Anyone who's been watching the 2015-16 Pistons thus far knows about a simple dichotomy that characterizes the team.
Starters good. Bench bad.
While the bench has had moments of competence, the Pistons are currently a just-above-.500 team with a starting lineup that has torched opponents to the tune of a top-three plus/minus rating in the league, and a bench that has routinely given those leads right back.
This was true to almost comical proportions in Saturday's 97-95 loss to the Washington Wizards. The five Pistons bench players combined to go -59 over 54 minutes, scoring just 15 points in that time on 6-of-21 shooting.
But it wasn't just as simple as the Pistons' starters dominating and the bench collapsing. This was a game of very specific matchups, with Washington also known over the past couple years as a team with a strong starting lineup and not much else. We'll take a look at each of the game's matchups and who came out on top.
Point Guard: Reggie Jackson vs. John Wall
Winner: Jackson (by a foot)
This was the most anticipated positional battle going into the game thanks to Wall's highly-publicized comments of incredulity that he and Jackson had the same salary. Wall got a couple steals off Jackson in the fourth quarter and propelled Washington's transition offense that helped them take a 30-24 first-quarter lead.
But statistically, Jackson easily outplayed the critic of his salary. His length held Wall to just 4-of-11 from the field and Wall routinely had trouble staying in front of him early in the game. Not to mention Wall was minus-20 in 27 minutes. Jackson is a harder matchup than Spencer Dinwiddie, but Wall's backup outplayed him Saturday.
Shooting Guard: Bradley Beal vs. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
Winner: Caldwell-Pope (by a foot)
KCP did what the Pistons need him to do - play heavy minutes, hit his threes and take a tough defensive assignment. But even if he had shot poorly he still would've played a better game than his counterpart. Beal didn't make much of an impact in his return from a two-game absence. Caldwell-Pope deserves credit for this not being a very memorable matchup.
Small Forward: Marcus Morris vs. Otto Porter Jr.
Winner: Porter (by an inch)
Slight edge to Porter here because he was the only Washington starter who played particularly well (and the only one to hit a three). His plus-minus total (only -4, easily the best of the starting unit) was a little inflated from playing with the reserves a while, but he played well enough to eclipse Morris. Marcus' 4-for-4 start softened the impact of some terrible shot selection down the stretch, and a 1-for-7 fourth quarter.
Power Forward: Ersan Ilyasova vs. Kris Humphries
Winner: Ilyasova (by a mile)
Humphries wasn't really a factor in the game- he provided some spacing but missed all seven of his shots and only played 17 minutes. He's managed to be a threat from deep against all odds this year, but you wouldn't have known it from this game. He was an easy defensive assignment for Ilyasova, allowing him to play his highest minutes total since the season opener (33) and score 18 points in his typical efficient manner.
Center: Andre Drummond vs. Marcin Gortat
Winner: Drummond (by a foot)
Neither big was at his best in this game - Drummond looked tired and didn't get his normal share of offensive touches, which led to his streak of 12 consecutive double-doubles to start the season ending. But he was still essential in attracting enough of Gortat's attention that Jackson got a sizable amount of layups, which is enough for me to say he won this matchup. Gortat was an effective finisher inside as usual, but seemed completely uninterested in playing defense, as his -22 rating would suggest.
Bench Guards: Spencer Dinwiddie vs. Gary Neal and Ramon Sessions
Winner: Washington (by a mile)
Sessions was awesome, constantly keeping Dinwiddie on his heels and either getting to the line or dishing to Nene and Jared Dudley. Dinwiddie looked overmatched against a cagey vet who caught him leaning, over-helping or not helping enough on numerous occasions.
Offensively, Dinwiddie is still more of a threat than Steve Blake and actually needs to be guarded, but he hasn't made much of an impact on that end either since his "revelatory" showing against the Lakers. Games like this make it hard to view him as a net positive for the team at this point. Get well soon, Brandon.
Bench Wings: Stanley Johnson and Reggie Bullock vs. Jared Dudley and Garrett Temple
Winner: Washington (by a mile)
Johnson has a huge burden on him as the second-best creator on a struggling bench unit for a team with playoff aspirations. There are some days where the rookie looks up to the task, yesterday was not one of them.
I want to give Bullock the benefit of the doubt because he has the reputation of being a shooter and his impact would look a lot different if his shot just started falling, but he's just been a disaster this year. He's still shooting under 10 percent, which is hard to fathom. He can't possibly continue to be this bad, but that by itself is not a compelling reason to continue playing him.
Dudley and Temple, on the other hand, looked like the viable bench wings that they are.
Bench Bigs: Aron Baynes and Anthony Tolliver vs. Nene Hilario
Winner: Washington (by a mile)
The Brazilian big man was simply unstoppable, abusing the Pistons' second unit to the tune of 18 points on ten shots, easily his best performance of the season. It wasn't just a case of him hitting tough shots, either, he made a variety of nice outlet passes and played aggressive defense
Baynes was OK and probably played the best out of any Pistons reserve. Set the world on fire, he did not. Tolliver played 15 minutes and did absolutely nothing of note.
Coaching: Stan Van Gundy vs. Randy Wittman
Edge: Wittman (by a half-inch)
SVG didn't make any coaching blunders that cost the Pistons the game or anything, and got a visibly tired roster to almost take down a fresher team that had a lead after a quarter and was running all over the place. I don't blame Van Gundy for playing his starters together a lot because the results speak for themselves, but it was tough to watch the all-bench lineup cough up an 11-point lead in the third. I can't fault him for the bench unit too much when I have no idea what the solution is on a night like tonight, but I would've at least liked to see the bench come out looking like they had some kind of offensive gameplan.
Nothing Wittman did stood out too much, but he had his team attacking the right players at the right times and was certainly correct to play Nene instead of Humphries late in the game. It seems a little silly to give him the edge just because of a win (as in, Van Gundy would be declared the winner if Morris had hit the final shot, which Van Gundy doesn't control). But it's the NBA, it's the race for the playoffs in the East, and if the Pistons had stolen this one it would have made a huge difference.
The Pistons' next game is at Milwaukee on Monday.