Coming into this season, the Detroit Pistons were flagged by a lot of advanced metrics as a likely candidates for a sneaky good year. Instead, Detroit, and especially its offense, has been among the most comically misshapen teams in recent history.
You could write a very long and involved summation of the ills facing the team's offense and the reasons why it doesn't look like they'll hit SCHOENE's 50-win projection: chemistry, pieces fitting, that sort of thing. Alternately, you can look at the objective facts about Detroit's offense; they tell the story quite well all on their own.
First, here is Detroit's shot chart, via NBA.com. The green areas mark where Detroit shoots at an above league-average percentage, the yellow where they are about average, and the red where they are below average.
Obviously, this is troubling. It gets slightly more encouraging in a version broken into more zones, but only slightly, because the two green zones are the area near the foul line (44.1%) and the area just inside the three point line on the right wing. So the Pistons are good at something, but it happens to be long two point shots. Great.
It isn't hard to figure out the problem. Almost no one who plays for the Pistons can shoot. Starters Brandon Jennings, Josh Smith, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope are all hovering around (just under) 40 percent on field goals, and have True Shooting percentages of 50.2, 45.6, and 45.9, respectively. These are despicable figures, and, pitifully, they include Jennings hitting his wing threes at a slightly better rate than he usually does.
Josh Smith has been a special viscosity of shit from range, shooting 27 percent on threes while taking 4.6—FOUR POINT SIX—of them per game. This is even more astonishing when you realize that Smith, a wonderful interior player, has actually decreased his overall field goal attempts from the past few years—his attempts per minute are the lowest in five years—while cranking up the threes. Keep in mind that in his single best season, 2009-10, he attempted just seven of them all year. That was never going to last—Smith's problem isn't conceptual so much as his own inclinations and his sheer enjoyment of taking that shot—but makes it all the more baffling that a team would recruit Smith specifically to implement the single most useless and destructive aspect of his game.
And make no mistake, Smith raining threes is happening by design. It's a necessity meant to compensate for the weaknesses his frontcourt partners. Monroe has at least a bit of range, but takes just over two shots per game from outside 8 feet per game. Drummond, meanwhile, is a monster inside, but has taken five shots from outside that range all season.
Because there's no credible shooting in the frontcourt, the defense's guards push up tighter outside, pressuring Detroit's ballhandlers, knowing that their help doesn't have to worry about a big diving out to the three point line or slipping a screen for a jumper. The lack of shooting is so pronounced that the Pistons have taken to posting Monroe or Smith up on one side of the floor and running all four players to the other rather than placing a shooter in the corner or on the wing to pass out to, because they know that they don't have anyone the opposing defense will respect.
That starting 5-man unit has played the 11th most minutes of any lineup in the league, and Smith-Monroe-Drummond is a part of the four most used lineups for the Pistons. Basically, Detroit's natural state is one of a frontcourt that cannot possibly space the floor, and a backcourt that doesn't excel at spotting up. (Most of Jennings's threes come off of pull-ups, which he somehow hits at a 38.9 percent rate.) It scores just 95.4 points per 100 possessions. This would be 4th worst in the league overall, and is especially morbid among starting lineups. It's solid defensively, at least, giving up 95.9 points per 100 possessions—a good number—but which, as basic number principles tell us, is still more than the unit scores.
That leaves Rodney Stuckey, who is has recovered from a disastrous season to carry the Pistons' second unit, as basically the only broadly efficient player on the team. The bench as a whole is good enough to nudge the offense to just about league average.
Despite all this, because of all this, Detroit has been strangely enthralling. It helps that Drummond is a destructive universal force, and there's a macabre appeal to watching Josh Smith given carte blanche on outside shots. So while the correct thing to do might be to look to trades or other ways of acquiring a shooter, the Pistons are currently the 6-seed in the East. So hell, why not see this thing through?
Chart by Reuben Fischer-Baum