If you’re a Detroit fan looking for a ray of hope in the opening days of the 2013-14 NBA season, you can begin with the fact that the men from the Motor City won’t return home from their first west coast road trip with a 0-8 record like they did last season. But with expectations of a playoff berth, a 2-7 mark when we host New York on Tues., Nov. 19, would leave few of us feeling optimistic. So with four road matches coming up in the next week, at least a couple wins would be very welcome.
The Pistons face their first opponent tonight in Portland. The Trail Blazers are 4-2, courtesy of two weekend victories over the Sacramento Kings. (Evidence that the NBA schedule-maker is crazy: The Blazers hosted the Kings on Friday night, and then traveled to Sacramento Saturday night.) Portland has also beaten Denver on the road and the Spurs at home, and lost to Phoenix on the road and Houston at home.
Detroit is 2-3, having won at home versus Washington and Boston, and having lost on the road to Memphis and at home to Indiana and Oklahoma City. In 2012-13 we split our two games with the Blazers, losing in Portland and winning at the Palace. While they have essentially the same squad as last year, the Pistons have remade their roster. Will these changes be enough to help Detroit win in Oregon for the first time since 2007? The only active players on either roster today who might recall that game are LaMarcus Aldridge and Chauncey Billups.
Aldridge leads Portland with 23.3 points per game (.520 percent shooting) and 7.7 rebounds. Upfront he has a new partner at center, Robin Lopez (6.7 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 1.7 blocks). At small forward, Nicolas Batum does everything (13.0 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 5.8 assists, .406 3-point shooting). Their backcourt features last season’s Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard (20.5 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 5.7 apg, .426 3-pointers) and Wesley Matthews (18.0 ppg, 6.2 rpg, .533 3-pointers). The key reserve is guard Mo Williams (7.3 ppg, 4.3 apg).
Detroit is led by Josh Smith (18.8 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 3.0 apg, 2.0 blocks), Greg Monroe (17.8 ppg, 11.8 rpg) and Brandon Jennings (17.7 ppg, 7.0 apg, 3.3 steals). Andre Drummond (9.8 pg, 9.6 rpg) mans the middle. While he has yet to start, Rodney Stuckey has been the Pistons most effective guard on offense, averaging 13.8 points and shooting .529 percent. Per36 he’s given them 22.0 ppg and his WS/48 of .192 leads the team (basketball-reference.com.) Chauncey Billups (6.6 ppg, 3.2 apg) is the other likely starter at guard, and Will Bynum (10.8 ppg, 3.6 apg) is expected to again fill the role of backup point guard. The other key reserve is Kyle Singler (7.8 ppg).
Portland has been one of the most effective teams on offense in the early going, and will present a strong challenge to a Detroit defense that is still finding its way. The Blazers are ninth in points per game (103.3), but are third in points per 100 possessions (111.2 Offensive Rating). They are 23rd in Pace, so most of their scoring comes out of their half court offense. With three deadly 3-point shooters in Batum, Lillard and Matthews, and with Aldridge’s ability to consistently knock down jumpers, the only easy assignment will be Lopez. With a Defensive Rating of 105.3 (18th), the Pistons will need to step up their efforts on the perimeter and stick close to their man.
Portland has offered very little in the way of resistance to its opponents, with a Defensive Rating of 26th. This should make it easier for Detroit, with its Offensive Rating a surprisingly high rank of eighth, to score at will. Jennings averaged 27 ppg (.450 percent shooting) and 7.5 apg in two games against the Blazers for the Bucks last season, so a big game for him is certainly possible. Likewise, Smith averaged 21.5 ppg and 10.5 rpg for the Hawks. But he shot only .419 percent, which is uncomfortably close to the .430 percent shooting he’s given the Pistons so far. Perhaps the player who shot 8-12 against Washington will re-inhabit his body tonight.
The Key Matchups
Power Forward (Monroe versus Aldridge): While he does most of his damage away from the hoop, Aldridge is also an effective finisher inside (.694 percent at the rim). In our two contests last year, he averaged 31.5 ppg (.581 percent) and 11 rpg. But most of that damage was done against an undersized Jason Maxiell. Monroe has the size and length to offer more resistance. On offense, he needs to be given plenty of opportunities to work inside to draw fouls (6.4 FTAs, .781 percent) and grab offensive rebounds (his 5.4 per game leads the league).
Small Forward (Smith versus Batum): Batum fills up the stat sheet much like Smith does, but he scores much more efficiently. If Smith focuses on help defense and neglects his man, Batum will make him pay with his plus 40 percent 3-point shooting on over five attempts per game. On offense, Smith needs to concentrate on his most effective area – close to the hoop – and otherwise defer to his teammates.
Center (Drummond versus Lopez): Though he’s not an offensive threat nor an effective rebounder, the 7-0 Lopez can block shots (1.7 per game). Coming off an ineffective outing against the Thunder, Detroit needs Drummond to dominate this matchup. If he can protect the paint, help limit the Blazers to one shot, and score inside on putbacks and pick-and-roll plays, this will help swing the pendulum toward the Pistons.
Point Guard (Jennings versus Lillard): This could easily become a shoot-out, since defense is not a strong suit for either player. Still, Jennings needs to limit the open threes he lets Lillard shoot. On offense he needs to be aggressive. While his shooting efficiency hasn’t been great (.367 percent), he has been drawing fouls at a higher rate (5.7 FTAs is two more than his career average of 3.6), and his 7.0 assists is also well above his career mark of 5.7.
Shooting Guard (Billups versus Matthews): Matthews has started off strong for the Blazers, with his scoring and shooting percentages well above his already respectable career norms. He’s another guy who can’t be allowed to shoot an open three, because he’s been deadly accurate. If Billups could hit some open threes (he’s 1-8 the last two games) it would help Detroit.
Bench: Except for Lopez, all of Portland’s starters are averaging over 35 minutes per game, and only Williams gives them more than 20 minutes in a reserve role. In contrast, the Pistons have eight players averaging over 20 minutes. Strong performances from Stuckey, Bynum and Singler could provide a crucial edge for the visiting team, which also has the benefit of an extra night of rest.
In their losses to Phoenix and Houston, Portland was outrebounded and shot poorly (about .410 percent). Miles Plumlee dominated in the middle for the Suns to the tune of 18 points and 15 boards. And the Rockets’ Dwight Howard punished them for 29 points and 13 rebounds. Since they’re not confronting a stout interior defense, it makes sense for Detroit to pound the ball inside as much as possible. If this game becomes a jump shooting contest, the men from Motown will be singing the blues.