Focus on Fixes

Shooting and D need bolstering, but Drummond puts Pistons in good position
Andre Drummond is a solid building block for the Pistons moving forward.
Ray Amati/NBAE/Getty Images
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

The Pistons lost to Toronto by nine points in their regular-season home finale. They attempted 48 free throws, 13 more than the Raptors. When you get 13 more chances for easy points, you should win 9 of 10 times. Except the Pistons outscored Toronto at the line by all of three points.

Which is, of course, the value of one 3-point shot – of which Toronto sunk four more than the Pistons in only three more attempts.

It’s not all that tough to find reasons why the Pistons enter Wednesday’s season finale at Oklahoma City with a 29-52 record when the more optimistic projections for how their season would unfold after a dramatic summer makeover guessed at something closer to 52-29.

The Pistons don’t shoot it very well from either the foul line or the 3-point line. They rank 30th in the former and 29th in the latter – ahead of only Philadelphia, which has suited up enough players this season to populate three NBA franchises after gutting the roster last summer.

They might still have comfortably fit into the East’s playoff picture if their defense had performed up to expectations this season, but the Pistons rank 27th in scoring defense and 28th in field-goal percentage defense. The Pistons might have anticipated their shooting issues – though they surely thought that between Chauncey Billups, Charlie Villanueva and Gigi Datome they would approach adequate from the arc – but their defensive deficiencies were less foreseeable.

The first and last games of a season always draw a larger media contingent, some of whom are even vaguely familiar with their subject matter. When John Loyer got asked a predictable question – essentially, why did this season veer off course – he summoned the patience to explain the obvious.

“I think we know what it’s going to take to improve,” he said. “We’ve got to improve our perimeter shooting. We’ve got to improve our one-on-one half-court defense. And we’ve got to improve our free-throw shooting. Three of the categories where we’re in the bottom part of the league.”

There are no magic wands to address these issues, but you don’t have to take a magnifying glass to the haystack in search of needles of optimism, either.

That starts – emphatically – with Andre Drummond. When he attended last week’s NCAA title game, he was younger than four of UConn’s five starters – more than a year younger than two, more than two years younger than two others – and older than the fifth by a mere three months.

The Drummond we see today is night and day better than the Drummond who took baby steps in Summer League 2012 – and the Drummond we’ll see next season will be that much better. He’s shown clear signs of a budding low-post game that will take him to another level – a level where you need an oxygen mask to survive.

But where he has the most room to grow is defensively. Loyer is 100 percent right in contending the Pistons need to guard the ball better on the perimeter. That’s where every great defense starts.

But Drummond today doesn’t clean up nearly as many mistakes as he will in the not-too-distant future. He remains tentative once the first line of defense breaks down, still thinking rather than reacting. He’ll have his Eureka moment, like when you learn a foreign language and come to the point where “Which way to the restroom?” rolls off the tongue in Spanish or French without having to think of it in English first and doing the mental translation gymnastics.

Shooting? That might be easier to fix. It’s clear that whatever personnel moves the Pistons make for the foreseeable future, it will be with Drummond in mind. It doesn’t take an analytics guru to figure out you surround an athletic, pick-and-roll, offensive rebounding monster with as many deadly shooters as you can amass.

But Loyer rightly points out that the Pistons put some young pieces around Drummond this season – Kyle Singler, like Drummond a second-year pro, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, a rookie, foremost – and young players almost always improve their shooting incrementally. They can get better internally, as well, though the off-season priority list surely will start with adding shooters.

“It’s got to be a little of both,” he said. “Guys naturally become better shooters as they go through the league. We’re playing some young guys. Look around the league. There’s not many one- and two-year players playing significant minutes late in the season like this and really contributing.”

And adding shooters means more room for Drummond, Greg Monroe and Josh Smith, in some combination, to wreak their havoc inside.

It’s unlikely the Pistons are going into this summer thinking a fresh start and one year’s familiarity will fix their shooting and defensive issues. They’ll tweak the roster, perhaps even strike for major change. But this isn’t a blow-it-up-and-start-over situation. Not when you start with a 20-year-old who’d be the no-brainer No. 1 pick in a 2014 draft that induced a frenzied quest for lottery picks had he stuck around UConn long enough to cut down the nets last week.