AUBURN HILLS – A quick scan of the transactions summary suggests the Pistons accomplished what was arguably Stan Van Gundy’s most critical off-season goal: improved 3-point shooting.
Avery Bradley and Langston Galloway each shot 39 percent from the 3-point arc last season, which would have tied for best mark on the Pistons. Luke Kennard hit 44 percent from the college arc at Duke and then provided promising signs, if not yet concrete evidence, that the adjustment to NBA speed and greater distance of the pro arc wouldn’t overwhelm him by hitting 11 of 23 in five Summer League games.
Anthony Tolliver has long been an above-average 3-point shooter who as a reliable bench contributor for Van Gundy’s playoff team two seasons ago took 80 percent of his shots from the arc. Bullock returned in free agency after leading the Pistons during his injury-riddled 2016-17 season at 38.4 percent, down from 41.5 the previous year.
Bradley, Galloway, Kennard, Tolliver, Bullock … yeah, that’s a lot of 3-point shooting added or retained.
But a few questions need answers before it’s safe to say the Pistons are going to significantly better their rankings of 26th in 3-point attempts per game (26.4) or 28th in 3-point accuracy (.330).
The least of them come at shooting guard. With Kentavious Caldwell-Pope vacating the 33-plus minutes he played last season for Bradley, the Pistons can most reliably count on improved shooting at that spot. Bradley has been above 35 percent in each of the past four seasons while seeing his attempts tick up; Caldwell-Pope’s 35 percent last season was a career best.
But a more emphatic reason their shooting figures to improve from the backcourt spot alongside their point guards is the minutes Galloway will play over last year’s backup shooting guard, Stanley Johnson. The Pistons went from Caldwell-Pope’s 35 percent to Johnson’s 29 percent when Van Gundy went to the bench last season.
But if Johnson succeeds Marcus Morris as the starting small forward, the Pistons probably face regression – both in attempts and accuracy. Johnson took about 20 percent fewer 3-point attempts on a per-minute basis last season than Morris, who saw his accuracy drop to .331.
Johnson can expect to see his minutes increase over last season’s 18, but he’s probably not going to eat up all of the 32 minutes Morris played last year. How Van Gundy fills the minutes Johnson doesn’t play at small forward could more than make up for the dropoff the Pistons have to anticipate in going from Morris to Johnson – though they certainly expect Johnson to show improvement over his second season when he was coping with an off-season adjustment to his shooting form.
Tobias Harris could get some of the non-Johnson minutes at small forward, especially if Henry Ellenson forces his way into the rotation, Jon Leuer’s play demands he get additional time at power forward or Tolliver’s shooting forces the issue.
But Van Gundy said after signing Bullock that he expects to play more with three-guard lineups that would mean minutes for Bullock or Kennard at that spot, too.
If Van Gundy wants to field a lineup with his best shooters to spark comebacks, he could go with Galloway and Bradley in the backcourt, Tolliver and Bullock or Kennard at forward and Leuer or Ellenson at center. They’d be challenged to rebound and give up something defensively, but that’s the type of tradeoffs a lot of teams are more willing to make these days – and that makes it a little easier to counter with a similar lineup and engage in shootouts.
That isn’t likely to be a lineup staple, but you could make a few tweaks – Jackson for Galloway, Drummond in the middle – and come to a compromise that still allows for a unit that offers better 3-point shooting than the Pistons employed last season.
Another of Van Gundy’s off-season priorities was adding secondary ballhandlers to play alongside Jackson and Ish Smith. Doubling the number of players capable of attacking off the dribble has a multiplying effect that tends to create more and better open shots, 3-pointers included. Bradley and Galloway both fit the bill. So does Kennard, who might be the best passer of the bunch. An increased role for Bullock means more ball movement and more cutting, strengths of his.
And that could be just as important an ingredient in the quest to field a better 3-point shooting team as merely adding players with a history of making better than the league average from the 3-point line. Those raw numbers that show the Pistons didn’t take many triples last year and didn’t make nearly enough won’t only be helped by adding better shooters but by adding players capable of creating better shots.