Detroit’s Best Offensive Weapon Comes Off the Bench; Brilliant or Foolish?

By Stephen Shea, Ph.D. (@SteveShea33)

February 26, 2017

On Thursday, February 23, in a matchup against the 24 win and 33 loss Charlotte Hornets, the Pistons rolled out their now usual starting lineup of Reggie Jackson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Jon Leuer, Marcus Morris, and the big man, Andre Drummond.

Charlotte was the better team early.  They jumped out to a 17-10 lead 6 minutes in forcing Detroit coach Stan Van Gundy to call a timeout and sub in the team’s leading scorer, Tobias Harris.  Less than 3 minutes later, it’s 19-19.

The two teams battled back and forth in the 2nd quarter leaving the score tied at 41 with 6:30 to go. After a Nicolas Batum 3, Stan called a 20-second timeout and went back to his starters.  About 4 minutes later, Detroit is down 9 and Stan once again turned to his bench.  He brought in Ish Smith and Tobias, who kept the game from getting out of reach before half.

Stan went back to the starters for most of the 3rd and headed in the 4th down 15.

A Tobias-led group had dug the Pistons out of a 7-point deficit in the 1st.  Now, Stan turned to the same group to overcome a 15-point 4th quarter margin.  Drummond and Jackson did not play in the 4th quarter.  Ish and Tobias led a comeback that sent the game into overtime.

In overtime, Harris, Ish, KCP, Leuer, and Morris outscored Charlotte 14-8 to earn the win.

Charlotte outscored Detroit by 20 when Drummond was on the floor.  They outscored Detroit by 14 in Reggie Jackson’s 20 minutes.  When Harris and Ish were on the floor, Detroit outscored Charlotte by 20.  The starting lineup struggled mightily, and then the bench, which was led by Ish and Tobias, bailed them out.  This has become something of a pattern in Detroit.

In the last 10 games, Detroit was +79 with Harris and Smith on the floor and -48 with Jackson and Leuer playing.  Harris and Smith were +19 per 48 minutes.  For comparison, the Warriors were +17 per 48 with Steph Curry and Kevin Durant on the floor in the same time span.  Detroit is playing as well as anybody when Harris and Smith sub in.  They are playing as poorly as anybody otherwise.

How did Detroit get to this point and these possibly nonsensical rotations?


Detroit was playing solid basketball before Jackson’s return from injury on December 4th.  As the above timeline indicates, they played poorly shortly after his return.  In an 82-game season, a 10-game span is significant.  After the 3-7 stretch following Jackson’s season debut, Stan needed to assess his rotations, identify the problem and address it.

Stan didn’t stand pat. He decided to make a bold move, pulling the team’s leading scorer Tobias from the starting lineup.  (Tobias did see some starts after December 23 to cover injuries.)

Has it worked?  Detroit has been one game over .500 since that move.  That doesn’t suggest playoff contender.  To make things worse, they’ve had a negative net rating, suggesting their record might be a little inflated.

With the benefit of an additional 27 games since Stan shuffled the lineups, let’s try to determine what the problem is in Detroit and see if Stan has made the right moves.

Is Tobias the Problem?

Right now, there are 100 players in the NBA that have played at least 1000 minutes and have a usage percentage over 20% (i.e. they end over 20% of the team’s possessions by, for example, taking a shot or committing a turnover, when they are on the court).  These are each team’s 3-4 top go-to offensive weapons.  Detroit has 4 in the group and each is marked in the following image, which ranks the group by True Shooting % (an adjusted field goal % that accounts for 3s and free throws).

TS% Detroit

The best offenses are the most efficient offenses.  The most efficient offenses are the ones with players that are the most efficient.  Durant, Curry, Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, James Harden, and Chris Paul are all in the top 10 in TS%.  Tobias is a respectable 26th, above Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard, Kyrie Irving, Paul George, and DeMarcus Cousins.  Drummond, Jackson and Morris are at the other end, the not-so-good end.

This efficiency from Tobias is not an anomaly.  Actually, it’s part of a very clear trend of improvement.  Tobias is 24 years old, already Detroit’s best go-to option, and still improving significantly each season.

Harris TS% by Season

There are striking parallels here to the actions of Tobias’s last team.  The Orlando Magic have now rolled through a number of quality players including Tobias, Channing Frye, Victor Oladipo, and Serge Ibaka in attempt to turn around their struggling franchise.  It hasn’t worked because they haven’t correctly identified the problem.  Here’s a little hint.

TS% Orlando

Detroit’s apparent commitment to Jackson and Drummond in spite of their obvious struggles is eerily similar to Orlando’s odd fascination with Vucevic and Payton.

Recent trends are consistent with season averages.  Over the last 10 games, the Pistons are getting more value from a Tobias Harris shot or trip to the line than from any of their other high-usage players.

DET TS% last 10

Does Starting Matter?

It’s possible for a player to come off the bench and still be the team’s most used offensive weapon.  Starting the game isn’t quite as important as how many minutes the player gets, whether or not he is on the floor at the end of games and how the team uses him.

In the last 10 games, Tobias is averaging 26.9 minutes a game.  That’s 5th on the team and about 8 minutes less a game than Marcus Morris is averaging.  Tobias is getting under 30 frontcourt touches per game, which is 6th on the team.  He’s averaging under 12 FGA per game, less than KCP, Morris and Drummond, and only a hair ahead of Leuer.  Tobias is Detroit’s leading scorer and, by a wide margin, their most efficient go-to weapon, and he’s getting less FGA than 75 NBA players are averaging this season.

It’s possible for a team to bring in a player off the bench for 35 minutes a night and feature that player in their offense, but that’s not what’s happening in Detroit.  That’s not what usually happens in the NBA.

Yes, starting matters.

Tobias’s Offensive Versatility

It’s possible for a player to be efficient while not being versatile.  For example, Kyle Korver is a very efficient offensive player, but is only elite in one area, catch-and-shoot 3s.  No one is going to confuse Korver for a go-to offensive weapon, the type of player that a team can run its offense through.  Is Tobias that type of player?

Tobias is efficient on-the-ball, off-the-ball, inside, and out.  The following image shows Detroit’s most efficient offensive weapons in each of spot ups, post ups, and ball handler possessions in the pick and roll.

DET play type

Tobias leads the team in all three categories.  More than that, his efficiency as the ball handler in pick and rolls is better than that of Isaiah Thomas, Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry, James Harden, Paul George, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, …. Among players with at least 90 possessions, Tobias Harris’s 1.07 points per ball handler possession in pick and rolls leads the NBA!

So goes Tobias, so goes Detroit

The Detroit Pistons live and die by Tobias Harris.  When Harris is +5 or better in plus/minus, the team is 20-0.  When Harris has a negative plus/minus, the team is 3-27.  It’s not like this for other players.  The Pistons have won 4 times when Reggie Jackson had a plus/minus between -12 and -25.  The Pistons have 8 wins when the team was outscored by the opponent during Drummond’s minutes.  And as was mentioned in the introduction, Detroit just won when Drummond was -20.

We’ve already established that Tobias is Detroit’s most efficient go-to scorer.  Naturally, we’d expect Detroit to be better when they get more shots for Tobias.  They are.  Detroit is 9-5 when Tobias takes at least 16 shots.  They are 13-16 when Tobias gets at least 12 FGA but not more than 15.  They are 6-9 when Tobias gets less than 12 shots.

Harris FGA DET Win%

Are Detroit’s Rotations Brilliant or Foolish?

Detroit’s struggles after the return of Jackson forced Stan to make a move.  He boldly chose to take Tobias, the team’s leading scorer and most efficient offensive weapon, out of the starting lineup.  Has it worked?

Detroit’s recent record might suggest that it has.  The team is 7-3 in their last 10 games. But that’s misleading.  The team is 6-1 in that time span against teams currently out of the playoff picture.  Detroit’s starters are struggling (against weak competition) and the bench is bailing them out.  That might work against teams fighting for lottery position, but it’s not going to work against a playoff contender.

Tobias Harris is 24 years old and under contract for another 2 seasons.  He’s improved every season and shows no signs of slowing down.  He’s already the team’s most efficient scorer and the numbers suggest Detroit is considerably better when Tobias gets more offensive opportunities.  Tobias is something that’s working well for Stan Van Gundy.  He should be the primary option for Detroit this season and a big part of their plans for future years.

Instead, Stan has moved Tobias to the bench, limiting his minutes and suppressing his shots.  Stan was right to make a move when the team struggled upon Jackson’s return, but he made the wrong one.  Stan replaced Tobias with Leuer in the starting lineup.  He should’ve replaced Jackson with Ish.  In the last 10 games, Detroit has been outscored by 48 points in the 204 minutes with Jackson and Leuer on the floor. Detroit has outscored opponents by 79 points when Harris and Ish were on the floor.

It’s time to return Harris and Ish to the starting lineup.

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