Salt Lake City — On Dec. 1, the Pistons were seemingly on top of the world. They had just beaten the defending-champion Golden State Warriors and improved to 13-7. It was a stretch of nine wins in 11 games and the Dwane Casey era looked to be off to a rousing start.
It was the apex of the season, as the previous stretch included a big win at Toronto and a split with the Houston Rockets. More than that, though, it showed that the Pistons could beat the teams below them in the standings, as they won road games at Orlando and Atlanta and beat Cleveland at home. During a string of five straight wins, they also topped the Suns, Knicks and Bulls — all at Little Caesars Arena — before besting Golden State.
Then things changed.
The Pistons lost six straight games after that and have gone 5-17 since, settling into an 18-24 mark after Monday’s loss to the Utah Jazz, ending their four-game western trip with a 1-3 record.
What went wrong? There isn’t one singular answer, but here are five reasons the Pistons’ season turned in the last 22 games:
1. Ish Smith's injury
Four days after the Golden State win, backup point guard Ish Smith suffered a torn right adductor injury, which kept him out of the next 19 games. The Pistons’ record in those games was a miserable 5-14. Smith is the engine to the reserve group and without him, the Pistons had to rely more on veteran Jose Calderon, 37.
Calderon was signed in the offseason primarily as injury insurance for Reggie Jackson, which would keep Smith with the second group. Ironically, Calderon replaced Smith, but he doesn’t possess the quickness or ability to change the pace of the game.
Even with Calderon’s veteran savvy, he didn’t provide comparable production to Smith’s.
In 16 games before Smith’s injury, Calderon was used sparingly and posted 1.3 points and 1.1 assists in 9.2 minutes, with a field-goal percentage of 21 percent, including 16 percent on 3-pointers.
With Smith out, Calderon’s playing time doubled but the production lagged: 19 games, 19.1 minutes, 3.6 points, 3.8 assists and 42-percent shooting from the field (24 percent on 3-pointers).
In the past couple of weeks, Casey has pursued other options, including using rookies Bruce Brown and Khyri Thomas more prominently in the second unit backcourt, looking to add more athleticism and energy.
2. Tougher schedule
In the 22 games since the 13-7 start, the Pistons have just five wins, with only two coming against teams currently with winning records. In the first quarter of the season, they handled teams with losing records and had a couple of nice wins but directly after their pinnacle, the schedule got way tougher.
They started with losses to Oklahoma City, at Milwaukee and home against the 76ers, Pelicans and 76ers again. Another loss to the Hornets — their third of the season — was the fifth straight, before they ended it with a home win over the Celtics.
Sixteen of the 22 games have come against teams currently with a winning record. The Pistons are not going to win all of those, but holding their own in the East, against the likes of the Hornets, Heat, Nets and Magic — a group that the Pistons have a 2-6 record against — will be an essential part of the second half if they have playoff aspirations.
3. More injuries
In addition to the Smith injury, the Pistons also lost Zaza Pachulia (leg contusion) — their only big center off the bench — along with Glenn Robinson III (sprained ankle) for multiple games.
That depleted their bench depth and led to more playing time for Jon Leuer as the backup center, which is okay in smaller stints but not as much for an extended period. To help the process, Andre Drummond and Blake Griffin played additional minutes.
4. Hitting the road
In the last 22 games, the Pistons have played just nine times at Little Caesars Arena; the split is 2-7 at home and 3-10 on the road. Their overall home record overall is 11-10, so their struggles both at home and on the road have kept them from amassing any kind of streak to turn things around.
Among those are a pair of 23-point losses at Milwaukee and a 37-point blowout at Indiana. They also have bad home losses to the Thunder, by 27 points, and to the Hornets, by 10.
There simply hasn’t been traction to establish consistency in holding serve at home or getting a few good wins on the road.
5. Inconsistent play
The bench group could have sustained the Smith and Pachulia losses better if they had found steady scoring. Smith gave that group an up-tempo pace and without him, the offense there struggled. Stanley Johnson, Luke Kennard and Langston Galloway couldn’t find their footing on a consistent basis and after though they had some good games, they didn’t follow them up with multiple high-production outings.
When the starters were playing well, very often the reserves didn’t — and vice versa. It was a cauldron of up-and-down play that helped them dive into the current skid, where they have some ground to make up if they hope to make the playoffs.
Magic at Pistons
Tip-off: 7 p.m. Wednesday, Little Caesars Arena, Detroit
Outlook: It's an important game in the standings, as the Magic (19-24) are a half-game ahead of the Pistons. The two teams have split the season series, with Orlando winning on Dec. 30 on a buzzer-beater by Evan Fournier.