Milwaukee — The Pistons are in the midst of a month that could set the course for the remainder of their season. If they get through December with an above-.500 record for the month, they’d have some confidence going into a January schedule that includes nine road games, including a daunting western trip.
They’ve done well in their early schedule in the first quarter of the season, with a winning record against teams with losing records and just under .500 against winning teams. How they handle the weeks leading to the trade deadline will depend largely on how they do in the next few weeks.
This week’s mailbag looks at the long-term outlook for the Pistons, who are looking for their first playoff win in a decade.
►Question. What’s the ultimate ceiling for the team long term? ECF? — @KaveBat
►Answer. It’s still too early to make big proclamations about what the Pistons have done. They’ve had the easiest strength of schedule in the league, picking apart most of the losing teams they’ve faced and getting some quality wins against the Raptors, Sixers and Warriors.
Most fans — and likely the front office and ownership — would call this season a success if the Pistons get to the playoffs and win a round. They enhance those chances with a better seed in the playoffs. If they’re in the 4-5 matchup, that could happen easily, so that’s the likely goal.
In the past weeks, coach Dwane Casey has harped about establishing winning habits, which will carry them through the regular season and into the postseason, but there are so many small baby steps they’ll have to complete first. All signs point to the playoffs now, but there were similar aspirations last season after a promising start. I’d sit tight on this until at least the All-Star break, where we’ll have a better indication. For now, though, the East finals would be idyllic.
►Q. Am I the only one who sees Drummond without motivation and concentration? 25 million dollars to rebound is an outrage. Are there options to be part of an exchange? — @AlexPistonsNba
►A. In any given week, I could use numerous questions about trading Andre Drummond — and I just don’t see where the benefit is. Drummond is a top-5 center in this league. Period. I’d only put Anthony Davis, Joel Embiid, Rudy Gobert and Nikola Jokic ahead of him.
His salary ($25.4 million this year) is the biggest knock against Drummond, but he’s the league’s leading rebounder and still hasn’t reached his full potential. Salary aside, he’s a very good young player — he’s still only 25 — who has the capacity to develop other skills. Is he as good as Davis? Of course not, but wanting Drummond to be Davis is simply unreasonable. He’s not the No. 1 center in the league — because someone else is. Even if Drummond did all the things his detractors wanted him to do, they still would find fault.
Does he still have maddening inconsistencies? Yes. Is Embiid a better player? Yes. But does that mean Drummond is terrible? Not at all. He’s a very good center in this league and the Pistons chose to pay him — he didn’t twist their arm to do it. They needed a face of the franchise at the time and they made him that guy.
Through all that, Pistons owner Tom Gores sees Drummond more as a building block than a trade chip, so it’s unlikely Drummond gets traded, unless an unbelievable deal comes along.
►Q. Since Reggie Jackson is playing good should we trade him now? — @ Evanish19
►A. I normally don’t like to address two trade questions, but this one keeps popping up as well. Jackson is posting 16 points and four assists and is hitting 34 percent on 3-pointers. Those aren’t eye-popping numbers that would entice a team to trade for him. Unlike Drummond, Jackson has a contract that is a little easier to move, at $17 million this year and $18 million next year.
Jackson probably is a bigger asset to the Pistons than he would be to another team, unless somebody like the Suns, who are desperate for help at point guard, come calling. The price tag likely is too big for them, as they’re building a youth movement. I’d imagine the Pistons are going to ride through Jackson’s contract — again, unless an advantageous offer comes along.
►Q. Do you see the Thunder game as just a down game, or do you see that game as a sign of things to come? — @J_Lawnicki
►A. The Thunder game seemed to have all the elements of a blowout: missing shots, ineffective Andre Drummond, plus low energy and no fight. Those games happen, but they’re less frequent than they were in the previous few years. The Thunder are physical and will take it to the Pistons — or any team — if they’re not ready to match the intensity.
It feels like a blip on the bigger canvas of the season, but we’ll get a better sense in these tough games in December, including the final two matchups against the Sixers and a couple against the Bucks. Griffin is making a difference in their belief in themselves, knowing they have a go-to player in crunch time and a guy who can get to the free-throw line when they need it.
The Casey effect can’t be underestimated, either. He has garnered their respect and they will go out and play for him on almost every night — maybe the Thunder game excluded — which is always a good sign. It’s a long season and even the Warriors have had some dud nights. Have you seen what the Spurs have done this week? Yeah, it’s not an anomaly with the Pistons.