The first half of the Pistons’ season hasn’t been anything to write home about.
They had grand designs on making a move to become a contender in the Eastern Conference, but things took a turn when Reggie Jackson’s knee tendinitis kept him out for the first 21 games — and the Pistons finished 11-10 during that stretch.
As they hit the 41-game mark and official midpoint of the season on Thursday at Golden State, the Pistons are under .500, but still within reach of a playoff spot. They don’t have a win streak of more than three games and they’re struggling to find the chemistry and consistency that helped them reach the playoffs last season for the first time in seven years.
The biggest change in the first half was moving Tobias Harris to the bench in favor of Jon Leuer — and it’s paid off, as Harris has flourished in the new role. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who will be seeking a big contract in the summer, when he becomes a restricted free agent, has improved his game and looks like a building block moving forward.
Andre Drummond’s free-throw percentage has increased about 10 percent and he’s still posting impressive numbers. Though he was without his pick-and-roll partner while Jackson was out, Drummond’s production has been about the same as last season, when he earned his first All-Star selection.
Stanley Johnson’s development seems to have stalled, as he struggled to find his outside shot and to get consistent court time. Coach Stan Van Gundy played Darrun Hilliard and Reggie Bullock ahead of Johnson, who also had a one-game stint in the D-League with the Grand Rapids Drive. But he’s bounced back with a particular focus on his defense and seems to be building his confidence back.
And while the individual player issues haven’t been the biggest contributor to the disappointing start, the chemistry problems have taken center stage. A players-only meeting to hash out some of the concerns produced no tangible results.
The second half still presents an opportunity to climb back up the standings and secure a favorable playoff spot. The margin separating fourth-place and 11th place is less than five games, so a team that gets on a roll can easily improve its standing.
Whether the Pistons can make a run will not be dependent as much on how they did in the first half; rather, it’ll be if they can learn from it.
DETROIT PISTONS MIDSEASON REPORT
Not just sixth: Jon Leuer has fit in well as the missing piece, playing both power forward and backup center. He was a valuable sixth man, but when Stan Van Gundy wanted to mix things up, Leuer almost seamlessly moved into the starting lineup and has been a solid addition wherever he is on the court.
Another big man: Boban Marjanovic was the third center and didn’t get much quality game time — that is, until Aron Baynes got an ankle injury. He dazzled with 15 points and a career-best 19 rebounds, showing his potential as a dominating third option.
Line items: Andre Drummond shot an NBA-worst 36 percent on free throws last season and vowed to work in the offseason to improve. He’s raised the percentage more than 10 percent this season — without shooting underhanded. There’s still plenty room for improvement, but he’s taken the first step.
Opening stumble: After making the playoffs last season, no one saw an 11-10 start — even with Reggie Jackson’s knee tendinitis — in the first quarter of the season. Even after Jackson’s return, they’ve skidded below .500 and haven’t looked like a playoff team in the first half of the season.
Team meeting: Trying to clear up some of their woes, they had a players-only meeting after the 15-point loss to the Pacers on Dec. 17. They followed with an embarrassing, 21-point blowout at Chicago and a verbal admonishment from Van Gundy.
Next step: Stanley Johnson has struggled to build on his solid rookie season, languishing on the bench for stretches and falling out of favor with Van Gundy. He’s since bounced back, but the offensive production still hasn’t returned.
Tobias Harris: It’s odd to point to Harris as most valuable, especially after he was moved from the starting lineup to a reserve role. But he’s been their most steady scorer, averaging more than 20 points since the switch, and hasn’t griped openly about becoming the sixth man.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope: He is developing into one of the most consistent two-way players with his solid defense and improving shot selection. His offense is catching up with his defense, as he’s shooting a career high on 3-pointers, improving by more than seven percent from last season
Three reasons to be optimistic
Schedule: They have a top-10 strength of schedule in the first half and got many of their tough games out of the way already. They’ll be done with both long western trips and will have several games against teams around .500 or below.
Trade deadline: Van Gundy has made some prudent deals in the last two seasons to try to shape the roster. If he thinks another deal will make a big difference, he won’t hesitate to make the move.
It’s still early: Even with their poor play, they’re still within reach of a playoff spot in the diminished Eastern Conference. A win streak of a couple games can put them back in contention and the schedule presents the opportunity to pile up some wins against lower teams.
Three reasons to be pessimistic
They are who they are: The first half of the season is not a small sample size. They’ve had some duds, with losses to the Sixers, Nets and Magic and that’s more indicative of their identity than wins over the Clippers, Thunder and Celtics.
Chemistry: Team meetings and Van Gundy’s postgame rants aside, something may not be right in the mix. They’ve underachieved this season and there aren’t enough signs pointing to them pulling out of the tailspin — and even if they do, it could just be another first-round playoff exit.
Who’s the man? They had their struggles while Reggie Jackson was out and no one really stepped to the forefront to carry the mantle in his absence. Who’s the face of the team? Who gets the ball in a must-score situation? There are more unknowns than knowns about the long-term future and direction of the team.