Monday, March 16, 2015

Lottery Teams We Hardly Knew Ye 2014-15: Detroit Pistons and Utah Jazz

Hi all,

After honing my craft for a year in an Australian newspaper I'm back at uni doing a Masters degree, which means I finally have time to get back to this blog.

What better way than by bringing back the "Lottery Teams We Hardly Knew Ye" series I did a while back.

With the regular season rapidly nearing its end, the focus shifts to the serious business of the playoffs as we all try to forget that the Sixers and Knicks were part of the NBA this season.

But before that happens, this series will take a look at each of the lottery-bound teams set to miss out on the post-season, offering analysis, a review of their key players and outlook for the future based on my observations from a single game late in the season.

First up are the Utah Jazz and the Detroit Pistons, who played each other on Saturday, March 14, with the Jazz earning a 88-85 win at home.

Let's start with the road team.


The Pistons were a massive disappointment early in the season as Josh Smith stymied Stan Van Gundy's efforts to recreate the success he enjoyed in Orlando in his return to the bench.

At 5-23, the Pistons straight up waived Smith, proving that you can't put a price on chemistry (although you could argue it's around the $26 million Smith was owed in the final two years of his contract).

The run that followed instilled belief in fans that the team could deliver on its pre-season promise and find a place in the playoffs, until Brandon Jennings went down for the season with a ruptured achilles in late January.

With the trade-deadline looming, Van Gundy (also serving as GM) traded off a few pieces (including back-up PG DJ Augustin) to acquire Oklahoma City malcontent Reggie Jackson from the Thunder.

Jackson had been making rumblings about wanting to start since before the season and the Thunder traded for Dion Waiters as insurance.

After "Neon" Dion arrived, Jackson's production fell off a cliff and they were happy to let him go (and pick up Enes Kanter to boot!) rather than overpay to keep him in the summer.

So it was that the Pistons, after a tumultuous season with a fluid roster, prepared to face off against Utah.

From the outset, the difference between the two teams' mindsets was apparent.

Utah played with a collective intensity, moving the ball and savagely rebuffing entry into the paint.

However, Detroit seemed more like a collection of pieces that didn't quite fit.

Reggie Jackson learned his craft from Russell Westbrook, but seems to have picked up the Thunder All-Star's worst traits without realising the limitations of his own talent.

While Russ can afford to be in attack mode because he's a supremely gifted scorer and athlete, Jackson is far less capable of finishing in the paint or even getting past his man to get there.

It's hardly surprising that a bench player who wanted to compete against the best in the NBA played selfish basketball, but it was ugly to see him dribble the air out of the ball and take shots that were questionable to say the least.

What's worse is Reggie possesses none of the chemistry with Detroit's talented young frontcourt players Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe that Brandon Jennings had forged in Smith's absence.

Van Gundy is embracing the pace and space era, but in Jackson, he has a point guard who seems determined to resurrect hero ball in Motor City, bringing the numerous problems with OKC's offensive schemes with him to the new team.

As the game went on, the Pistons' starting PG was benched for Spencer Dinwiddie, who registered six assists to Jackson's zero and finished the game a +/ 10, while Jackson earned a -13.

With Reggie Jackson a restricted free agent after the season, it will be interesting to see if Stan the Man brings him back or forms a fucking wall to keep him out of Detroit and hopes for a speedy recovery for Jennings.

Going back to Drummond (who is one of my favourite young players), I didn't get to see much of him as he left the game with a concussion at half-time, but it wasn't a strong showing.

Matching up against the insanely long Rudy Gobert, Drummond struggled to keep him off the boards and couldn't find a rhythm.

Coming out of high school, Drummond wowed me with his ball-handling, lateral quickness and body control facing up.

So why is he being forced to play with his back-to-the-basket?

While he does have decent touch at the rim, he doesn't have the size of a Cousins to be able to just bully people in the post and it would be great to see him get an opportunity to face up those few big men who have him beat in sheer length like Gobert.

Defensively, Drummond needs to improve his awareness and team D, but his raw shot-blocking instincts remain and hopefully another year with Van Gundy at the helm will give him a better understanding of anchoring a team.

Part of the reason for Drummond's lack of face up opportunities and defensive struggles might be his frontcourt partner, Greg Monroe.

The Georgetown product arrived in Detroit as part of the 2010 draft, which also featured Utah players Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors, and instilled hope in the franchise as a mobile C, capable of getting steals, scoring in the post and making smart passes.

But when asked to move to PF to accomodate Drummond, Monroe's defensive limitations because apparent, as he no longer enjoyed the speed advantage he had before and had less room to work in the paint, with Drummond also lurking near the rim.

Both players have different strengths, but a common weakness requiring them to stay near the rim makes it difficult for this duo to co-exist happily.

Monroe had a rough game against Utah, being out-muscled by Favors on several occasions and unable to use his post-moves to get a clean shot against Gobert's looming arms.

Moose's body language was appalling in the early going, constantly complaining at the referees for foul calls that weren't warranted.

After Drummond took a seat, Monroe was able to find a bit more success, but it's uncertain whether he'll be willing to return to the Pistons as an unrestricted free agent this season (especially if he's relying on Reggie Jackson to feed him in the post).

Another player who had a poor showing was Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, the 6'6" shooting guard from Georgia in his second year as a pro.

After blowing up summer league, it seemed like KCP was getting comfortable in the League and had some success early alongside Jennings, but he was struggling to find open looks for threes.

Despite a disappointing year, I strongly believe KCP will be a long-term started in Detroit and find his feet in the NBA.

He's a better shooter than his numbers suggest, gives effort defensively, has ideal size and doesn't seem to have an ego problem.

Dinwiddie looks to be another keeper for the rebuilding Pistons, with a good understanding of when to shoot, a willingness to make the quick pass and a humble approach.

He's an ideal back-up for this team once Jennings returns.

Overall, the Pistons have a lot of work to do before they are a legitimate playoff team.

Their ball movement needs work, the spacing was appalling and it was only through the efforts of proven vets like Joel Anthony and Anthony Tolliver that they were able to fight back in the 4th quarter, while Reggie Jackson watched from the bench.

With the playoffs out of reach, the Pistons need to address their spacing issues in the draft with a stretch-4.

Luckily, there could be a few options available in their projected draft range, including Kristaps Porzingis, Trey Lyles and Myles Turner.

Failing that, a small forward who can spread the floor and defend is a must, with Kelly Oubre the best candidate in their draft range.

After missing out on the first round of the 2014 draft, the pressure will be on Van Gundy to deliver this year.


As I touched on earlier, the Jazz were the polar opposite of the Pistons in terms of demeanour, chemistry and play style in this game.

The Jazz kept their man Gordon Hayward in the off-season, had Favors locked up already, another talented big in Kanter, a polished young PG in Trey Burke, an ideal sixth man in Alec Burks, a lengthy menace in Rudy Gobert on the bench and of course, lottery pick Dante Exum, the raw kid out of the Australian high school ranks.

On paper, this team had a promising young player at every position, enviable big man depth and just enough experience from Hayward and Favors to think about threatening for the playoffs.

Instead, the team struggled early, with Kanter and Favors suffering from the same issues defensively as Drummond and Monroe, Burks going down for the season after a promising start and Exum seeming totally overwhelmed by the play of the NBA.

However, after basically giving Kanter away at the deadline and moving Rudy Gobert into the starting line-up and Trey Burke to the bench, the team has been on a tear.

Although Favors and Gobert don't space the floor to the three-point line, Favors can hit the mid-range J and is quick enough to get out to PFs on the outside, while Gobert has been a revelation in his second season, dunking on everything, gobbling up the boards like m&ms and blocking so many shots that he earned the nickname Stifle Tower - or the French Rejection if you prefer.

This was the first time I watched a full game of Exum since the Nike Hoop Summit, where I fell in love with his amazing first step, great body control, end-to-end speed and defensive quickness.

Although he didn't wow me like he did then, it was clear that he was no bust.

Exum displayed sound instincts for making the right pass, knew when to drive and when to dish - in particular knowing how to get Gobert dunks - and despite not getting much lift on his jumper, he was able to hit a few open 3s.

Exum's shooting form reminds me of Jason Kidd in Dallas, it's very stable, has a fairly low release point, but it's effective.

Defensively, Exum was a big reason why Jackson struggled to get clean looks, using his length at 6'6" to threaten passing lanes and contest shots.

Like Harrison Barnes, Exum looks best in the starting line-up, as opposed to carrying the second unit and it's a credit to Jazz coach Quin Snyder that he recognised that.

Exum looks like what Michael Carter-Williams should have been, but will still need to tighten up his handle and get stronger.

Favors has come a long way since 2010, when he was taken third in the draft by the Nets before coming to Utah in the Deron Williams trade.

The Jazz under Ty Corbin seemed determined to turn the natural PF into a C, but he never had quite enough size to play the position effectively and seems much more comfortable alongside Gobert at the 4.

He has enough size to score over guys like Monroe and the length to protect the rim when teams try to drag Robert out of the paint.

There were a few notable instances where Favors flat-out annihilated Monroe's shot attempts in the post and he seemed a lot springier than he was last year.

Rudy Gobert took everyone by surprise this season and while I'd heard how well he'd been playing since the All-Star break, it's not until you watch him over the course of a game that you realise why people are saying he could have been the #1 pick in a redraft (even over guys like the Greek Freak).

He runs the floor extremely well, he's got quick feet for his size and, critically, he plays within his limits, rolling to the basket for finishes, setting enormous screens and getting boards.

Unlike similar behemoths Hasheem Thabeet and Roy Hibbert, Gobert has a strong enough base that he doesn't get pushed around on the block or boxed out for rebounds.

Utah found an absolute steal in Gobert and his chemistry with Exum is set to improve relations between France and Australia exponentially.

Gordon Hayward, the de facto franchise player in Utah, didn't have a great game, finishing with 12 points on 4-8 shooting, with 3 assists, 5 board and 6 turnovers.

However, his impact can't be measured in stats and he was a steady presence for this young team, not forcing anything, cutting off the ball and making quick decisions.

He was miscast as a first scoring option last season and while that hasn't quite changed, the development of the player around him has allowed Hayward to be more efficient.

He's bulked up considerably since entering the NBA and is a true mismatch at the SG position, with great size and quickness.

Although I was desperate to see Hayward reunited with Brad Stevens at the Celtics, it's hard to see him leaving when his contract is up now that Ty Corbin is gone and team chemistry much improved.

If the Jazz had a weakness in this game it was their bench, with Trey Burke and Trevor Booker doing their best to keep a second-unit lacking in talent afloat with Burks still injured.

Burke drew comparisons to Chris Paul early in his college career for his poise, polished skill-set and leadership traits.

However, after a solid, but unspectacular rookie season, the Jazz decided to upgrade at point with Dante Exum having a higher ceiling.

But to Burke's credit, he didn't complain when he was moved to the bench and he seemed content in his role as sixth man so long as the team was winning (which it has been lately).

How long Burke is happy to come off the bench is unclear, but if Utah can sell him on the idea of being a Jamal Crawford type then he'll be a valuable contributor for years to come.

There's also potential for Burke to start alongside Exum once Burks returns, as he possesses the shooting range to play off the ball, while Exum has enough size to guard 2s (allowing Hayward to switch to the small forward).

Looking to the future, there isn't much Utah lacks outside of a superstar wing scorer, but given the way the league is going away from hero-ball, they might not need one.

If they can find a 3-and-D wing like Oubre to either start or come off the bench or a power forward to stretch the floor when they want to go small (similar to Detroit), then it's not hard to see them making a playoff appearance as early as next season if some of the perenial playoff powers drop off in the West.

It's a shame this team won't get a chance to play in the post-season, but good things come to those who wait, and there's no shortage of upside on this roster.

Despite a long-held dislike of Utah stemming from the Jordan-era and my personal dislike of Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer, this young team might make a Jazz fan of me yet.


Detroit has talent but doesn't fit, whereas Utah has great chemistry but is lacking that potential superstar.

This off-season will be critical for Detroit with two key pieces able to leave in free agency, whereas Utah just needs to hold the course and add a few veterans to anchor their bench.

I'll try to make the next one a little shorter, but it's good to be back and congratulations if you made it this far.

Watch this space for the next edition of Lottery Teams We Hardly Knew Ye.

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