It is very easy to be dismissive of the 2015-2016 Detroit Pistons’ chances against Cleveland. The Cavaliers come into the first round series as the number 1 seed in the Eastern Conference and with LeBron James at the helm. LBJ is joined by a supporting cast that includes 2 other players with All-NBA talent, a former 6th man of the year(and 2012 Chinese Basketball Association scoring champ) along with numerous other quality role players who have playoff experience. This reality couldn’t be further from the fact for Detroit, who enters the game with exactly 1 All-Star appearance on their roster. The Pistons also have only 1 starter who has appeared in a playoff series and while the bench contains a little more playoff experience; most of those players are on the wrong side of the ageing progression curve. However, the 2004 Finals are the first I remember sitting down and watching as a kid and looking back those finals taught me 1 thing, the NBA is a game of match ups. Detroit has pieces that create for an interesting look and counter to The Cavs’ star driven lineup. Let’s first start by looking at the guard match ups
Reggie Jackson and Kyrie Irving are healthy heading into the first round, which is great news for the Pistons and Cavs respectively. Kyrie is a scoring machine when he is healthy, while Jackson fulfills more of a traditional point guard role. Despite being different players on that end, Detroit and Cleveland rely heavily on their point guards as sources of offense(Both were top 25 in BPM per Basketball-Refference.com), both teams will also look to hide their starting point guards on defense whenever possible. Expect Detroit to have Kentavious Caldwell-Pope guard Kyrie, a task he proved up to all season by putting up good on-ball defensive performances against Steph Curry and other shifty scoring point guards. This move would leave Reggie Jackson defending the other guard, which will be JR Smith with the starting unit. Smith could definitely capitalize on a size advantage over the smaller Jackson, but this is a concession that you have to make when you are playing a team that has as much talent as the Cavs. Especially when you consider the alternative of Kyrie going full Curry Mode on the Pistons for 4-7 games. The cross-matching from the Cavs’ side get’s a little bit more harry when you consider Kyrie is going to have to guard KCP if they even decide to do it at all. It is possible if KCP can effectively stop Irving it may cause Cleveland to explore lineups that limit his minutes for the sake of improved defense. That would be Bernie Sanders Huge for the Pistons; anytime you can force a talent like Kyrie off the floor it takes a lot of pressure off of your team defensively. On that note let’s take a quick digression from the cross-matching discussion and talk about both teams backup PG roles.
The Pistons probably will not have to many minutes without Reggie Jackson on the floor, but when he isn’t out there it will be Steve Blake filling in his stead. Blake struggled at points in the season but really seemed to find a level of comfort with the 2nd unit as the season went along he made a living using his craftiness to get into the lane to create for others. (His very respectable 2.90 assist to turn over ratio after the deadline actually put him 1 spot ahead of BJ. Among players who played in at least 15 of their team’s games after the trade deadline for at least 15 minutes per game Blake ranked 18 in Assist %) Blake shouldn’t have much trouble getting to where he would like on the court against Kyrie or Mo Williams. This craftiness can definitely be kept in check though, especially by stronger guards who can push him around. Blake will have trouble getting to his favorite creation spots against Matthew Dellavedova when two backups are facing each other. Defensively, you can generally expect Blake to plan to be in the correct positioning however, because of his older age and slowing foot speed sometimes it is tough for him to keep up with the quickest guards.
Detroit will start Kentavious Caldwell-Pope at SG (or the 2 Guard position) and Cleveland will start J.R. Smith at the same spot. When Kentavious is feeling it from 3, he is very difficult to guard, because he has a quick first step attacking off of shot fakes or jab steps and the explosiveness to finish at the rim. J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert can both give KCP trouble if his jumper isn’t falling though, because of his lack of shake with the ball and creative dribble moves limit the amount of creation he can do.(check his assists per usage) As we discussed previously, Detroit will definitely cross-match their starters on defense when Kyrie is on the floor and Cleveland may explore the option as well. We already established Caldwell-Pope can be a streaky shooter who struggles when his shot isn’t falling but with a smaller defender, especially one with the poor defensive reputation of Irving he should be able to take advantage of him cutting/posting up to free up better looks from deep. That is an advantage Detroit must exploit if they have any chance of pulling the upset. In the event that Kyrie is not on the floor expect KCP to match up against the 2 Guard straight up defensively, a task he is definitely up to. Neither Smith nor Shumpert should be a very tough matchup for KCP on D. Smith doesn’t have quite the offensive firepower he used too, although he can still get hot for stretches. On the other hand Shumpert has never really been a good offensive player, only posting a positive Box-Score Plus-Minus in 1 of his NBA seasons. (2011-12 Which was also injury shortened) Guarding Shump could provide KCP a valuable on court break, by allowing him to take defensive possessions off. However if the Pistons keep Caldwell-Pope on Shump for long stretches, they are wasting his minutes, he needs to be providing defense to maximize what his value. (The Pistons may look at bumping KCP down to guard ‘Bron in the event he running wild on them)
The backup 2 Guard spot for Detroit has been a question mark all season; Jody Meeks hasn’t been able to stay healthy and Stanley Johnson has looked most like a rookie when asked to take on the extra ball handling. Detroit’s only other 2 options are young journeyman Reggie Bullock or rookie Darrun Hilliard as the only options to spell KCP. Despite the fact that both have given solid contributions down the stretch I cannot see SVG playing either for extended periods of time. It is most likely we will see KCP for all but a few minutes at SG. Probably get spelled by Stanley, so the Pistons will either have to do this when Lebron is off the court or explore some cross-matches between the forward and SG spots. We will explore some of these possible cross matches in the next installment of the preview, which covers the forwards in this 1 vs 8 matchup.