Mallis: Thoughts on Thon Maker’s early days in Detroit

Thon Maker got his wish at the trade deadline and a new start in Detroit has seen him return to the NBA court. Maker played a total of 41 minutes across his first three games as a Piston, surpassing the total playing time he received during the final month of his career in Milwaukee.

What role has Maker had in Detroit so far? Barring a five-minute stint with Blake Griffin against Washington – more on this in a minute - all of Maker’s minutes have come as a four man alongside Andre Drummond and occasionally Zaza Pachulia (yikes!). While seldom seen over Maker’s first week in Detroit, the combination of him and Pachulia must be eradicated for good. Dwane Casey was well within his rights to explore the pairing, but early returns have provided all the evidence needed to draw a definitive conclusion.

The Celtics picked the pairing apart last week, generating a bounty of wide-open three-point attempts by exploiting the fact both Maker and Pachulia have a natural tendency of defending the interior. Finding blame for the duo is a zero sum game because there is a far simpler answer.

This is part of the issue with playing Maker alongside another center. His instincts are that of a five man and when quick decisions are needed, he defaults to finding the opposition player closest to the rim. It is less an equation of effort but more a question of aptitude and a lack of experience with playing more of a perimeter-based defensive role.

Maker played 98% of his possessions as a five man last season, per Cleaning The Glass, and was trained within Jason Kidd’s hyper aggressive scheme that emphasised blitzing opposition pick-and-rolls and then scrambling to keep up on the weakside. Such frantic behaviour continues to define Maker’s play at the defensive end. He still attempts to impact the game when away from the basketball in situations where a more conservative touch is needed. There are also too many instances of where he unnecessarily floats into the paint and leaves the defence one simple pass away from catastrophe.

In Maker’s first game for Detroit against New York, he was responsible for either Kevin Knox or Lance Thomas during non-garbage time minutes. That was followed two nights later with a prolonged showdown with Jabari Parker and the Wizards. Maker’s length means that he can hold his own when defending mano a mano on the outside, but his ability to contest is often forsaken because of positioning errors that create open looks. His reflex action is almost always to take steps toward the basket.

Parker, a 34% career three-point shooter, isn’t representative of the downside that comes from Maker’s natural tendency. Every NBA team will live with Parker launching from the perimeter but such liberal man marking only applies against lesser opponents. Maker gave Knox too much space against the Knicks and was punished. The combination of Marcus Morris and Daniel Theis also benefited from Maker’s tendency in Boston during the Pistons' last game before the All-Star beak.

Maker’s role was eradicated in Milwaukee because the team had better centre options. As they suddenly exploded into contention for the NBA Finals, the franchise could ill-afford predictable lapses that came with playing the Australian out of position. The Pistons certainty don’t have the talent or expectations to match Milwaukee, although their big man laden roster presents similar issues.

Andre Drummond, who is the Pistons second-best player, is rightfully established as their high-minute starting center playing 33 minutes a night. That in theory leaves 15 minutes for Maker, a change-of-pace five man, although such a role would require Casey to jettison Pachulia from the rotation. Selecting Maker as Drummond’s primary reserve is certainly the best option for Maker and his career prospects, but this will require a commitment and trust from the Pistons coaching staff in a player who has only been in their system for a fortnight.

Pairing Maker with Griffin is one option that I would like to see going forward. While their stint together against the Wizards was fleeting, it facilitated the most fluid team basketball the Pistons have seen with Maker on the court. While Griffin has lapsed from his athletic peak, he is unquestionably a more versatile defensive player than both Pachulia and Drummond, and that could facilitate more minutes for Maker against traditional big men.

Offensively, the pairing will provide an opportunity for Detroit to place greater versatility around their best player. Griffin is effectively a wing initiator on this Pistons team and Maker’s presence can allow Casey to experiment with five-out line-ups. The Australian’s jump shot remains spotty, although his height means he can easily rise up and shoot over opponents that are attempting to close out. Just as it was in Milwaukee, Maker’s offensive role has been non-existent during his brief Pistons career. A change of scenery will not change the fact that Maker is a dependent offensive player, whose effectiveness will rest largely with his ability to knock down shots.

Maker identified the writing on the wall in Milwaukee and asked out as his playing time eroded. A fresh start in Detroit provides new opportunities, but the same questions that lingered over his long-term future as a Buck remain. An ability to consistently defend across multiple positions remains Maker’s most glaring improvement area and on a Pistons team that already has entrenched starters in their front court. How quickly that ability develops could determine his immediate prospects in Detroit.