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Relax, Pistons fans. It’s going to be okay.

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Tough schedule and absence of Reggie Jackson hurting the Pistons.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Detroit Pistons Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Full disclosure… I started writing an article before the Pistons’ blowout loss to the Cavs (and nail biting loss to the Celtics) and decided to change things up a bit based on those performances.

The first article was going to be more positive. After watching that Cleveland game, I feel inclined to give due attention to the concerns as well.

So this is neither Kool-Aid nor cyanide. Instead, consider it an attempt to look at the best and worst-case scenarios (SCENAIOS) for this season and beyond.

Without further ado, let’s take a look at the context here. At 6-8, the Pistons are just outside the playoff picture at the moment.

Here are some obvious problems:

  • Scoring the basketball
  • 3PT shooting
  • Spacing
  • Leadership

What’s the common theme between all of the above?

They’re all related to Reggie Jackson’s absence.

Reggie is, without a doubt, the most important player on this team.

Reggie is the straw that stirs the drink.

As we all know, the Pistons offense revolves around the pick & roll, a strategy that requires a PG and big man who both pose a significant scoring threat to defenses. And that’s a tremendous problem when your PG can neither shoot from distance nor convert in the paint. Those skills just happen to be the two biggest strengths of Jackson, and without him, everyone else on the floor has to work harder to get good looks.

Marcus Morris and Jon Leuer are both shooting below their career norms from distance, and in spite of a noticeable improvement at the FT line, Andre Drummond's scoring is down a bit from last year. Stanley Johnson looks lost.

The vaunted 1-in, 4-out offense only works when the “four out” can actually make defenders pay for sagging into the paint and going under screens. And while Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has improved his 3PT shooting and Tobias Harris has been solid, Morris, Leuer, Smith and even Udrih are all under 33% (Ish is at a spine-tingling 15%).

Fortunately, Reggie Jackson’s return should resolve most of those issues. Ideally, his ability to keep defenders honest with his 3PT stroke and also convert efficiently at the basket will once again create more space and better looks for their shooters, and percentages will go up accordingly.

Last season, when the Pistons’ offense went cold, it was Reggie (and sometimes Marcus) who would create his own offense to keep them in games. Without him there to keep the game close during those tough stretches, they’re collapsing.

And that’s the bigger problem here. Leadership.

This is Andre Drummond’s fifth season. He’s a max player. Yet it’s becoming evident that he doesn’t bring full effort and focus on a nightly basis. Guys like Tristan Thompson, Robin Lopez and Jonas Valanciunas make Dre look slow and disinterested at times. That’s unacceptable from your top guy.

While I don’t expect the Pistons to suffer blowouts like they have once Reggie is back and up to speed, it shouldn’t be happening at all in his absence. Pistons fans know what fight and determination look like. They know when guys are taking plays off. And they’re seeing it happen in these listless and embarrassing blowouts.

And that’s a serious problem. It means they’re soft.

I’m not one for knee-jerk reactions, but I really think at some point within the next two years, Stan Van Gundy may have to make a change to the core of this team if leadership remains a problem. It’s too early to know for certain, and they have a lot of great players who fit together pretty well, but these blowouts are troubling.

They need to fight harder. Hustle more. Show some guts.

HOWEVER...

In spite of these blowouts and huge games by DeMar DeRozan and Kristaps Porzingas, and in spite of playing eight of their first 13 games on the road, the Pistons’ defense sits at 5th in the NBA in points surrendered.

In this early season, they have already played road games against four contenders with the following records - Cleveland (10-2), Toronto (8-4), LA Clippers (12-2) and San Antonio (10-3). Without their leading scorer and distributor.

So… context.

What other East teams are playing without their leading scorer and distributor? That’s right… none. (apologies to the Bucks)

What other East teams have played eight road games including a 4-game West coast swing? That’s right… none.

So before we start lighting torches and carrying pitchforks, let’s all remember that the Pistons are likely surviving what will be their most difficult stretch of the season, with more than enough dysfunctional teams above & below them in the standings to gobble up all the ping pong balls on draft lottery night.

They’re likely a low playoff seeded team without Reggie Jackson, and they’re also very likely a 4-6 seed when he’s in the lineup. Meaning, that’s where they’ll likely end up, even if they’re below .500 when he returns.

Reasons for Optimism

I’ll just lay out a pre-emptive SAMPLE SIZE disclaimer, so I don’t feel obligated to say it before every statistic referenced.

Two numbers on the stat sheet really stand out:

  1. Andre Drummond: 51% on FT’s
  2. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope: 36% on threes

If those end-of-season numbers look anything like they do right now, the Pistons will be in excellent shape. I know KCP’s TS% is down a tad bit overall, but if he keeps shooting threes at this rate (and especially if Reggie still shoots them around 35%), their offense will open up even more. He also looks to be getting better at creating openings for his mid-range jumper off the dribble, but that’s just my eye test talking

With all the talk about Andre’s virtual reality therapy and his poor preseason performance, I’m still pleasantly surprised by this development. And make no mistake, he is indeed better at the line - form, attitude, routine - he looks smoother and more comfortable. I don’t even recall a single instance of Hack-a-Dre occurring, but they haven’t played the Hawks yet. Shooting above 50% will likely snag the Pistons an extra win or two over the course of the season, simply due to the absence of the hacking strategy. That’s huge.

JON. LEUER.

Yeah, he just played his worst game of the season. But what Pistons fan doesn’t love this guy already?

While he may not be a Kevin Love Stopper (or a Porzingis Stopper, etc), he is a true PF with a diverse offense game, athleticism and smarts. He tends to be in the right place at the right time (with the exception of getting posterized by Kristaps). While it’s too early to make a change to the starting lineup, he might prove to be a better fit alongside Tobias Harris than our man Marcus Morris, and Marcus might be better suited to the second unit due to his superior ability to create his own offense. Time will tell.

A career .367 3PT shooter, he’s struggling below 30% thus far. I’d expect him to bring that number up as the season progresses. In fact, if he were a part of a starting unit benefiting from the Reggie/Dre PNR, he’d likely get more good looks from downtown on a nightly basis.

Tobias Harris

Almost an afterthought since he often makes scoring look smooth and easy, Tobias appears to be a clear top three player on this team. He’s shooting threes (34%) with consistency, scoring in the post, off the dribble, and even shooting 93% at the line. He’s efficient and effective on offense, even if his defense can suffer due to mismatches against taller or stronger opponents. He’ll be a solid starter on a contending Pistons team.

Stan Van Gundy

I agree with the notion that Stan could be doing a better job of motivating this team to bring greater effort on a nightly basis. But since I’m not in the locker room, I can’t really evaluate what he is or isn’t doing to get the most out of his players.

That being said, he does have a proven track record of putting guys in positions to succeed. Guys like DJ Augustin, Brandon Jennings, Morris, Anthony Tolliver, Leuer and Harris have all seemed to improve upon past performance under Stan’s tutelage.

I really think we need to give him the benefit of the doubt here and avoid making any judgments for a while. Like, not after the first game with Reggie (maybe after the second).

Season outlook

The pieces are still in place. When healthy, they will have solid starters at all five positions and a second unit that doesn’t suck. And yes, I think Ish Smith will be a capable PG once he’s playing primarily against other backups. And Beno is much better than Steve Blake, so even if Ish struggles, it won’t be a disaster.

This 4-game home stand will give them a chance to get back to .500, but the rest of the month will be brutal.

Looking at the schedule, I see them continuing to hover around or slightly below .500 until Reggie returns, and taking off in 2017 as the schedule lets up a bit and they get comfortable playing together as a complete unit. Don’t laugh… but I think 46-48 wins is still attainable.

Long-term outlook

Andre Drummond has a lot to prove. He needs to bring more consistent energy and fire to the court if they’re ever going to make the leap into contention. If he doesn’t learn to improve his focus and intensity, SVB might eventually look to bring in someone who will.

KCP is proving to be a solid enough player to earn a $20m contract in this market. That’s good. If he’s not a good fit with the Pistons for the long-term (and I understand the argument they may need more of a pure scorer on the wing), his market value is what it is, and he could be a valuable piece in a trade.

There aren’t too many other teams in the NBA right now who can put out a starting five filled with players who can all average 13-20 ppg. Certainly none whose starting five are all under 30 years old.

In short, Pistons fans… let patience be your friend. Vent in the game threads for sure, but take a deep breath and look at the big picture if you want to feel good about the future of this team.

The Pistons will be a very good team when Reggie returns, but until then, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.