Doug Collins. Remember when he was the Pistons’ head coach? He was running the show in the Motor City during the 1996-97 season. In San Antonio, General Manager Greg Popovich fired Bob Hill after a 3-15 start and took the reins for himself. With David Robinson missing all but six games due to a broken foot, the Spurs hobbled to a 20-62 finish. Rewarded with the first pick in the 1997 NBA Draft, Popovich picked Tim Duncan, and a dynasty was born.
Ten. That’s how many coaching changes the Pistons have made since "Pop" became San Antonio’s head coach. Only Collins and Flip Saunders lasted as long as three years. Prior to Sunday, the only mid-season firing was of Alvin Gentry in 2000 after 58 games. At just 50 games, Maurice Cheeks is the shortest tenured one of the bunch. Detroit General Manager Joe Dumars has been in charge for eight of those changes. Whether he will still be around for the next (inevitable) switch is still up for grabs.
But since there is a game to be played tonight, what can we expect on the court?
The 21-29 Pistons are riding a four-game winning streak at the Palace, with the latest victory Saturday over a Denver team that was .500. They have averaged over 113 points per game in those contests, with the 126 they put up on the Nuggets a season high. Gunslingers Brandon Jennings (.451 percent) and Josh Smith (.538 percent) have been mostly on-target in these wins. In contrast, Jennings and Smith took turns misfiring at an appalling rate in the recent road losses to Miami and Orlando.
Meanwhile the Spurs and Coach Pop, like the San Antonio River, keep on rolling along. Their 37-14 record is second only to Oklahoma City (41-12) in the Western Conference. They are in the midst of a nine-game/18-day road trip that begin in New Orleans and will conclude in Phoenix. Their next home game will not be until Feb. 26, when they will host the Pistons. So far the Spurs are 3-1, with the lone loss at Brooklyn in a game that Duncan and Tony Parker set out. On Saturday they downed Charlotte 104-100.
Along with having the league’s fifth best defense, San Antonio’s offense is a smooth functioning machine. They lead the NBA in three-point percentage (.393), and are second in field goals (.489) and third in assists (24.7 per game).
Detroit, in contrast, is the worst team at shooting threes (.312). They try to compensate by being tops at offensive rebounding and third best at getting steals. But clearly interim coach John Loyer is facing a difficult challenge tonight to prepare his team to face the defending Western Conference champions.
Power Forward: Greg Monroe versus Tim Duncan. Duncan (15.4 ppg, 10.1 rpg) remains on top of his game at age 37. He scored 31 points against the Wizards just five days ago. Monroe (14.3 ppg, 8.7 rpg) has been solid in a reduced offensive role this season. The closer he comes to holding his own with Duncan, the better Detroit’s chances of winning. That would also be a feather in his cap when he sits down to negotiate a contract this summer.
Small Forward: Josh Smith versus Danny Green. Green (7.8 ppg, .388 percent on threes) has taken over Kawhi Leonard’s role since he broke a finger. Green also missed 10 games recently due to a finger injury, but anyone who watched the 2013 Finals knows about his scoring potential. For Detroit, Smith (16.1 ppg, 7.0 rpg) has been a mostly more efficient scorer of late, raising his field goal percentage to .420. Along with continuing that trend he will need to pay close defensive attention to Green on the perimeter.
Center: Andre Drummond versus Tiago Splitter or Boris Diaw. Splitter (8.1 ppg, 6.3 rpg) is questionable for tonight. Diaw (9.5 ppg) got the start Saturday. Whoever plays, their main job will be blocking out the NBA’s best offensive rebounder. Drummond (13.0 ppg, 13.0 rbg) has posted six straight double-doubles (his 38 trails only Kevin Love’s 42), and his 5.3 offensive boards per game are a potent weapon. A dominant performance inside will be essential to the Pistons’ chances.
Point Guard: Brandon Jennings versus Tony Parker. Parker (17.9 ppg, 6.3 apg) has been hindered by back problems that have limited his playing time lately, but he was back in the line-up versus Charlotte. There are few more efficient scorers in the NBA, and he put up 32 points against the Pelicans a week ago. Efficient production from Jennings (17.7 ppg, 8.2 apg) could be a strong factor in Detroit’s favor. In their victories he has connected on .438 percent of his threes and averaged 9.2 assists. But even that will go for naught if he cannot contain Parker’s offense.
Shooting Guard: Kyle Singler versus Marco Belinelli or Cory Joseph. Belinelli (11.0 ppg, .444 percent on threes) is questionable for the game due to back spasms. Joseph got his 11th start Saturday, scoring eight points. Singler (8.7 ppg, 3.6 rpg) has started in Detroit’s last two wins, so his new coach may be hesitant to take him out of the line-up. After a cold shooting January, he has made .526 percent of his threes so far this month.
Patty Mills (9.3 ppg, .429 percent on threes) exploded for 32 points against the Bobcats, and Nando de Colo also contributed (15 points). Injuries to starters Belinelli, Leonard and Splitter, as well as Manu Ginobili, have forced Coach Pop to rely more on his reserves, but they have come through admirably. No surprise there.
Rodney Stuckey (14.1 ppg) will be the go-to-guy among the Detroit reserves. Assuming Singler continues in his starting role tonight, the way Coach Loyer uses Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Will Bynum will be the development most worth watching. With Josh Harrellson out with a knee injury, expect Jonas Jerebko to see some minutes at forward.
Keys to the Game
Detroit’s defense has been poor all season, and opponents have made .370 percent of their threes. With the Spurs’ uncanny ability to find the open man, this contest could get ugly fast if the Pistons are as inattentive on the perimeter as usual. On offense they have been most effective when they play at a high pace, but that will be difficult to do if they are always getting the ball out of the net. But if Jennings and Singler can stretch the defense with their shooting, so Drummond, Monroe and Smith can find space in the paint, Detroit can earn its newest coach his first win.