Almost Halftime

Pistons have found their staples and can identify areas for growth in 2nd half

Greg Monroe
The Pistons are almost to the halfway mark of the 2013-14 season.
Allen Einstein (NBAE/Getty)
The Pistons have played 38 games, three shy of the halfway mark. Toss in their eight preseason games, and they’re one past the mid-point of a 90-game preseason plus regular-season commitment. And for the 6½ months from the early October start of training camp until the mid-April regular-season finale, the mid-point came a week ago.

Throw in the five-day break between last weekend’s back-to-back wins over Philadelphia and Phoenix and Friday’s visit from Utah and you have the appropriate time to evaluate where the Pistons have been and where they’re headed.

Their 16-22 record qualifies as disappointing, but it’s so easy to pick out a half-dozen games that could have turned it into the 22-16 record that wouldn’t have been far off anyone’s estimate to offer legitimate optimistism about what their season promises.

Here’s a quick look at what the Pistons can bank on as their bedrock strengths over the season’s final 44 games and what they’ve spent their five-day hiatus working to improve.

MORE, PLEASE – Areas where the Pistons are already among the NBA’s best and can continue to exploit for maximum benefit:

  1. Offensive rebounding – The Pistons lead the NBA in offensive rebounding, grabbing nearly one-third (31.7 percent) of misses on their end. For a team that has struggled shooting from the perimeter, every extra possession is precious. Andre Drummond is the NBA leader in offensive rebounds by a healthy margin with 5.29 per game; Greg Monroe is 10th with 3.24 per game.
  2. Creating turnovers and scoring in transition – It’s one of the foundational beliefs of Mo Cheeks’ coaching philosophy and he has a roster built to accommodate such a view. The Pistons force 16 turnovers a game, tied for sixth in the league, and they’re second in the NBA with 17.3 fast-break points per game, sandwiched between two notably up-tempo teams, Phoenix and Philadelphia. Fourth and fifth on the list? Title contenders Oklahoma City and the Los Angeles Clippers.
  3. Scoring around the rim – There’s natural overlap with points in the paint for both offensive rebounding and scoring in transition, of course, but the Pistons at their best also get plenty of points near the rim in other ways: Greg Smith posting up; Josh Smith taking the ball from the elbow to the basket; Brandon Jennings on penetration, Rodney Stuckey crashing to the basket or posting up, Will Bynum exploding off pick-and-roll sets. They’re still figuring out how to balance all of those weapons, but they’ve done enough despite their inconsistencies over 38 games to lead the NBA with 51.7 points in the paint per game.

ROOM FOR GROWTH – Areas where it is reasonable to assume advances are coming for the Pistons:

  1. 3-point shooting – Yeah, I know. They’re 30th in the NBA. So how can you argue this will be a strength? Look, the Pistons aren’t ever going to be confused with Portland, San Antonio and Golden State as long-distance marksmen, but they’ve quietly gotten better since bumping along at 28 percent in November, making nearly a third of their triples since then. And as Kyle Singler and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope – who’ve combined to make around 40 percent of their triples since early December – see their roles expand and Brandon Jennings gets more opportunities to play off the ball, as Cheeks has said he would, the Pistons should shoot 3-pointers at closer to league average. And if they can do that, given their prowess as offensive rebounders – where the opportunities are often greater on longer shots – their offense adds a significant dimension.
  2. Defense – The assumption coming into the season was the Pistons’ size and athleticism would allow them to come together quicker on the defensive end than on offense. It hasn’t worked out that way, a reminder of the cohesion required to field an effective half-court defense. But even marginal improvements across several areas – the Pistons are 22nd in defensive efficiency, 25th in field-goal percentage defense and 25th in scoring defense – should help in turning around the dozen or so games that will make the difference in this team making the playoffs comfortably or scrambling down the stretch to qualify.
  3. Free-throw shooting – The Pistons are last in the NBA at 66.2 percent. They’re 10th in the league in attempts per game. If they could shoot the league average of 75 percent at the foul line, it would bump their scoring average up by more than two points per game. That could easily mean another handful of wins over the second half of the season given how many NBA games come down to the final three or four minutes. Being ahead by one point with a minute to go instead of down by a point obviously affects strategy and has an impact on odds of winning. To become a league average foul shooting team is a reasonable goal.

Progress is never guaranteed, of course, but the Pistons have two things working in their favor here. One, they field the youngest starting five in the NBA with an average age of 23 and two starters, Andre Drummond and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who still can’t sit at the bar. It stands to reason young players have greater potential for rapid growth than veterans. Two, they start four players who didn’t start for them a season ago and three who weren’t even on the team. Familiarity should only enhance their cohesion going forward. Again, no guarantees. But there’s enough there to make you think a winning second half is within their reach and momentum will be at their backs if they crack the playoff field.