When a team expected to be in the playoff mix starts a season 3-19, there's likely a fair amount of blame to go around. It takes a lot to be that resoundingly bad with more than a quarter of the season in the books.
To be that bad, it takes a team being completely devoid of talent - like the Philadelphia 76ers. But that's not necessarily the case with the Detroit Pistons. They have some talented players and a decent number of veterans.
As Sean Corp wrote yesterday, Stan Van Gundy has declared himself ready to put all options on the table. It really doesn't need to be as dramatic as Van Gundy is making it out to be. The changes needed are mostly obvious.
With Jodie Meeks being out all season so far and other wings like Cartier Martin and Luigi Datome hobbled at times, injuries have been a factor in limiting the talent available. But injuries are not the reason that the Pistons are 3-19. The reason the Pistons are 3-19 is because Van Gundy has not used the talent available to him effectively.
To explore this idea, I charted the wins produced per 48 minutes for each member of each team's starting lineup to get an idea of which team had the best or worst performing player at each position. Some teams were impacted by injury or lineup changes, so it's not a perfect exercise. But for transparency, here is the data (as of 12/9/14).
I also calculated the total combined wins produced per 48 minutes for the starters. As you'd expect, there's a clear relationship between that figure and the team's performance.
Now the 76ers, the only team in the league currently looking up to the Pistons in the standings right now, each member of their starting lineup is toward the bottom of the league at their position. Michael Carter-Williams is the bottom ranked point guard, Tony Wroten is ranked 29th among shooting guards, and Nerlens Noel is 27th among power forwards.
That's not necessarily the case for the Pistons.
They appear to be just fine at small forward and center, with Kyle Singler and Andre Drummond ranked firmly in the middle of the league. And while Brandon Jennings has been on the decline lately, he's still among the top 20 starters at point guard.
It's at shooting guard and power forward where the Pistons have struggled with their starters. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is ranked 25th among starting shooting guards with most of the players below him actually sporting a negative win produced figure.
Josh Smith is actually among those with the negative wins produced and is ranked 28th in the league among starting power forwards. According to wins produced, only Thaddeus Young and Jason Thompson have had worse starts.
As a team, the Pistons have the seventh lowest combined wins produced per 48 minutes despite being firmly positioned as the second worst team in the standings. This suggests that the whole of the team has actually been worse than the sum of their parts. A big reason for that is that the lowest performers have played the largest roles.
Josh Smith leads the team in shot attempts and is second on the team in minutes played. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope leads the team in minutes and is second on the team in shot attempts. These two players who are the weakest links in the starting lineups have been allowed to have the greatest influence on the team. And their struggles have been mostly predictable, as their wins produced figures aren't horribly off from last year.
Now, there are plenty of other teams without perfect starting lineups who have still been able to win. But New Orleans is an example on how to do it wrong, allowing the 28th worst starting small forward Tyreke Evans to wind up second on the team in minutes and shot attempts. Despite the top power forward, the fourth best center, and 18th best point guard, they're only a .500 team. Just replace Evans and the 27th worst shooting guard Eric Gordon with real players, and that Pelicans team would be impressive. Unfortunately for them, they don't have many options for upgrades internally.
However that's not the case for the Pistons.
Particularly at power forward, there are clear upgrades readily available - both for minutes and shot distribution. Greg Monroe currently leads the team in wins produced and Jonas Jerebko leads the team in wins produced per 48 minutes. Yet Monroe is currently coming in off the bench and Jerebko is ninth on the team in minutes.
Simply moving Josh Smith to the bench and dramatically decreasing his minutes could have a tremendous impact in the team's competency at the position. While Van Gundy has only played Smith an average of 21 minutes over the past two games, there's been no indication that he's willing to take the dramatic step of playing him (as well as Monroe and Jerebko) in the roles that their performances on the court have warranted.
Shooting guard is less simple thanks to Meeks' injury and Caldwell-Pope's youth. His struggles have been mostly understandable considering he's still only 21 years old and in only his second professional season. However, it hasn't stopped Stan Van Gundy from piling on responsibility that the young shooting guard hasn't shown he is yet ready for.
Even with Meeks out, there are still plenty of alternatives available. Singler and Caron Butler can both spend time at shooting guard and have been reliable early on this season. Cartier Martin and Luigi Datome have been lightly used. There are plenty of warm bodies to help prevent a struggling Caldwell-Pope from being extended beyond what he's ready for.
As a developing young player, Caldwell-Pope belongs in the rotation and should be given responsibility consistent with his development. But going beyond that does no favors to Caldwell-Pope or the team, and there are enough warm bodies available that it has been unnecessary for Van Gundy to do so.
With a 3-19 start, there have been plenty of calls (even on DBB) to blow the roster up and tank. And that reaction is completely understandable. But it might not be necessary.
With simple tweaks to the rotation, it's possible that this team may be able to be competitive as is. Moving Butler and Monroe into the starting lineup gives Detroit five players who are in the middle of the league among starters. They'd have the seventh highest combined win shares per 48 minutes in the Eastern Conference, essentially making them look like a playoff team. And that's even before taking into account replacing Smith with Jerebko in the rotation and Meeks returning as soon as tomorrow.
There's been plenty of criticism directed Smith's way early this season, and his performance has warranted it. But if a finger should be pointed to the primary culprit for the team's record, it should be directed to Stan Van Gundy. Playing the best players the most minutes and getting shots for the most efficient players, that's not a novel concept.
Competency looks like it is within reach for the Pistons. It's just up Stan Van Gundy to pick it up.