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Can the Detroit Pistons follow in Toronto's footsteps and finish strong?

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Since waiving Josh Smith, the Pistons are 2-0 winning by an average of 16.5 points per game. Can this last the rest of the season?

Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

There are many different variations of the saying, but I prefer this one: "It's not how you start, but how you finish." Mind you, while this quote can be true, it has to be taken within context. It does not matter if you answered 75 out of the first 80 questions wrong on your test but 19 of the last 20 correct, you still failed. However, it does matter if you reverse it. If you answered 19 out of the first 20 questions wrong, answering 75 of the last 80 correct changes you from what would have been a failed test to a passed test.

That is what happened to the Toronto Raptors last year after trading Rudy Gay to the Sacramento Kings on Dec. 9, 2013. At the time of the trade, the Raptors were 7-12. Gay was averaging 19.4 points per game on 38.8-percent field-goal percentage. Many thought that Gay's contract was untradeable as he was making over $17 million a year. But once that trade happened, the Raptors took off.

The Raptors would finish last season in third place in the Eastern Conference with a record of 48-34. A lot of people state that the Raptors went 41-22 the rest of the way after the Rudy Gay trade for a 65.1 winning percentage. While that is technically true, what also needs to be included is the game before the trade when Gay did not suit up. The Raptors won that game as well which means they were 42-22 for a winning percentage of 65.6 without Gay. Prior to that, they were on a five-game losing streak.

After starting out 2-0 in the post-Josh Smith era, some are wondering if the Pistons could make a similar run. If the Pistons were to win 65-percent of their remaining games (since the waiving of Josh Smith), they would add 35 wins, ending the season at 40-42. While that would be nice (and currently a win percentage of 48.8-percent would have us sixth in the Eastern Conference), a lot of things would have to change.

Josh Smith was not the only reason why the Pistons were 5-23. The Pistons (all of them) were not hitting their layups as well as they should be, our signed 3-point shooters were shooting well below their career marks, and our ball movement was atrocious. So what happened after Gay's trade that helped Toronto, and can we see (or have already seen) something similar in Detroit?

One of the major difference between the Pistons scenario and that of the Raptors was the fact that Gay was traded, meaning assets were received by Toronto. A lot of people have attributed Toronto's run as "addition by subtraction." However, that was not the case. In the trade, Toronto sent Gay, Quincy Acy and Aaron Gay (one time Piston) to Sacramento for Chuck Hayes, Patrick Patterson, John Salmons and Greivis Vasquez. None of these players were team changing. However, they did help the Raptors the remainder of the season.

Hayes' contributions were almost identical in Toronto to what they were in Sacramento. The only noticeable improvement was a career-best free throw percentage of 83.3-percent. He would only play in 45 of the remaining 63 games.

Salmons was a consistent player for the Raptors, playing in 60 of the remaining games while logging 21 minutes a contest. However, he was really Gay's replacement. Salmons shot less than he did in Sacramento, and even shot better, but that was only 36.8-percent. His real contribution was his 38.8-percent from distance. Other than that, Salmons was kind of a non-factor.

Patterson played quite a bit better for Toronto than he did in Sacramento. Though his field-goal attempts stayed relatively the same (7.2 per game to 7.6), he improved his percentage from 41.0-percent to 47.7-percent. The same can be said for his 3-point attempts. While they stayed at 2.3 per game, his percentages jumped from 23.1-percent to 41.1-percent. (Side Note: He is currently averaging 46.7-percent on 3.5 attempts per game.) Even his free throw shooting saw a spike in percentages going from 56.3-percent to 74.5-percent. Aside from an increase in blocks per game from 0.2 to 0.7, the rest of his stats were relatively the same. He would only play 48 out of the remaining 63 games, missing 13 due to an injury.

Vasquez was likely the most interesting part to the trade for Toronto. While they had Kyle Lowry, he was going to be a free agent in the summer. Vasquez was only 27 and had some solid seasons behind him. Hoping to eventually lock up Lowry long term (which they did this past offseason), Vasquez would serve as a nice backup. And he did. Vasquez would play less, but contribute the same. His overall shooting percentages would go down a few notches, but his three-point shooting would increase in frequency (2.8 to 3.9) and efficiency (32.0-percent to 38.9-percent) to make up for it. He would play 61 of the 63 available games, starting five of them.

I do not know math well enough to say if those players made up for what was sent away from Toronto, but I would think so as Acy and Gray were very rarely used in Toronto.

Toronto's offense changed quite a bit

PPG OPPG FG% 3PA/PG 3P% APG
Before Trade 97.74 98.42 42.7% 21.63 32.8% 17.37
After Trade 102.35 97.92 45.1% 23.90 38.4% 22.33

They shared the ball more, they shot the ball better, and they shot from more efficient areas. This resulted in a much better team and a remarkable change in direction in the standings.

However, what happened to the Raptors was not "addition by subtraction." What might be happening to the Pistons could be addition by subtraction.

We only have a very small sample size of two games to go off of, but what is different so far. Well, statistically...

PPG OPPG FG% 3PA/PG 3P% APG TOV
With Josh Smith 94.43 101.14 41.3% 23.29 33.0% 20.36 13.21
After Josh Smith 111.00 94.50 49.7% 28.50 47.4% 23.00 9.5

Now, as was stated previously, this is a small two game sample size. And when you add in the anomaly that was the game against Cleveland where the Pistons set a franchise record of three-pointers made in a game of 17 (out of 31 attempts), that is going to raise some averages and percentages by quite a bit. However, what is noticeable is the nearly three more assists per game. Also, our defense is looking a bit better.

OFG% O3PA/PG O3P% OFTA/PG SPG OTOV
With Josh Smith 45.8% 22.39 37.2% 21.89 6.96 13.21
After Josh Smith 44.2% 24.50 28.6% 19.50 11.50 17.50

So we are getting more steals, causing more turnovers, and disrupting more shots (especially along the perimeter). Improved defense along with improved offense should result in more wins.

For the third time, I would like to make the disclaimer of a small sample size of just two games. But I also want to warn against too much optimism the next few games. The Pistons next play the Orlando Magic, who are 12-21 but only 3-7 in their last 10. They follow that up with a game against New York, who have lost eight in a row. The next game is against the Sacramento Kings who started hot but have floundered of late (mostly when DeMarcus Cousins was out with viral meningitis - they are 2-2 in the four games he has played since coming back). With the Pistons improved play, it is possible that the Pistons could end up on a five-game winning streak.

But after that is when the real test will set in. The Pistons will then have games at San Antonio, at Dallas, home against the Atlanta Hawks, home against the Nets (could be a win), at Toronto, and then home against the Pelicans. If the Pistons can go .500 through that stretch of games, it will definitely show a change in the team.

The Raptors would lose the game after the trade. But that was to the San Antonio Spurs, the eventual NBA Champion. They would win the next game. However, that was at home against Philadelphia, which we all know should be a gimme game. Looking at the remainder of the Raptors' schedule for last year looks as though it was quite favorable. And the games they should have lost, they did. Looking at the remainder of the Pistons schedule for this year, it is not looking as favorable.

What say you DBB? Aside from the small sample size, do you see a noticeable change in the Pistons players and their overall play?