After a bad start, Detroit Pistons’ second unit has become one of the NBA’s best

Detroit Free Press

Two weeks into the season, it became glaringly clear that the Detroit Pistons had a bench problem.

The second unit mustered just 22 points against the New York Knicks on Oct. 21, 29 points against the Indiana Pacers a day later and 25 points against the Washington Wizards on Oct. 25.

Head coach Dwane Casey spoke of finding “balance” between his two units, but it was a difficult feat considering many of his key scorers were injured. The Pistons have since returned to near full strength, with Cade Cunningham being the obvious exception. And their improved depth has allowed their second unit, previously the worst in the NBA, to become one of the best.

Since Nov. 11, the Pistons have the highest-scoring bench in the NBA. In that span, they are first in total bench points scored (930), first in average bench points per game (46.5) and first in bench points per 100 possessions (64.7).

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Even from an efficiency standpoint, the Pistons’ second unit has thrived. In the 20 games since Nov. 11, they’re sixth in the league in field goal percentage (47.6%) and 11th in 3-point percentage (35.4). The only negative is that they’re tied for 20th in free-throw percentage with a 72% clip, but even that’s a strength since they’ve led the NBA in free-throw attempts with 12 per game.

It’s a 180 degree turnaround compared to Detroit’s first 12 games, in which the second unit average 41.8 points per 100 possessions (last in the NBA), on a true shooting percentage of 44.8% (also last). The Pistons can thank their improved roster health for that.

“I love the way our second group is coming in and changing the game, and have an identity defensively and offensively,” Dwane Casey said after Monday’s practice.

It’s not a coincidence that Detroit’s bench turnaround started with Alec Burks, who has been one of the league’s best bench scores. Since making his season debut Nov. 11, he has provided something the second unit initially lacked — a knock-down shooter who is also adept at generating his own looks, largely via pull-up jumpers, and getting to the free throw line at a high rate.

Among bench players with at least 15 appearances this season, he’s 10th in points per game (13.8). Among bench players averaging at least four 3-point attempts, he’s tied for seventh in percentage (40.2%). And he’s second in free-throw attempts (4.4) while hitting them at a 78.3% clip.

The second unit was then further fortified by Marvin Bagley III, who made season debut on Nov. 14 and was moved to the bench along with Saddiq Bey on Nov. 29. Both players have been able to feast on opposing reserves. Burks and Bey are fourth and fifth on the team in points per game, respectively, and Bagley is seventh.

Bey, who previously started 53 games as a rookie and all 82 games last season, had to adjust to his new role. It wasn’t a demotion, as Casey has been quick to remind reporters, but an adjustment necessary to accommodate the two-big man frontcourt. Since being moved to the bench, Bey has reached double figures in eight of 10 games.

“Him being on the second unit, hopefully, it’s a plus for us like Killian (Hayes) with the second unit last year,” Casey said earlier this month. “It’s about the fit. As far as the usage and the positioning, we have too many cooks in the kitchen on the first unit. I think Saddiq will be a big help to the second unit once they get used to playing with each other, once everyone digests the fact that he’s on the second unit.”

Kevin Knox, who is quietly shooting 48% from 3 since Nov. 20 and has given the Pistons another big wing who can knock down shots, deserves mentioning as well.

The downside to Detroit’s newfound bench success is that the first unit hasn’t been able to keep pace, particularly in third quarters. The Pistons have been outscored in the third period by an average of 3.2 points since Nov. 11, the fourth-worst mark in the league. Poor third quarters have been costly in recent games. They led the Brooklyn Nets by 17 points at halftime on Sunday, but were outscored, 44-25, in the third quarter. The Pistons led the Sacramento Kings by eight points at halftime last Friday, but lost the third by a 38-23 margin.

“We work too hard in the first half to not come out clicking, or playing with force,” Casey said on Monday. “You know in this league that good teams are going to come out in the second half if they have anything about them, muscle and fight. We’ve gotta get that and we have not done that.”

The first unit, of course, has been without Cunningham for more than a month. The Pistons miss his production. Bojan Bogdanovic has performed admirably this season, but not having a second go-to scorer has been costly against teams such as the Nets and Los Angeles Lakers, who boast multiple All-NBA players who can generate points in a hurry.

Casey hasn’t ruled out making additional changes to find a better balance between his two units. But the success of Detroit’s bench has been a positive in a season that’s been marred by injuries, and will almost certainly end with another trip to the lottery barring a few long winning streaks.

“We’ve created a monster,” Casey said. “We solved one problem and created another monster.”

Contact Omari Sankofa II at osankofa@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa.

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