The Eastern Conference playoff picture is a bit like the Republican Primary race: A bunch of uninspiring candidates clumped together chasing a runaway tyrant.
Although LeBron James and the Cavs are not quite as unlikable as Donald Trump, James’ unrelenting control of the conference has probably outlived its term in the minds of his eastern foes.
The problem with calling for at least a one-year intercession during LeBron’s reign in the East is the lack of a worthy challenger. The second-seeded Bulls are just four games ahead of the eighth-seeded Celtics and only six games ahead of 12th-seeded Wizards. Just about the only two teams that can be confidently ruled out of the postseason picture are the Brooklyn Nets and the Philadelphia 76ers.
The Bulls, Heat and Raptors are what they are: Good, occasionally very good, teams that struggle with consistency and can flip their identities, not necessarily for the better, on the fly. The Hawks have done their best to rebound from the loss of DeMarre Carroll, but Kyle Korver’s dip in effectiveness and their oft-discussed lack of a dominant all-around player makes them a prime candidate for a fruitless postseason run. The Pacers and Celtics have potential, with bright coaches and rosters with interesting talent. Although Indiana likely boasts the conference’s second best player in Paul George, I think it will take some time for these two forward thinking franchises to become more than a throne in the side of the upper-echelon teams.
Of the teams bunched up behind the Cavaliers, the Detroit Pistons appear to have the most room for internal growth with their current roster. Compared to the rest of the conference, the Pistons do not stick out above the rest from top to bottom. But this is a team with a young and dangerous developing duo in Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond and a coach who has constructed a team that complements their individual and collective skills well.
Detroit is a pick-and-roll team through and through, just as Stan Van Gundy would like. Its endgame on almost every possession is to get Jackson involved in a two-man game and to exploit the way the defense chooses to expose itself in order to contain Jackson and Drummond. Only the Lakers’ offense relies more heavily on the pick-and-roll ball handler according to Synergy Sports Technology, and Jackson has been involved with a league-leading 436 pick-and-roll possessions this season, 73 more than Russell Westbrook, who sits in second.
Although Jackson is a burgeoning talent and a fine pick-and-roll player, he carries perhaps the largest burden in the league when it comes to creating offense for his team every possession. He is seventh in usage rate behind a bunch of superstars – Westbrook, Cousins, LeBron, Harden, Curry, Lillard – and does so with an almost exclusively pick-and-roll diet. It would seem that for Detroit to take the next step as a franchise, Jackson is going to need some playmaking help on the perimeter.
Perhaps the most obvious answer, at least at the moment, is Brandon Jennings, who is easing his way back into the rotation and playing pretty well for someone coming off of basketball’s worst injury. But even if Jennings winds up somewhere close to he was prior to his Achilles injury, it is difficult to see him elevating past a super sub role, if only because of the financial commitment the team has made to Jackson (not to mention the fact that Jackson is better).
Instead, I think the player who will make-or-break Detroit’s chances at cancelling the Cavs’ parade to the Finals is Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
Caldwell-Pope is a streaky shooter and an explosive scorer, someone whose hot flashes are capable of swinging games for a Pistons team that otherwise can lack consistent punch from the wing. Marcus Morris has demonstrated a previously untapped ability to score consistently from the pinch post, particularly against mismatches, but the kind of off-the-dribble threat Caldwell-Pope has shown glimpses of being is a more dangerous brand of perimeter scorer.
Of course, the most essential skill for any perimeter scorer is the ability to score from the perimeter. Shocking, I know. It is here where Caldwell-Pope’s value is muddied. Caldwell-Pope is shooting 41.4 percent on drives, 37.6 percent on pull-up shots and 32.3 percent on spot-up shots. His shooting efficiency leaves a lot to be desired, and his lack of consistency as a spotup shooter allows defenses to help more liberally off of him in order to better corral Jackson and Drummond. He’s athletic and a good finisher (62.2 percent shooting in the restricted area) but his driving numbers haven’t lived up to that, indicating he hasn’t been able to create high-quality looks for himself at the rim off the dribble.
Caldwell-Pope is a useful player even in his inconsistent offensive state. He has tremendous defensive chops, which were most apparent during Detroit’s game against the Warriors when KCP did about as good a job defending Steph Curry as we have seen this season. Opponents are shooting 40.3 percent against Caldwell-Pope this season, a 2.8 percent decrease from their usual average, and he’s holding his man to 31.3 percent shooting from 3-point range. The Pistons have a defensive rating of 98.7 when Caldwell-Pope is on the floor, about as good as Indiana’s fourth-ranked defense. When he sits, their defensive rating jumps to 104.2, which is in line with that of a bottom 10 defense.
Lately, Caldwell-Pope has coupled his defensive desire with some substance on the other end. In his past four games, Caldwell-Pope has scored 22 points against the Timberwolves, 16 versus the Pacers, 21 against the Magic and 20 against the Celtics. On Dec. 18, Caldwell-Pope scored a career-high 31 points on 10-of-16 shooting against Boston. Despite a handful of impressive shooting displays, it is clear Caldwell-Pope is still searching for consistency. In the month of December, he shot 41 percent from the field and 29 percent from 3-point range.
Although Caldwell-Pope has struggled to find his shot, it is clear his playing time is not tethered to his shooting percentages, a keen decision by Van Gundy to show faith in his third-year shooting guard. He is third in the league in total minutes played (1,352) and third in minutes per game (37.6), and even on nights when his jumper fails him and he cramps Detroits’ spacing, he gives the Pistons juice and toughness on the defensive end.
It is hard to tell where Caldwell-Pope will plateau as an outside shooter. For a career 33 percent 3-point shooter, his stroke looks pretty good, but he has yet to find his shooting niche. His percentage from the corners is just as unimpressive as his 3-point percentage from above the break and he has not developed much of a mid-range game. But as bad a shooter as the numbers paint Caldwell-Pope to be, there are still game’s like Wednesday night’s when it seems like Caldwell-Pope is the piece that will separate Detroit from the rest of the pack in the East.
A corner 3-pointer in transition, a pull-up 3-pointer on the wing, another corner 3 off of a pick-and-roll. If you combine this kind of marksmanship with Caldwell-Pope’s athleticism and defensive contributions, the Pistons would have themselves a pretty complete roster capable of at least giving Cleveland headaches in the postseason.
The Pistons are 6-1 this season when Caldwell-Pope scores 20 points or more and they look like a totally different team when they have another guard opposite Jackson who can make plays on secondary actions and make defenses pay when they leave him open from deep. Van Gundy has not had a dynamic wing scorer to work with in his 1-in, 4-out spread offense and you could argue he still does not. But if Caldwell-Pope can mature into that player during the next few months, the Pistons might end up being the people’s choice heading into a conference finals clash with LeBron in May.