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Pistons flawed, but playing hard

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New York Knicks v Detroit Pistons Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Ho, ho, ho, Pistons fans.

At this point in the season, a few things have become clear. The Pistons have brought us some welcome surprises, yet some glaring weaknesses have been exposed that could seriously limit the team’s ceiling both this season and beyond. To satisfy our resident pessimists, I’ll begin with the negatives.

THE BAD

The Pistons are a jump-shooting team.

In short, when their threes are falling, they win. They shoot 40% from three at LCA and sport a .667 winning percentage there. They shoot 36% from three everywhere else, good for a sub-.500 winning percentage. They've made 41% in their 18 wins, and 34% in their 14 losses. They lose their road games by an average score of 103.2 to 101.5. They do this while taking on average one more 3PT shot per game, yet making one fewer than they do at home.

While they’re middle-of-the-road in 2PT FG's taken, they make only 48% of them, good for 4th worst in the NBA. They also happen to be the 4th worst team in scoring from the FT line. This helps to explain their 9th worst team TS%.

While the Pistons are stocked with more quality shooters than ever before, nearly all of them - Avery Bradley, Anthony Tolliver, Reggie Bullock, Luke Kennard, Langston Galloway - lack the ability to take their man off the dribble, create space and "get their own” consistently. Tobias Harris is improving as a bucket-getter (if not during the most recent stretch of games), but he isn’t quite there yet.

As Sean Corp recently pointed out, the Pistons really do need a true #1 option if they’re going to have a seat at the grown-ups' table.

Blocked shots are a problem.

Opponents block 6.3% of the Pistons’ shots (6th worst in the NBA) and 5.5 shots per game (4th worst). Conversely, our boys are dead last in blocked shots per game (3.4) and block percentage (4.2%). Oddly enough, they were only blocked 4.1 times per game last season (6th best in the NBA).

So what explains all this? Here I’ll speculate based on the good old-fashioned eye test (having watched every game thus far) and point to the Pistons lack of athleticism, explosiveness and the elusive shot-creator. They don’t attack the rim often enough, and when they do, it often results in a block. Bradley is a few inches shorter than KCP, and gets his shot blocked a lot (37 times in 28 games, good for 11th most in the NBA). If he hadn’t missed four games, he’d be up to roughly 42 shots blocked, which would be 5th most in the NBA. Tobias Harris has had his shot blocked 29 times in 32 games (20th most in NBA) and Andre Drummond has been blocked 28 times (21st). That’s three of their top four scorers who are all in the top 21. Given that there are roughly 150 players who start NBA games, having three in the top 21 of that category is, well... not good.

Reggie Jackson isn’t quite his former self.

On nights when their shots aren’t falling and they’re forced to score at the basket, they really struggle. Back in 2015-16, that used to be Reggie Jackson time. While there are plenty of fears that Reggie’s lost the explosiveness he once had, the stats tell a slightly different story. He’s actually shooting an equal or higher percentage everywhere on the floor than he did the last time he was healthy, including 61% inside of three feet.

So what’s the problem? Well, Reggie’s motor, it would appear. Whether it’s related to the knee or stamina/asthma issues, he’s playing 3.5 fewer minutes per game and hoisting 3.3 fewer shots. While he’s actually been more efficient, he’s either less willing or less able to assert himself when the rest of the team is struggling. This just adds to the team’s aforementioned problem of needing a bucket-getter to bail them out when their shooting goes cold.

Their starters are getting outplayed.

Ahh, remember the good old days of 2015-16, when the Pistons starters would race out to a lead and their pathetic reserves would cough it up so quickly that SVG had to rush the starters back in to save the day? Yeah, those were the days.

This season has seen a different trend, but they may have sorted it out recently. The Pistons starters are the 9th worst group in the NBA based on point differential, getting outscored by 9.9 ppg by their opponents thus far. That number goes up to 13.6 ppg against teams that are .500 or better (Keep in mind that only 4 NBA teams have played more than the 21 games the Pistons have against winning teams. Cleveland and Toronto have each played only 14 such games.).

Since being inserted into the starting lineup, Reggie Bullock has scored 11.5 ppg on 63% FG and 55% 3PT shooting. Stanley Johnson, on the other hand, has scored 10 ppg on 42.9% 3PT shooting his last five games, and seems to be a better fit with the bench unit. The key to maximizing Andre Drummond’s production is surrounding him with shooters. With Jackson, Bradley (when he returns), Bullock, Tobias and Tolliver, they appear to have the right mix. Until Stanley proves to be a long-distance threat that other teams have to respect, it’ll be best to keep bringing him off the bench. Once Bradley and Bullock have some time to play together, we’ll see if the starters improve as a unit.

They’re paying too much to guys who don’t contribute.

In addition to the $5.4 million per year they’re still paying He Who Will Not Be Named, the Pistons have two out-of-the-rotation players in Jon Leuer and Boban Marjanovic who earn a combined $17.5 million. Gotta wonder if that $23 million could be better spent, huh?

Their 4th and 6th highest paid players aren’t giving them anywhere near the bang for the buck this team needs, and it shows. In hindsight, those signings are clearly mistakes, of which I’m certain Stan Van Gundy is painfully aware. If SVB can somehow include those guys in a trade for a real scorer or backup center, we should all celebrate their wizardry.

The above issues lead to the reasonable conclusion that the Pistons, as currently constructed, have a limited ceiling. That means even with some development from younger players, they don’t have the tools to compete with the Celtics, Cavs and Raptors. The good news? That ceiling is a bit higher than many would have guessed prior to the season, and even with their flaws, they appear to be either at or above the level of every other team in the East. So let’s talk about what’s going well thus far.

THE GOOD

Andre Freaking Drummond

Dre is making the leap we all dreamed he would. Just think back about three months ago and remember the calls for him to be traded - that he’d never figure it out, never bring energy on a nightly basis, never fix the FT problem, never stop the maddening post-ups - and suddenly he’s a top 5 center and arguably the team’s most consistent player.

He’s had double-digit rebounds in all but three games, 22 double-doubles, 18 games with at least four assists, and after an extra hot start at the FT line, he’s shot a consistent 61% from the stripe in both November and December. He’s doing more to help the team, and less to hurt it. He stays on the court in crunch time. You really couldn’t ask for much more. Well, maybe better defense.

Savvy Veteran Leadership (TM)

The Pistons are playing hard almost every night. They’ve had a few stinkers, but I wouldn’t guess they’ve had more than most playoff-caliber NBA teams. They hustle more. They don’t give up. Andre doesn’t hang his head and pout anymore. Their assists are up only a bit (0.7/game), but they do appear to be moving the ball around more. At the very least, this team looks nothing like the dumpster fire we witnessed last season, and you have to credit Bradley and Tolliver for improving the culture, chemistry and morale. Let’s hope that holds up as the season progresses.

Three Point Shooting

Let’s not take this one for granted. They’re currently 6th in the league at 38.1%, a difference of 5.1% compared to last season’s 33% (which was 3rd worst in the NBA). Not only does this help spread the floor and erase big deficits, it also makes the Pistons MUCH easier on the eyes for us fans. It’s night and day compared to last year, and a pleasure to watch.

Tobias Harris

He’s come back down to earth a bit in December, which may in part be due to the tougher schedule, as well to the fact that teams are clearly game-planning for him following his scorching start. Let’s give the guy credit for shooting 48.6% (!) from three in the month of November, and a still sparkling 43.2% on the season. What’s more is that he’s doing this on high volume - shooting six threes a game.

Tobias is either a quality starter on a top-tier team, or an extremely valuable trade asset if a true star hits the market. I’d prefer to slot that player next to him in the front court rather than send him out in such a deal, but he’s certainly increased his value to the team.

Luke Kennard

You can’t mention his name anymore without acknowledging the elephant in the room - Donovan Mitchell. While I was in favor of drafting Kennard, no one can deny that Mitchell looks outstanding. That said, let’s give Luke his due for being Luke. He’s shooting 38.7% from three, has some nifty moves that will only get better as he matures, and doesn’t look atrocious on defense.

With his stroke and skill set, he should be a solid NBA player for years to come. I agree with the idea that if he were on Utah getting Mitchell’s minutes, he’d be putting up much better per game numbers. But yes, it sure would've been nice to see Mitchell in a Pistons uniform.

Excellent Bench Depth

I was just a tad bit surprised to see that the Pistons’ bench only outscores their opposition by 3.7 ppg, good for 13th best in the league. Compare that to two years ago, when they were outscored by 7.1 ppg, 4th worst in the NBA, and you’ll feel a bit better.

And here’s where we find a negative wrapped inside a positive. The reason they’re 12 deep (13 if you count Jon Leuer) with guys deserving of NBA rotation minutes is that their talent pool is spread too thin. So we arrive back at the true problem with the current roster - the absence of star power in the starting lineup (can’t find any stars willing to take their money).

But as has been discussed frequently here at DBB, the depth does provide the opportunity to trade multiple quality players (and maybe a pick) for an upgrade at one of the starting spots. So here we sit, just waiting for our Sheed to become available so SVB can snag a star for pennies on the dollar.

BIG PICTURE

It’s funny how quickly things change. Just a year ago, the team was spiraling into disaster and there was talk of blowing it all up. Here the Pistons sit as a clear playoff team with an 18-14 record in spite of the 5th toughest schedule in the NBA and playing a ton of quality teams. Yet some fans (some loud ones here in the comments) remain incredibly frustrated with the direction of the franchise. Other than the aforementioned overpays for Leuer and Boban, it’s hard to question most of SVB’s roster moves. While you can look at Donovan Mitchell and Devin Booker and call for Van Gundy to be fired, there really isn’t a GM in the league who hasn’t passed on superior talent in the draft. Hindsight is always 20/20.

Does it look like they’ll contend for the East crown with this roster? No, at least not to me. The team is 1-2 good moves away from being significant. Reggie’s health is a problem. Athleticism is a problem. Star power is a problem.

But I really think the negativity is a bit unwarranted. This is a team that was 29-53 before Stan Van Gundy took over. Their highest paid player at the time was you-know-who. Within two years, they were in the playoffs giving a good showing against the Cavs. Then they had a horrible year, largely due to the health of their most important player. Now they’ve corrected course, even if they remain a flawed team.

This team has a younger starting five (if you count Stanley) than all but three other NBA teams - the Magic, Suns and Lakers - and those teams are all far out of the playoff picture.

It’s frustrating, yes. You look around at all the other teams currently in playoff position and they all have a STAR. Kyrie, DeRozan, LeBron, Oladipo, Giannis, Wall/Beal, Porzingis… literally every single team has a guy who, if he were traded to the Pistons, would instantly become their best scorer. Andre Drummond will likely be an All-Star this year, but he’s not a guy who can take over a game.

And when you look at assets, you see that the Boston Celtics have more than anyone else. You have to wonder if they’ll even steal away “our Sheed” when he becomes available. We’ll have to wait and see.

No one knows what fortune - good or bad - will befall our beloved franchise. And since only a handful of NBA teams ever get to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy, fandom is really about enjoying the ride. It’s about enjoying the season for what it is. It’s dreaming about the NBA Finals and relishing it if and when the time comes. The fact that it’s hard to get there is what makes it so damn exciting when it does. So while this season’s Pistons are and will remain a flawed squad, I’m going to keep enjoying the fact that they’re a hell of a lot better than they used to be, and they could get even better via trades and internal improvement.

The team is on pace for 46 wins, and that’s if they just keep playing at the same pace (.562). Factor in the 5th easiest remaining SOS and they could reasonably win 47-48 games. That would put them in position for a competitive first-round playoff series. If they wind up the 4th or 5th seed and win a series, I think we’d all agree that’s progress. If they limp in as a 7-8 seed and get trounced by the Celts/Raps/Cavs, it would certainly be a disappointment, and would compel SVB to make some tough decisions about the roster in the offseason.

Is this team a contender? No. Is this team a dumpster fire? No. Are they doomed to eternal mediocrity by horrible contracts and an aging core? No. They’re a work in progress, and at the moment, they’re not too bad.

Merry Christmas.