As the Detroit Pistons reach the halfway point of their season, Rod Beard provides a midseason report.
►Healthy Blake Griffin: After the trade last January, the big knock was that Griffin has been injury-prone for the past few years. He’s been the picture of health in the first half of the season, missing only two games because of rest. He’s played heavy minutes and has turned back the clock, looking spry and fresh, even as the focal point of the offense.
►Rookie impact: Second-round pick Bruce Brown not only earned playing time but broke into the starting lineup. His defense caught coach Dwane Casey’s eye early in Summer League and he’s continued it into the regular season. His offensive game still is developing, but he’s held his own against some of the best scorers in the league.
►Casey’s impact: In his first season, he has a plan to improve the culture and make players more accountable. He’s made sweeping changes in the offensive and defensive schemes and trusts the players more to play off their instincts. The results haven’t been there in the win-loss record yet but he’s not afraid to bench players for poor performance.
►The injury bug: Griffin and Reggie Jackson have been healthy, but Luke Kennard, Reggie Bullock, Ish Smith, Zaza Pachulia and Glenn Robinson III each has missed time because of injuries, which has hurt during their skid in the last few weeks. Though they have depth overall, it’s hard to replace the strengths that Smith and Pachulia bring to the reserve group.
►Missing open shots: Casey’s offense requires good 3-point shooting — and they rank 29th in the league, at 33 percent, about four percentage points lower than last season. They were among leaders in open looks at shots, but they simply haven’t fallen. They’ll need improvement to keep the pressure off Griffin and to help their defense.
►Inconsistencies: They’ve beaten Golden State and lost to Atlanta. They’ve shot the ball in one quarter, only to fall into a double-digit deficit in the next. After a 13-7 start, they finished the first half of the season at 18-23. With some better chemistry and a return to health, they’ll look to turn things around in the second half.
►Blake Griffin: He’s averaging 25.6 points, 8.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists and shooting 36 percent on 3-pointers. The offense runs through him primarily and he has a 50-point game against the Sixers and added 44 points Saturday against the Clippers. He’s been durable and his leadership has been a boost to try to establish a new team culture.
►Reggie Bullock: After a slow start, Bullock has found his footing with his 3-point shot, improving to 40 percent, after finishing second in the league last season, at 45 percent. He’s averaging career highs of 12.2 points and 30.5 minutes, becoming the team’s best 3-point shooter. He’ll be an unrestricted free agent in the summer.
Three reasons for optimism
►It’s the East: Despite their struggles in the first half, the Pistons entered Sunday only a half-game out of the No. 8 spot in the Eastern Conference. What’s more, it’s only a 1.5-game gap from seventh place. They haven’t played well, but even a small uptick in their production can yield enough wins to get them back to the postseason for the second time in the past decade.
►Shots will fall: The problem on offense isn’t finding open shots; it’s making them. Logic dictates that as the season goes on, more of those shots will go in and that’s what they’re hanging their hats on. Three-point shooters such as Luke Kennard (36 percent), Langston Galloway (35 percent) will improve.
►Healthy returns: Playing without Smith and Pachulia hurt the second group, and their return should bring back some of the speed and toughness that defined that group earlier in the season. It’ll redistribute the minutes and help them not rely as much on Griffin and Andre Drummond to play extended minutes.
Three reasons for pessimism
►The malaise: Similar to the past few seasons, the Pistons have had bouts of inconsistency and low energy that have helped them fall into bad streaks of quarters and games. They seem to hang their heads when things go badly and it’s hard to pull out of those droughts.
►Dependency on Griffin: With the ball in Griffin’s hands so much on offense, the Pistons depend on him immensely. There’s not as much offensive variety and defenses can adjust to Griffin and double-team him to make others make shots. It’s worked in the first half and they’ll have to adjust.
►The trade deadline: If things don’t turn around before the Feb. 7 trade deadline, the Pistons aren’t in a position to make a move to give them a boost. Being over the salary cap and close to the luxury-tax line, they would have to make a trade to bring in an impact player but even that is wrought with complications.
Pistons at Jazz
Tip-off: 9 p.m. Monday, Vivint Smart Home Arena, Salt Lake City
TV/radio: FSD/97.1 FM
Outlook: The Pistons (18-23) ended their four-game skid by beating the Clippers, with 44 points by Blake Griffin on Saturday. That streak started with a loss to the Jazz (23-21) on Jan. 5.