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Detroit Pistons Offense Has Star Power, but Can It Work?

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Detroit Pistons Offense Has Star Power, but Can It Work?
Rob Carr/Getty Images

With the additions of Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings, the Detroit Pistons have cobbled together one of the strangest rosters in the NBA.

There’s no doubt they have size. Greg Monroe, Andre Drummond and Smith potentially form a three-headed monster on the glass when they share the floor. But in terms of the offense, each of these players is most effective in a similar area: below the free-throw line. Smith is particularly dangerous when posting up smaller players and cutting to the hoop; Drummond when he’s rumbling down the lane off pick-and-rolls; and Monroe when he’s orchestrating close to the basket.

And then there’s Jennings, a shoot-first point guard on a team with multiple weapons to whom the ball must be fed. How these four develop chemistry and interact in the flow of play will be up to Pistons head coach Maurice Cheeks, and whatever schematic adjustments he makes to transition the new additions into his offense must appease all of his stars.

But it all comes down to spacing. How do you integrate three players who prefer to clog the lane? How does Jennings slice through the paint when his own teammates will drag defenders there? These are important questions Cheeks must answer if the Pistons offense hopes to function properly.

If all three players start, Smith will play small forward. Though this could be a disadvantage spacing-wise, it allows for interesting offensive opportunities to put pressure on defensive players in spots they’re not used to.

In particular, double pick-and-rolls through a “Horns” set. In a typical “Horns” play, the point guard handles the ball at the top of the key, while the power forward and center stand at the elbows. The shooting guard and small forward begin on the perimeter, free-throw line extended or in the corners.

The concept behind the set is to create space around the basket. Because every offensive player is far from the hoop, there’s a massive open space in the paint with little opportunity for help defense. To capitalize on this design, most teams prefer to have one of the elbow bigs roll to the rim, while the other pops to the three-point line. When the Knicks defeated the Pacers in the Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, New York ran this exact action:

Though Raymond Felton rejects the screen, the concept stays the same. Tyson Chandler rolls, Carmelo Anthony pops, and defenders scramble from the perimeter to protect the hoop. This allows Felton to kick it to Pablo Prigioni, who’s wide open for a three-pointer:

If the Pistons use their three biggest players in this set, it will force opposing defenses to extend their big men farther out onto the perimeter and rely on smaller guards to rotate under the hoop. Therefore, Drummond and Monroe could find themselves matched up against guards under the rim, a clear mismatch.

Because neither player can reliably shoot the ball, both will naturally want to roll on these types of plays. But the double roll indulges an interesting wrinkle: secondary side pick-and-rolls. If Smith, as the pick-and-roll ball handler, is unable to drive to the rim or dish the ball to his rolling bigs, he’ll most likely kick the ball out to his perimeter shooters: Jennings and Chauncey Billups. On whichever side the ball ends up, that big man can peel off his roll and set the pick. Here’s the play in an animated diagram:

With Drummond as the “5” and Jennings as the “1,” the “Horns” set naturally folds into this side pick-and-roll action with the other Pistons stationed on the weak side. This gives the pair plenty of room to operate.

The Knicks faced similar spacing issues in the playoffs when Chandler and Amar’e Stoudemire shared the floor, and they relied on the side pick-and-roll to address this problem.

On this play, Stoudemire and Prigioni use a dribble handoff to create space, leaving George Hill in a trail position. As Prigioni attacks the hoop, Stoudemire keeps his man away from the rim while David West faces a two-on-one; he must either step up to guard Prigioni, or stay with Chandler who’s under the rim. West, however, idles indecisively and Chandler dunks the ball.

The play was actually set up initially by a Chandler screen: both Stoudemire and Chandler set solid picks to give Prigioni initial space.

Now imagine Monroe and Drummond taking the places of Stoudemire and Chandler on this play. This type of numbers disadvantage under the rim is exactly what Detroit can hope to exploit with their talented big men.

There will also be many times during games when Detroit’s two primary bigs, Monroe and Drummond, don’t share the floor. In these spots, we’re likely to see lineups with Smith at the power forward position running the pick-and-roll with the center. These unconventional 4-5 pick-and-rolls are even more devastating than the 3-4-5 double-pick-and-roll discussed earlier because it puts interior defenders on a perimeter island.

Smith and Al Horford ran plenty of these plays in Atlanta last season, and they often worked for a number of reasons. Here, Smith runs off the Horford screen in a semi-transition situation before Indiana’s defense is set. All of the Pacer guards are glued to their men, leaving Roy Hibbert and West to defend the pick-and-roll by themselves.

The best pick-and-roll defense involves the entire team; this pick-and-roll isolates Indiana’s two slowest defenders farthest from their areas of comfort. The result is a quick Horford seal after setting the pick and an easy two points.

Here it is again, now against the Boston Celtics. Except this time Horford slips the screen, catching Kevin Garnett dead in his tracks. The only relevant help defenders are Jason Terry and Paul Pierce, but Terry is occupied by a corner shooter (Kyle Korver, but in Detroit’s case it could be Billups or Jennings) and Pierce, who’s even cheating toward the middle, is still too far away.

Smith fires a quick lob pass. Garnett lunges at the ball, but he’s neither athletic nor quick enough to react in time. Pierce is in the paint at this point, but it’s still too late. Horford is dunking the ball before Boston’s defense can even react to the pick-and-roll.

And now the play in real time:

The 4-5 pick-and-roll is conceptually similar to the stretch four: The idea, in both cases, is to space the floor with shooters. In a traditional 1-5 pick-and-roll, having a power forward who can step out and shoot creates room for the primary action to operate. The 4-5 pick-and-roll, meanwhile, asks the same of the offense’s smallest players and achieves the same spacing goal.

But the true genius of the 4-5 pick-and-roll is that it flips the script for defensive guards as well big men. Garnett is just as uncomfortable in perimeter situations as Pierce is under the hoop. This type of role reversal leads to a natural confusion among defenders who are playing somewhat out of position.

It’s worth mentioning that putting the ball in Smith’s hands to be a primary and frequent decision-maker isn’t the best idea; he’s still a forward who succeeds more regularly elsewhere. But if Detroit hopes to solve the spacing problems caused by their offseason acquisitions, they’ll need to get especially creative on the offensive end of the floor.

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