggie Jackson. He has a free throw percentage of 86.8 percent, thus each attempt has a value of .868.

Andre Drummond takes the next three shots. He misses a six-foot hook worth .81 points, then Jackson hits him in transition for a layup at the basket, valued at 1.248. The third shot is a 20-foot jumper as the shot clock expires. Considering he hasn’t hit such a shot, this attempt is assigned the entirely reasonable value of 0.

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Reggie Jackson takes the next two shots, making a layup valued at .968 and missing a 16-foot jumps hot, valued at .81 points per attempt. Caldwell-Pope then misses a 27-foot jumper, valued at .954, and Ish Smith has checked in and misses a 26-foot three. Given his dreadful three-point shooting numbers from beyond 24 feet, his expected value here is .609 points per attempt.

KCP misses a layup valued at 1.074 points per attempt, Tobias Harris makes two free throws with a success rate of .841 (again, each free throw has this value), and Ish Smith misses a 12-foot shot with a value of 1.014 points per attempt.

In the end, the shots taken by the Detroit Pistons had an expected value of 25.206 points, and they scored this on 9-of-23 shooting. They were buoyed by better-than-average three-point shooting, hitting 4-of-9, and they were aided by four free throws, all of which they made.

Based on the pace of the first quarter (they played about 24 possessions, on pace for 95 in the game), their EV provides an expected offensive rating of 105.2. This rate would have tied them with the New York Knicks for 15th in the NBA in first quarter offensive rating, and it took them above-average three-point and free throw shooting to get there.

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In summary, the Pistons had a positive-variance shooting stretch (or “good luck”, you could call it) in order to bring them to the middle of the league in first quarter scoring efficiency. Drummond also took three post shots (which is three too many) and made two, but he has among the league’s worst efficiency from the post.