Pistons point guard Brandon Jennings (7) has struggled to fit in with his new teammates and coach. (Clarence Tabb Jr / Detroit News)
The Pistons are roughly at the midpoint of their season. What’s gone right to this point in their season, what’s gone wrong, and what can the Pistons do to ensure a spot in the postseason? Vincent Goodwill of The Detroit News breaks down the playoff outlook.
The Pistons began the season full of hope and with the stated expectation of returning to the playoffs after an offseason that brought them from NBA irrelevance to a team of intrigue, if all the pieces fit together.
The only constant about the Pistons, though, is their inconsistency through the first 38 games, nearly halfway through the season, coming off the heels of a six-game losing streak that ended before this past weekend.
After seeing the Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks go through an all-out free fall, along with the Chicago Bulls being stunned again by another season-ending injury to Derrick Rose, expectations rose even higher. But the Pistons haven’t delivered.
In a dreadful Eastern Conference, the Pistons are clinging to the seventh playoff spot, two-and-a-half games behind the fifth-seeded Bulls, one game away from being out of the playoffs altogether.
Losing close games has been a big culprit, with too many fourth-quarter collapses to name, a huge indication of this team’s youth (fourth-youngest in the NBA).
But the Pistons believe it’s a fixable situation, and with 44 games left they have more than enough time to change the narrative on the season before the epitaph is written.
“You have to start making some way,” veteran guard Chauncey Billups said. “It’s time for us to get going a bit, winning-wise.”
What's gone wrong
The team’s overall confidence has been rocked because of games they’ve given away in the fourth quarter.
An offense that can run smoothly in the first three quarters can slow to a halt in the final 12 minutes.
A blown lead in Memphis began the trend, which was followed by a terrible crunch-time performance to the Kobe Bryant-less Lakers, a heartbreaking buzzer-beating defeat to the Trail Blazers, an inexcusable loss to the Bobcats and a puzzling home loss to the Wizards right in the middle of their six-game slide.
“We have to find a way to win these games,” forward Greg Monroe said after a recent loss. “We’ve had control of games and lost them. I think it’s about keeping focus.”
Those are the ones that stand out, but overall, part of the blame is this is a new team with eight new players who have to blend in with a new coach in Maurice Cheeks. Cheeks, a former star point guard for the 76ers, has been teaching the nuances of playing the position to Brandon Jennings.
Jennings has had to adjust from having carte blanche to the responsibility of helping Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe and Josh Smith fit together in a loaded and crowded frontcourt, a tough task for even a premier and experienced point guard.
Cheeks also has clashed with Smith, leading to benching the Pistons’ free-agent acquisition in games against the Warriors and Wizards after bad first halves from the team.
“I’m not worried about it. Like I told y’all before, when you have adverse times, character is tested,” Smith said in D.C. “Either we’ll come closer together or make it one team or use a scapegoat to get away from what’s really at hand.”
It’s been a work in progress, with its share of highs and lows. Being last in virtually every shooting category, including free throws and 3-pointers, is something they can’t fix overnight and can’t ignore.
Who is to blame
Youth is a big factor.
The addition of Smith, a natural power forward, at small forward to fit alongside Monroe and Drummond hasn’t been a seamless transition, fulfilling a pessimist’s preseason doubts.
Before a preseason game, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra cautioned against judging these Pistons until after the first 40 games, as he had experience trying to mix and match LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in 2010-11.
Coaching three of the best 10 players in the NBA affords one certain luxuries but for as talented as Drummond, Smith and Monroe are, Drummond and Monroe entered the season with a combined four years of NBA experience.
Smith, despite playing with Al Horford in Atlanta, hasn’t had to adjust to being next to two young and dynamic big men who are both still learning their individual games.
It’s led to Smith taking more 3-pointers (3.8 per game) than his first nine seasons in Atlanta (1.5 from 2004-13).
“It can work, it’s proven,” said Smith of the grouping. “We need to start doing that on a consistent basis as far as communicating and sharing the ball. We have to be unselfish across the board and be happy of the other person’s success.”
Drummond and Monroe have struggled on the back end of the defense, with Drummond very much still learning while Monroe’s struggles have been a limitation since he’s entered the league. Jennings has never been known as a defensively inclined guard, although he’s made more of an effort.
It’s led to a defense that’s ranked 25th in the league in points against, a category that was supposed to hold things afloat until the offense settled itself.
Jennings is shooting a career-low 37.7 percent from the field while averaging a career high in assists (8.5) and turnovers (3.3). Learning how to manage a game has been a concern, although he’s shown flashes of “getting it.”
With injuries to Will Bynum, Chauncey Billups and Rodney Stuckey, Jennings hasn’t had much time to jell with backcourt mates, along with those three being shot creators with whom Jennings hasn’t had the benefit of playing.
Bynum is just getting healthy, while Billups (30 percent shooting, 29 from 3) hasn’t been able to produce the way he expected to at his advanced age, despite a vintage performance on opening night.
The burden of creating plays and good shots has fallen squarely on Jennings, who needs help, especially because of his propensity to score.
What's gone right
It’s been in flashes, momentary instances of near-brilliance from a team searching for consistency.
Drummond’s emergence has been one. He put up 31 points, 19 rebounds, six steals and two blocks against Philadelphia on Dec. 1, numbers that hadn’t been achieved since Hakeem Olajuwon did it in 1990.
Smith had a stretch where he abandoned the perimeter shots after a heart-to-heart with Cheeks and averaged 23.8 points and 6.3 rebounds over six games before a weekend benching against the Wizards, dominating opposing small forwards with his quickness and ability to score on the block.
Jennings’ tour de force showings against Chicago on a Saturday night, where he scored 33 while leading the Pistons to a 92-75 win in a building they hadn’t won at in nearly 10 years, along with saving the Pistons in Boston with a late-game 3-pointer against airtight defense, shows this team is capable of doing special things.
They are the only team to beat both Indiana and Miami in their buildings, while remaining the only team to beat the Pacers at Indianapolis, period. Their record against Eastern Conference opponents (14-11) trails only those of the Heat, Pacers and Bulls.
Their youth indicates the Pistons are learning and will only get better
Who needs to step up
In a word: Everybody.
Cheeks has shown he’s not as tied to keeping the trio of Smith, Monroe and Drummond on the floor at the same time. Having two makes a big difference, especially on the defensive end.
Monroe has to be a better finisher around the basket, if that’s possible. His 11.7 shot attempts are the lowest since his rookie year, when he didn’t have a single play called for him by then-coach John Kuester, and Cheeks must find a way to utilize him more.
Drummond has to be better on help-side and on-ball defense, as the whipping he took from Rockets center Dwight Howard is the greatest lesson he’ll learn this season. With 11 blocks in the last two games, hopefully it’s sooner rather than later.
Jennings and Smith have to be better decision-makers, as Smith went from firing up an airball against the Knicks in New York one week ago to attacking the basket for the winning bucket against the Suns Saturday night.
Stuckey and Bynum don’t have to play over their heads, but if Stuckey can maintain health and the consistency he started the year with, it won’t hurt the team.
Bynum appears to be rounding into better physical shape after two nagging hamstring injuries and with the minutes he’s received the last two games, he still has the ability to score in bunches and bring energy, despite the occasional wild play.
Getting better at home is a start, where the Pistons went nearly a month without winning (Dec. 13 to Jan. 11) — their 7-12 home mark being the worst of all 16 playoff teams. History would dictate that current rate shouldn’t continue.
Their December schedule was rough on them physically and mentally (17 games in 31 days), while they won’t have any grueling road trips aside from a four-gamer in the middle of March (Denver, Phoenix, L.A. Clippers and Utah).
With the contracts of Stuckey and Villanueva expiring after the season, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Pistons make a minor or even major midseason move. Despite the new additions, they aren’t closed for business and have a clear need for shooting.
Their seven-game April schedule could ultimately decide their playoff fate and, at best, determine their seeding. Only two games are at The Palace while they return to Indianapolis and Chicago while finishing up the regular season in Oklahoma City, perhaps the toughest place to play.
Will they make playoffs?
The East is too dreadful, with a number of teams looking to position themselves for this June’s loaded draft, for the Pistons to be both on the outside looking in and back in no-man’s land in the lottery.
The Knicks and Nets aren’t in as much turmoil as before, but still have personnel and coaching issues that won’t be solved overnight. The Bulls just traded Luol Deng to Cleveland, a team with a great scorer (Kyrie Irving) who hasn’t yet turned into a great player.
The Pistons should be in the playoffs, not because their talent dictates it, not because Tom Gores demanded it, but because they should find a way to be great at the things they’re good at (rebounding, inside scoring) while not letting the things they’re bad at submarine them (shooting, youth) for 82 games.
Four months from now, the conversation should be about who they’re playing in the first round and what chances they have on advancing because honestly, it’s not impossible.