The Detroit Pistons pace problems have been costly to the offense

The Detroit Pistons have some confounding offensive problems, and perhaps the biggest one stems from their starting point guard’s inability to push the pace.

It’s no secret that Reggie Jackson is the best offensive point guard the Detroit Pistons have on their roster. While Ish Smith is all speed, energy and effort unleashed, Jackson is an efficient scorer and has put up some of the best numbers in his career since before Christmas. Considering this fact, the Pistons have developed some confounding problems on the offensive end, and these issues require a deeper look.

First off, let’s identify what these problems actually are. Given that Jackson is the best offensive point guard on the team, you might be surprised to hear that Ish Smith has a higher offensive rating than Jackson (104.7to 103.3) on the season. Not only that, but since Jackson’s return, Smith’s offensive rating is higher (104.4 to 103.3) as well.

To take the comparison a step further, Jackson’s play really took off in late December. Since December 21st, he’s posted numbers that would be career highs in virtually every category. Over those 19 games, he’s shooting 45.5 percent from the floor, 38.2 percent from three-point range, 18.1 points and 5.8 assists per game. Over this stretch, the Pistons are scoring just 104.9 points per 100 possessions with Jackson on the floor. Strangely enough, Ish Smith is posting an offensive rating of 107.8.

In addition, since Jackson’s burst began, the Pistons have a better true shooting rate as a team with Smith on the floor (54.9 percent to 53.8) than they do with Jackson.

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So why are the Pistons more efficient on offense with noted marksman Ish Smith on the floor than when they have a fringe Eastern Conference All Star from last year in Reggie Jackson during a stretch in which he’s putting up the best numbers of his career?

As with many things with this Detroit Pistons team, it requires a deeper look to discern the truth.

For starters, the Pistons avoid easy baskets like the plague when Jackson is on the floor. They don’t get out in transition when he plays with only 12.2 percent of his possessions coming on the fast break. When the Pistons do run with Jackson on the floor, they only score 0.78 points per possession, only Stanley Johnson and Darrun Hilliard have worse field goal percentages and they only score points in one-third of their transition possessions.

Conversely, the Pistons do nothing but run when Ish Smith is on the floor. 26.7 percent of his possessions come in transition. Mind you, Smith is not an efficient finisher himself on the break, scoring just .947 points per possession which falls in the 26th percentile, but even mediocre transition offense is better than all but the best halfcourt offenses. In this case, volume really does trump efficiency when that volume is at a high enough frequency that it can offset halfcourt ineffectiveness.

While Smith’s own transition finishing abilities don’t impress, the rest of the Pistons have outstanding transition scoring numbers. Andre Drummond scores 1.3 points per possession, Tobias Harris 1.28, Marcus Morris 1.17, Jon Leuer 1.27 and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope scores 1.15. While these numbers can’t be tracked to only possessions where Smith is on the floor, it’s easy to attribute most of these to transition opportunities with him on the floor because again, Jackson doesn’t push the pace.

Generally speaking, when Jackson is on the floor the offense bogs down and devolves into an iso/pick and roll/postup game between him and Drummond. The Detroit Pistons simply don’t have an effective enough halfcourt offense to be willing to settle for these play types, especially since they almost never get to the free throw line to supplement their scoring. When you don’t get easy fast break buckets and you don’t get supplemental scoring from the free throw line (the Pistons have the second-worst free throw rate in the NBA), you’re leaving far too many points on the floor.

This is reflected in Jackson’s teammates’ production per shot when he’s on the floor since his production uptick in late December. When Reggie Jackson is on the floor, Andre Drummond scores 1.03 points per shot, KCP scores 1.07, Harris 1.23, Morris 0.93, Jon Leuer 1.14 and Aron Baynes scores 1.02 points per shot.

When Ish Smith is on the floor, his teammates flourish thanks to transition opportunities. With Smith, Drummond is scoring 1.20 points per shot, KCP 1.39 (pay him), Harris 1.25, Morris 0.90, Leuer 1.22 and Aron Baynes is scoring an impressive 1.41.

Another strange discrepancy that might need further investigation is the fact that the Detroit Pistons have a better rebounding rate with Smith on the floor than with Jackson. With Jackson, the Pistons are rebounding 50 percent of all available rebounds. With Smith, that number is 50.9 percent.

If we break things down further by segments of the season, the Pistons have a 52.9 percent rebounding rate when Smith is on the floor since Jackson’s return, and since Jackson’s production uptick in late December, the Pistons have a staggering 54.2 percent rebounding rate with Smith on the floor. To give you a frame of reference, the Denver Nuggets currently lead the NBA with a 53.6 percent rebounding rate. Over that sample the Pistons have a 50.3 percent rebounding rate with Jackson on the floor.

While this topic may be a completely different post altogether, there is a relevance to this noteworthy discovery. After all, transition opportunities come from defensive stops, and defensive rebounds are the most common type of stops. Along these lines, Reggie Jackson has a rebounding rate of just 4.5 percent since December 21st, significantly below his 7 percent career rate. Ish Smith has a rebounding rate of 6.9 percent, exactly in line with his career mark. It stands to reason that Smith is simply being more responsible on the defensive boards and is collecting grab-and-go rebounds to set up transition offense. Since Jackson doesn’t run transition offense, there’s less incentive for him to track down rebounds on the defensive glass.

This leads us to some concerning questions. If Jackson can’t or won’t get the Detroit Pistons out in transition, there is some need to ask why. If it’s stylistic or schematic, the Pistons need to knock it off. Relying on inefficient postups and isolation plays that don’t get you to the free throw line is not how you win in the NBA in 2017. Considering the fact that Stan Van Gundy is aware of this fact and is on record urging this team to get out and run, we can eliminate schematics.

This leaves effort and ability as the most likely reasons that Jackson doesn’t get the team running. Effort has been a common and concerning refrain for this team, although primarily that’s been focused on the defense. In this case, effort doesn’t seem like the most probably option. That narrows it down to Reggie Jackson’s ability to run. It’s no secret that he has respiratory and stamina issues, and this may be his way of conserving energy as games go on.

There may be a somewhat more insidious concern here as well. Jackson is known to dominate the ball, perhaps to a level that a player at his level could afford to do less. He may also be conserving energy by holding the ball and maintaining control rather than dishing it off and running offense that requires him to run off the ball. To contrast Jackson versus Smith’s willingness to pass the ball, Jackson averages just 60.2 passes per 36 minutes while Smith averages 73.7 passes. It’s worth noting that Jackson averaged an almost identical 60.4 passes per 36 minutes last season.

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If Jackson’s stamina issues (or potential lingering knee issues) are at the root of why the Pistons’ offense bogs down when he’s on the floor, the organization may have tough decisions on their hands. After all, Jackson forced himself into a trade away from the Oklahoma City Thunder two years ago because he believed himself a starting NBA point guard, and the Pistons could be playing a dangerous game if consider moving him to the bench.

While Reggie Jackson is certainly a starting-caliber NBA point guard, if he doesn’t address these glaring concerns which are literally grinding the offense to a halt, perhaps he shouldn’t be the starting point guard for the Detroit Pistons.

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