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The Pistons Get Their Men

Stan Van Gundy and the Detroit Pistons made quick, intentional moves to start free agency season.

The first few days of the 2014 free-agency market have moved along very slowly indeed. With the league’s most supremely elite talents yet unsigned, many teams are holding back from signing any players, so as not to disrupt their carefully calibrated cap plans.

A notable exception were the Detroit Pistons, led by head coach and President of Basketball Operations Stan Van Gundy and his personally appointed general manager, Jeff Bower. On July 1, the Pistons signed two free agents, Jodie Meeks and Cartier Martin.

Since the Pistons agreed to contracts with both players on the very first day of free agency, it definitely appears that Detroit had set its targets on Meeks and Martin with intentionality and purpose. Van Gundy wanted these players on his team. It’s not often that a player who gets cut during a season (as Martin was by the Atlanta Hawks, before getting signed by the Chicago Bulls and then by the Hawks again) is signed on the very first day of free agency the following summer. Also, Meeks’ reported salary of three years and $19 million definitely feels expensive, compared to a deal like the San Antonio Spurs’ re-signing of Patty Mills for three years and $12 million.

But I choose to believe in Stan. His ability to lead winning NBA teams is well established, and I’m intrigued as to why he so immediately targeted these two players.

Both Meeks and Martin are excellent 3-point shooters. Playing under Mike D’Antoni in Los Angeles, Meeks took a career-high 404 long-range attempts in 2013-14 and made a career-high 40.1 percent, as well. Martin has been a quiet model of consistency: 2013-14 marked the fourth consecutive season that he has shot either 38 or 39 percent from deep. Given the famous one-in/four-out model that Van Gundy used with Dwight Howard in Orlando, it’s not a surprise to see him target marksmen who can space the floor around center Andre Drummond in Detroit.

What is a surprise, however, is how much Meeks’ and Martin’s offensive games rely on simply catching and shooting.

30.7 percent of Meeks’ offensive possessions last year were spent taking spot-up jump shots. That was his most common category of play – but right behind that is transition plays, which made up 28.9 percent of Meeks’ offense. Meeks shot 56.3 percent on transition baskets, receiveing most of those attempts through straight hustle. If a teammate corralled a steal – or even inbounded the ball off a made basket – Meeks would rocket down the court, ready to receive a pass. Since Meeks is not the strongest or most explosive of athletes, he got most of these baskets by simply getting down the court first.

Martin is a player who works best in the offensive set when put in motion, whether off screens or as a cutter. When the Hawks called plays for Martin – which happened only infrequently – he hit 56 perecent of the 3-pointers he attempted off screens and 73.7 percent of the two-point baskets he attempted as a cutter. Although Martin does not have a lot of strength as a finisher, he rarely needs to use it, often darting along the baseline at just the right moment when his defender is distracted, allowing himself an opening at the rim.

Both of these players play with speed, vision, and not a lot of defense. The signings of Meeks and Martin could be clues that Van Gundy is planning to coach the Pistons in a style very different from the methodical, defense-oriented style of his old Magic teams.

In 2013-14, Drummond completed more plays in transition (13.6 percent of his offensive possessions) than in the low post (10.8 percent). That’s a dramatically different profile than Howard, whose percentages in those two categories were 53.1 and 4.3 percent, respectively, with the Rockets. Josh Smith, whose long-term contract is currently viewed as a toxic asset, is a very efficient (and thrilling) finisher on transition, converting 63.2 percent of his transition shots in 2013-14, compared to 30.6 percent of his isolation shots and 34.6 percent of his spot-up attempts.

If these mobile big men are encouraged to run the floor and play with fluid pace, now they have two suitable backcourt companions in Jodie Meeks and Cartier Martin.

Statistical support via Synergy Sports and basketball-reference.com.