What a difference a year can make! Last season the Pistons were 5-23 through their first 28 games, with fans speculating whether they were destined to win a top three pick in the lottery. Now sitting at 16-12 after a gutsy four overtime road victory over Chicago, Detroit looks like an entirely different team with legitimate playoff hopes.
In truth, it is a much different team, with just six players remaining from the roster that started the 2014-15 season. And one returnee who has yet to play this year is set to get back on the court – perhaps as early as Tuesday night’s game in Miami. That would be Brandon Jennings, who led the 12-4 resurgence last season after Josh Smith was waived. How quickly he can contribute to a bench unit that has often struggled during the first third of the year is yet another intriguing storyline for this Pistons squad.
Having run the gauntlet of one of the NBA’s toughest schedules, Detroit has enjoyed a welcome three-day break between games – their longest rest of the season. After already playing seven back-to-backs, only one awaits them on the upcoming slate. And while they played their last nine matches in 15 days, the next nine will cover 19 days. Coach Stan Van Gundy will certainly welcome the extra practice time the more relaxed pace will afford, and it should also make it easier to integrate Jennings into the lineup.
Detroit went 6-3 during its most recent nine games, a result that was foreseen by 44 percent of those who voted in our last fan poll. An equal number envisioned 4-5 wins. That schedule featured six home games, whereas the next nine will see them on the road five nights. The home record is 10-4; away they are 6-8. Now let’s peruse the upcoming nine contests to project some possibilities for the Pistons.
Game 29 (Tues., Dec. 22): Pistons at Heat
Many people move to Miami for the weather, and the Heat have been able to enjoy its sunny climate for 17 of their first 26 games. So it’s difficult to gauge if they are as strong as their 16-10 record would indicate, seeing as they are 12-5 at American Airlines Arena. Detroit downed them at The Palace nearly a month ago, 104-81. Miami’s fifth-rated defense is backed by the shot-blocking prowess of Hassan Whiteside (4.0 per game). Dwyane Wade (18.5 points per game) and Chris Bosh (17.0 ppg) are the offensive stars. Rookie Justice Winslow is often the first man off the bench, playing a significant role similar to that of the Pistons’ Stanley Johnson.
Game 30 (Wed., Dec. 23): Pistons at Hawks
Detroit will jet to Atlanta for its eighth back-to-back, this time against a team that it beat 106-94 on opening night at Philips Arena. The 17-12 Hawks will be hosting Portland Monday night after they dropped Orlando, 103-100, on Sunday. Paul Millsap does the heavy lifting (18.2 ppg), and he gets ample support from Al Horford (15.4 ppg) and Jeff Teague (15.2 ppg and 5.9 assists per game). Atlanta also has quality depth at every position, which gives them an added edge.
Game 31 (Sat., Dec. 26): Celtics at Pistons
When you have not been among the league’s top squads lately, you play the day after Christmas. These two get a chance to revisit their contest from 10 days earlier, which Detroit narrowly won, 119-116. That score was surprising considering that both these teams have been among the league’s most stalwart defenses. Currently in tenth place at 14-13, the Celtics are led by their diminutive backcourt of Isaiah Thomas (21.4 ppg and 6.6 apg) and Avery Bradley (15.4 ppg and shooting .408 on threes). They also have a strong bench.
Game 32 (Tues., Dec. 29): Pistons at Knicks
New York remade much of its roster after last season’s disastrous 17-65 finish, adding Aaron Afflalo, Robin Lopez and surprising rookie Kristaps Porzingis to its starting lineup. The early results have been encouraging, as the Knicks have been playing .500 ball. Carmelo Anthony leads the scoring (21.7 ppg) and former Piston Jose Calderon is the point man, but they rely heavily on their reserves, too. Detroit could hardly ask for a bigger stage than Madison Square Garden to show the world that it has a star-studded cast.
Game 33 (Thurs., Dec. 31): Timberwolves at Pistons
Minnesota won only 16 games last year, so they have to be pleased to have 11 victories through the first third of 2015-16. Rookie Karl Anthony Towns has been outstanding (15.7 ppg and 9.1 rpg) and Andrew Wiggins tosses in 21.1 ppg. Detroit won the first match at the Target Center in November, 96-86. What better way to ring in the New Year than by savoring a Pistons’ victory at The Palace?
Game 34 (Sat., Jan. 2): Pistons at Pacers
This rivalry has been revived this season, as these teams have split their first two matches, both of which were played in Auburn Hills. Paul George is enjoying an MVP caliber campaign (26.2 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 4.0 apg and .416 three-point shooting), but he was held to 13 points and missed all four of his three attempts in Detroit’s Dec. 12 defeat of the Pacers. Indiana went 11-2 in November after a 0-3 October, but has been up and down since then. With a fourth-rated defense and a ninth-rated offense, the Pacers will be tough to beat at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Game 35 (Mon., Jan. 4): Magic at Pistons
Most observers did not expect Orlando would be ready to battle for a postseason berth this soon, but Coach Scott Skiles has them defending at a high level. With balanced scoring from their starters (Nikola Vucevic leads the way with 16.2 ppg and 8.8 rpg) and a capable reserve corps, they can be expected to present Detroit with a spirited challenge. Elfrid Payton is a pesky defender (1.7 steals per game) and an improving distributor (6.3 apg). This will not be an easy match, so Motor City fans have to hope that their team’s shooting, defense and bench don’t do a disappearing act.
Game 36 (Wed., Jan. 6): Pistons at Celtics
This will be Detroit’s first trip of 2015-16 to storied Boston Garden, and whoever won on the day Santa warms his feet by the fire will be looking for revenge. Jared Sullinger has the bulk to bang with Andre Drummond in the post, and he isn’t shy about shooting threes – even if he is not very accurate (.288 percent). This game may will come down to whether the Celtics’ Thomas or the Pistons’ Reggie Jackson can produce the most fourth quarter heroics.
Game 37 (Sat., Jan. 9): Nets at Pistons
One of Detroit’s most disappointing early losses was on the road at the Barclays Center in late November, as the Pistons record dipped below .500 for the first time this season. Returning to Motown, they ripped off four straight victories and have scored over 100 points in nine of their last 11 games. Brooklyn is getting solid play from Brook Lopez (19.3 ppg and 8.0 rpg) Thaddeus Young (15.5 ppg and 9.1 rpg) and Jarrett Jack (13.5 ppg and 7.1 apg), but Joe Johnson’s game has fallen off a cliff. Rookie Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is out with a fractured ankle.
Can Detroit stay sharp with a more relaxed schedule? Vote your conscience and discuss your opinions with your DBB friends.