Passing Fancy

With Calderon in the fold, Pistons assist rates show sharp spike

Jose Calderon has already impacted the Pistons' overall passing statistics.
Dan Lippitt/NBAE/Getty Images
Among Lawrence Frank’s trove of favored truisms are these: Players “have never arrived” and teams “never have it figured out.” Then along come games like Monday’s to prove him right.

Just when the Pistons might have allowed themselves to believe they’d turned into a well-oiled offensive juggernaut, the struggling New Orleans Hornets locked them in shackles. After a string of impressive offensive performances, the Pistons shot 36 percent and struggled to reach 86 points in losing decisively to the soon-to-be Pelicans.

But over the preceding games, the basketball was popping from one side of the court to the other as if it were a game of Pong brought to life. After recording just five games of 25 or more assists in the season’s first 46 games – game 46 coming at Indiana on the night of the three-team trade that brought Jose Calderon to Detroit – the Pistons then recorded five more such games over their next six.

If that doesn’t quite constitute hard proof of their increased offensive efficiency, well, men have been convicted on less substantive circumstantial evidence.

Not all of the spike can be attributed to Calderon, of course, given that he’s only played the last five games. But his assist-to-turnover ratio is bordering on the spectacular – 5.57 to 1 – with 39 assists against a mere seven turnovers. Frank sees Calderon’s pass-first mentality rubbing off on teammates, too.

“I think that’s a big part of it,” Frank said. “Think about the number of times in the Milwaukee game – and he had a hot hand – he passed up shots. All that has a domino effect and that’s huge. Some of the things we’re able to do, it’s because of his ability to look off help, make late passes, and more and more he gets a feel. The more that our guys play with each other and off each other, the better feel he’ll have. But I think a big part of it is Jose’s influence on the team.”

The Pistons have also been playing at a faster pace, a predictable outcome after moving the speedy Brandon Knight to shooting guard and Kyle Singler to small forward. Couple those two position shifts with Calderon’s vigilance in looking for every opportunity to push the ball forward in transition and Singler’s unfailing willingness to fill a lane in transition and – presto! – the Pistons have the seeds for a successful transition game that will only get better when Andre Drummond returns as a devastating trailer.

The Pistons have averaged 24 assists over the past seven games, a nearly 20 percent increase over their season rate, which was 20.2 prior to the trade. The rise is more dramatic than it might appear. Only one team in the NBA, San Antonio, averages 24 or more assists per game. The last seven games have raised Detroit’s average to 20.6, which ranks 24th. Calderon doesn’t get caught up in numbers, but in the flow an offense creates when the ball starts moving.

“It’s just about trusting each other,” he said. “You don’t have to give the assist to a guy, but when you pass the ball once you know that guy is going to pass to you on the next play. It’s not just about making the last play to get the assist in the box score, it’s about passing so the next guy knows you’re going to pass the ball, he’s going to pass it to you and that’s how you make it a little bit easier to play out there – just trying to find the open guy.

“Like one coach used to say, ‘See the great pass, but just make the easy one.’ ”

Despite playing at a faster pace, the Pistons have also managed to reduce their turnovers. After averaging 15.2 per game over the first 46, they’re at 13.8 over the last seven. So does this seven-game bite represent the direction of the team?

“Definitely, with low turnovers, high energy, defensively just getting after it,” said Will Bynum, who has maintained his spot in Frank’s rotation – which has held at eight players, essentially, over the past three games since Drummond’s injury – despite the addition of Calderon. “I think that’s how we have to play and attack. I’m comfortable either way. I’ve played every different style. Best suited for me, the best situation, would be to run and attack, but I understand the game to the point where I can play any kind of way.”

The Pistons were likely to play at a slightly faster pace merely for the swapping of Singler in the lineup for Prince. One of Prince’s strengths was to milk possessions and wait for a defense to show its hand before he counterattacked. The Pistons run no plays for Singler, in contrast, yet shots find him because Singler’s constant movement allows him to find open space – and Calderon’s vision figures to mesh well with Singler’s penchant for staying in motion.

“Tay’s postups and isolations went down this year compared to year’s prior,” Frank said, taking the conversation back to the Calderon effect. “Especially off pick-and-roll plays, Jose understands all the reads. He gets it. He’s been doing it for a while. He’s able to find guys, whether it’s the late passes, looking off the help, whether it’s one extra dribble or one less dribble, transition – we’re getting more advance passes – and what happens, it’s all a contagious feel. Once you see that ball start moving and you see a guy give up shots, the next guy feels a little more prone to do it was well. If it’s more ‘my turn, your turn,’ it’s very hard to break that habit.”

Frank remains rooted on the defensive end, and fretted on Tuesday that the Pistons had allowed three straight opponents to reach triple digits. The good news is the Pistons won two of those games, a firepower they have reason to believe will have some staying power.