The Detroit Pistons' Future May Depend On NBA "Hack-A" Rules Changes
Despite a first-round NBA Playoffs loss to Cleveland, Detroit has a promising future. But the Pistons' ceiling largely will be determined by the future of the intentional fouling strategy used on Andre Drummond.
Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports
This article is part of VICE Sports' 2016 NBA Playoffs Coverage.
For the Detroit Pistons, the most important occurrence of the coming NBA offseason will be completely outside of the team's control.
The Pistons' season ended with a first-round playoff sweep by the Cleveland Cavaliers. This was no real surprise, as the top-seeded Cavs were overwhelmingly favored—and will continue to be so throughout this year's Eastern Conference Playoffs, provided LeBron James remains healthy—while the Pistons were just dipping their toes back into the postseason waters after a long absence.
There are many reasons for optimism in the Motor City. Detroit's core is young and has room to grow. Coach/President of Basketball Operations Stan Van Gundy has pulled off some astute moves to add talented wings Tobias Harris and Marcus Morris. Rookie Stanley Johnson looks like a real prospect. Plus, the team's franchise cornerstone, center Andre Drummond, already is in place.
Yet Drummond is precisely why the Pistons' future depends less on what they do to improve, and more on pending decisions from the NBA's competition committee.
On one hand, Drummond is a young phenom, perhaps the most athletic big man in the NBA. He had a superb fourth season, making his first All-Star Game while leading the league in rebounding and and using his pick-and-roll finishing and offensive board work to keep one of the worst-shooting, worst ball-moving offenses in the league afloat.
On the other hand, Drummond can't shoot free throws. Like, at all. His 35.5 percent from the line is the worst-ever mark for any player attempting at least 250 in a season. That encourages Detroit's opponents to employ the "hack-a" strategy of intentionally fouling Drummond—an oft-effective tactic that turns the Pistons' best asset into a liability, and can leave Van Gundy with little choice but to sit his most important player out.
Enter the league's decision makers, starting with commissioner Adam Silver, who are expected to adopt rules changes this summer aimed at eliminating "hack-a" outright. Just as it's hard to fault coaches for taking advantage of a strategy that works, it's easy to see why the NBA wants it gone: nobody buys tickets or tunes in to watch otherwise dominant players like Drummond and Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan be fouled 25 feet from the basket, only to be subsequently humiliated at the free throw line. It's boring, odds-driven, and game flow-clogging. An unentertaining variation on pop-a-shot.
What will the tweaked rules look like? No one yet knows. But one thing is clear: the results will affect Detroit more than any team in the league, and likely will determine the ultimate ceiling of what appears to be an Eastern Conference up-and-comer.
Against the Cavaliers, the Pistons often looked like a No. 8 seed. Reggie Jackson struggled with late-game execution. Morris continued to combine his tantalizing talent with a maddening inconsistency. Harris and Jackson were similarly up-and-down in their first doses of playoff action, which is to be expected. Detroit needs better play from its backup point guard, and more depth overall, but those are areas that can be addressed with shrewd personnel moves.
Regardless, the Pistons were competitive throughout the series (besides the second half of Game 3). Kentavious Caldwell-Pope punctuated an extremely successful third season, in which he emerged as one of the NBA's top perimeter defenders, by delivering a strong two-way performance. Detroit should be much more dangerous next year, provided Van Gundy—or the league—can resolve the Drummond "hack-a" conundrum.
This season, Van Gundy frequently removed Drummond from the Pistons' lineup down the stretch of games. Sometimes, Van Gundy would stick with backup Aron Baynes even after the current protections from "hack-a" granted in the last minutes of games kicked in. The result? Drummond appeared in only 70 percent of Detroit's available "closing time" minutes—defined here as last six minutes and overtime of games where the margin was under 10 points. This was the lowest figure for any of this season's All-Stars, and by far the lowest among non-San Antonio Spurs or Atlanta Hawks players (both squads follow a more egalitarian subbing pattern than most teams, leading to wider variations in late game playing time)
That's a problem, given that Drummond is almost certainly Detroit's best player. And it's really a problem given that Drummond is his team's most important player. Van Gundy very consciously has been molding the Pistons into something resembling his Dwight Howard-led Orlando Magic teams, where surrounding a physically dominant, freakishly athletic center with versatile, multi-positional shooters led to one NBA Finals appearance and a few other near-misses. For the Pistons, not being able to fully deploy Drummond in the highest-leverage portion of games is a bit like constantly sacrificing one's queen in chess: victory is still possible, but why make it so unnecessarily difficult?
This conundrum is compounded by the fact that the Pistons are at a slight disadvantage in terms of arraying talent around Drummond. One of the chief drawbacks of the coach/president of basketball operations combo (enjoy Tom Thibodeau's defensive genius, Minnesota Timberwolves, but beware) is that the short-term and more narrow focus of the coach can lead to longer-term details being missed. In Detroit, this has taken the form of waiving Josh Smith, a move imminently defensible from a purely basketball standpoint, but far less so from the financial side, given that the Pistons will be paying Smith over $5.3 million per season until 2019/20.
On top of the Smith fiasco, the team bid against themselves for the services of Jackson in free agency, and probably overpaid for Baynes. Why does this matter? Because once Drummond's expected max contract kicks in this offseason, the Pistons will be nearly capped out. The standpoint is perhaps a bit rosier for the summer of 2017, but Caldwell-Pope will be up for a new deal at that time as well.
As such, there will be narrow windows to add outside talent in each offseason, and adding significant talent will be much more difficult than might be expected for a rising young team. In turn, that means Detroit needs to maximize the players it already has—if Drummond is your best player, and your roster is built to work around him, he darn well needs to be on the floor when it matters most.
Will "hack-a" rules changes allow that to happen? It's too soon to say. Fully predicting the effects of any rule change is a fool's errand—like Father Time and billable hours, unintended consequences remain undefeated. But it's quite possible that some of those consequences could be bad for the Pistons.
For example, assume the league goes with a "take it on the side" option, which would allow Detroit to restart a possession instead of sending Drummond to the line. In that case, the proper strategy would be to play incredibly physically any time Drummond attempts to involve himself in the action. Why? Either the refs allow such contact to become normalized, hurting the timing and flow of Detroit's offense, or they blow the whistle and allow the Pistons the choice of Drummond free throws or taking the ball on the side. Either way equals advantage defense, as plays starting from deadball situations are generally far lower efficiency than those starting from open play, and Drummond's poor free throw shooting is the basis for the whole conundrum in the first place.
Aside from the limiting factor of foul trouble, such a rule could easily be lose-lose for Detroit. And that's just one of the proposed solutions for the "hack-a" epidemic. Whatever fix is selected will have outsized impact on Detroit, likely more than any other franchise.