Extra Pass: Are the Detroit Pistons putting a new twist on tanking or being lousy?

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BOSTON – There can be a fine line between unintentionally losing and tanking.

Tanking is encouraging, on some level, your own team to lose in order to gain better position for the draft. That can mean assembling a weak roster, increasing playing time for young and unready players, sitting good players longer due to injury and/or not playing with maximum effort.

Of course, some teams do none of those things and still lose. See the Knicks, New York.

So, how can we tell when a losing teams are tanking and when they’re not?

I’d argue the most sure-fire clue is how much playing time they give their best players. The fewer the minutes, the more likely teams are to be tanking and vice versa.

But the Detroit Pistons are turning that theory on its head.

The Pistons use Josh Smith, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond more than 18 minutes per game, a solid chunk of playing time for arguably the team’s top three players.

“We want to get our best players on the floor together, and that’s just the way we do it,” Pistons coach John Loyer said.

Makes sense.

Except Detroit has been terrible in the 1,140 minutes the trio has shared the court. The offense lacks spacing, and the defense is even worse.

With those three, Detroit’s net rating is -7.5. Of the 43 threesomes to play together so much this season, only one has been worse and just two others are even in the range.

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The only worse trio played for the lowly Philadelphia 76ers – Spencer Hawes, Evan Turner and Thaddeus Young. But Hawes plays for the Cavaliers now, and Turner is with the Pacers. Soon, Smith-Monroe-Drummond will pass that Philadelphia unit in minutes.

The other two similar lineups belong to the Pistons, but they’re really the result of Smith-Monroe-Drummond bringing down everything. One features Jennings rather than Monroe, and the other includes Jennings instead of Drummond. Considering the Smith-Monroe-Drummond trio has played more than 90 percent of its minutes with Jennings, I wouldn’t read too much into Jennings’ inclusion. He’s just being swept along with the current.

Otherwise, every trio to play this much is near neutral at worst or ranges into the very elite on NBA lineups.

Smith-Monroe-Drummond isn’t the worst trio in the NBA. What’s really amazing is how much the unit has played.

Teams typically don’t stick with something that isn’t working this long – at least when they’re trying to win.

Are the Pistons that blind to their weak spot?

Or do they have something else in mind?

When teams tank by playing their young players, they’re also getting the implicit benefit of developing their young players. It’s effectively doubling down on potential.

Well, Detroit’s potential lies with Smith, Monroe and Drummond. No matter how unlikely they are to click on the court together, the three somehow figuring out how to complement each other would give the Pistons their best chance of maximizing this roster.

And if it doesn’t work, well, a few extra losses could help the Pistons keep their draft pick. As a result of the Ben Gordon trade, they owe Charlotte their pick this year unless it falls in the top eight. The Pistons currently have the NBA’s 10th-worst record.

The Pistons might be the first team ever to tank by playing their best players more minutes together.

Honestly, though, if I had to guess from the outside, I don’t believe the Pistons are tanking. They’ve spent too much time, from ownership down, making the playoffs the clear goal. Trailing Atlanta for eighth in the East by three games, the Pistons at least have a shot at the postseason.

Especially if they stagger minutes between Smith, Monroe and Drummond.

When the Pistons have used exactly two of those players – whether it’s Smith-Drummond, Monroe-Drummond or Smith-Monroe – they’ve outscored opponents. That the Pistons have shown such a strong alternative to lumping all three together and still keeps starting all three game after game does leave me unable to completely shake the tanking theory, though.

I asked Monroe about the possibility of shifting rotations to accommodate more two-big and fewer three-big lineups.

“Us splitting up time with just two of us on the court,” Monroe said, “that would defeat the purpose of us being on the team together

Report: Jim Boylen to Bulls: I learned from Gregg Popovich. Bulls to Boylen: You’re no Gregg Popovich

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Shortly after the Bulls fired Fred Hoiberg and promoted Jim Boylen to head coach, Boylen said Chicago players weren’t in shape. Boylen has tried to fix that with lengthy and intense practices – including one scheduled for yesterday, the day after a back-to-back. But Bulls players rebelled with a threatened boycott then ultimately compromised on a team meeting in lieu of practice.

The details of that standoff are something.

Vincent Goodwill and Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports:

When Boylen arrived Sunday, the players stood and told Boylen they weren’t practicing, sources said, with the sides meeting to express their issues. Zach LaVine and Justin Holiday were the most vocal, sources said.

Boylen repeatedly referenced his days on the San Antonio Spurs staff and instances in which coach Gregg Popovich pulled all five players off the floor to send a message, sources said.

A player responded, sources said, telling Boylen in essence that they aren’t the Spurs and, more importantly, he isn’t Popovich.

The wildest part of all this: The Bulls already said they plan to keep Boylen as head coach next season. They’re not treating him as an interim.

But Boylen must dig himself out of a hole just to make it through the rest of this season.

Popovich can be hard on his players, but he has also proven that, if they buy in, he’ll help them perform at a high level. Boylen hasn’t. Absent demonstrated Xs-and-Os and developmental acumen, he just comes across as overbearing. NBA players don’t want to be treated like children.

The Bulls even complained to the players’ union, according to Goodwill and Haynes.

In the reported exchange, Boylen sounded like David Fizdale with Marc Gasol. The former Grizzlies coach and current Knicks coach had to learn from that.

Boylen could grow from this, too. But he put himself behind the eight ball with his harsh start.

Rumor: LeBron James suggested Cavaliers trade Kyrie Irving to Trail Blazers for Damian Lillard

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When Kyrie Irving requested a trade from the Cavaliers last year, LeBron James told the Cavs not to trade the disgruntled star. But LeBron also made no effort to win over Irving.

If that weren’t unhelpful enough…

Ric Bucher of Bleacher Report:

League sources say that when James became convinced Irving couldn’t be persuaded to stay in Cleveland, he suggested to the Cavs front office that it deal Irving to the Blazers for All-Star point guard Damian Lillard. The Cavs never called the Blazers

Of course LeBron wanted Lillard. Lillard is very good, even better than Irving.

But that deal probably wouldn’t appeal to the Trail Blazers. Though Irving is younger and cheaper, Lillard is locked up two additional seasons. That greater team control is huge.

Perhaps, the Cavs could have bridged the gap in Irving’s and Lillard’s values by sending draft picks to and/or taking bad contracts from Portland. LeBron left Cleveland for the Lakers after last season, anyway. Long-term issues like lost picks and toxic contracts weren’t necessarily his problem. It’s more understandable the Cavaliers resisted.*

*However, a team with an all-time great like LeBron in his problem should have been more committed to winning a title last season than they were. Those opportunities come along only so often.

What makes this particularly interesting: The Lakers are trying to get another star. Does LeBron still want to play with Lillard? The Trail Blazers insist they’re keeping Lillard, and he has repeatedly said he wants to stay in Portland. But LeBron wanting Lillard in Los Angeles could be the seed that grows into something bigger.

Report: Knicks have held no internal discussions about trading for John Wall

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A rumor emerged the Knicks could be looking to trade for Wizards point guard John Wall.

That always seemed dubious. Marc Berman of the New York Post cited “Some in the league believe.”

But now comes the counter-leak, anyway…

Ian Begley of ESPN:

This is an overcorrection that only makes the Knicks look worse. Not internally discussing a trade candidate does not inspire confidence. Sound organizations evaluate their options. The Knicks should discuss Wall internally.

They should also likely conclude it’s not worth trading for him.

Wall is due about $171 million over the next four seasons. He’ll be 29 when that super-max contract extension kicks in, and he already looks hurt, lazy and grouchy.

Maybe if the Knicks still had Joakim Noah to trade, it might makes sense, though still probably not. As is, New York doesn’t have enough bad contracts to match Wall’s toxic del.

So, I don’t expect New York – or anyone – to trade for Wall. But I’d be more encouraged by the Knicks if they internally discussed this then passed on Wall. If we’re to believe this latest leak,* who knows what they’ll decide if they ever talk about Wall?

*Which I don’t, for what it’s worth. I suspect even the Knicks at least discussed why trading for Wall was a bad idea.

Denver Nuggets sign Nick Young

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The Nuggets have so many injured backcourt playersJamal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton and Isaiah Thomas (plus forwards Paul Millsap, Michael Porter, Jarred Vanderbilt are also hurt).

Denver is adding a reinforcement – Nick Young.

Nuggets:

Young has had a rough go since winning a championship with the Warriors last season. The 33-year-old is probably on his last legs as an NBA player.

But Denver needs someone. Young might still be serviceable. He can make 3-pointers, though he defends like a sieve and doesn’t contribute much else offensively. With the ball running through Nikola Jokic, maybe that will be enough – until better Nuggets get healthy.