22-19 at the midway point: Lots to like, much to improve for Pistons in 2nd half
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AUBURN HILLS – The Pistons got to the halfway point of the season with a 22-19 record and if you believe in omens, then good news. That’s the same record they had at the mid-point two seasons ago when Stan Van Gundy’s second Pistons team snapped a six-season playoff drought to make the playoffs.
The biggest difference between that team and this one – and the shadow hanging over the second half of this season – lies in the number of games missed. The 2015-16 Pistons were remarkably healthy.
Andre Drummond played every game until the regular-season finale when Van Gundy sat all five starters at Cleveland in response to Cavs coach Ty Lue sitting his starters with a first-round series between the two teams already determined.
Reggie Jackson missed only two other games besides the finale, Marcus Morris just one other game. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope missed five games right before the All-Star break, but every other game until the finale. Tobias Harris played every game after the break after coming over in trade until the Cleveland finale, just as Ersan Ilyasova had before being traded for Harris. Stanley Johnson was available pretty much every night as the sixth man and Aron Baynes played in all but one game as Drummond’s backup.
The Pistons have played a handful of games this season with three or four of their top seven rotation pieces missing. Jackson will miss more than a quarter of the season even if he returns within the six- to eight-week timetable given on the ankle he severely sprained on Dec. 26. Jon Leuer might miss all but the season’s first eight games if he undergoes surgery on the ankle he sprained – there’s also a bone fragment embedded in a ligament now causing enduring pain – on Oct. 31. Johnson has missed nine of the first 41 games due to injury, including Saturday’s tough loss at Chicago.
So health has been the major negative of the first half. And with Johnson, it has derailed what looked like it would be a bounce-back season as – like with many young players – he struggles to regain his rhythm after missing a week or more of practice time.
That aside, it’s been a season of largely positive developments. And with 23 of the final 41 games at home, the schedule now turns in their favor with 14 of their next 17 games at home.
Here’s a condensed list of what’s gone right over the first 41 games – and what should carry the Pistons to the playoffs again if it continues.
- Tobias Harris’ emergence – Games like Saturday’s clunker at Chicago underscore how central Harris has become to Van Gundy’s offense. When he struggles – and those games have been few and far between other than the seven-game losing streak in early December after a 14-6 start – the Pistons grope for offense. Morris occupied many possessions the past two years and a good chunk of those are now Harris’ to use.
- 3-point resurgence – Van Gundy teams have always been among the NBA’s best from the 3-point line, which made last season the aberration. Adding 3-point shooters to the roster – Luke Kennard, Anthony Tolliver, Langston Galloway and Avery Bradley, plus retaining Reggie Bullock – was a focus of the off-season and it’s paid dividends. The Pistons are second only to Golden State (38.9 percent to 38.1 percent) in 3-point shooting and they’re getting more shots up this season (28.2 per game) than last (23.4), when they ranked 26th in attempts. Another big component of the 3-point turnaround: Harris is a much bigger threat this season. In fact, he’s on pace to break Allan Houston’s franchise record of 191 made triples in a season.
- Andre Drummond’s consistency – He was an All-Star two seasons ago at 22. He’s having his best – and surely his most consistent – season this time around. Drummond again leads the NBA in rebounding at 15.0 a game, but he’s a more focused defender this season and he’s adapted well to the changes in offense Van Gundy implemented, giving Drummond a broader role as a facilitator. He’s already smashed his previous career high for assists in a season (90) with 143 and counting.
- Luke Kennard’s development – The rookie has become an every-game staple of Van Gundy’s bench rotation, pulling ahead of Galloway in the wing hierarchy. His size allows Van Gundy to pare the rotation to nine and use Kennard behind both Bradley and Bullock. He’s No. 2 to Boston’s Jayson Tatum in 3-point percentage among rookies at 43.4 percent, but Kennard is much more than just a 3-point sniper. He’s a gifted passer and ballhandler with great feel for pace and getting defenders off balance to create shooting angles. His continued progress should make him an even more efficient scorer over the second half.
What would Van Gundy’s wish list for the second half look like? Probably something like this:
1. Get healthy. If Leuer can make his way back, the Pistons would gain not only the size they currently lack at power forward but become a much more versatile defensive team. Leuer is comfortable guarding inside and out and doesn’t often get caught in mismatches when he switches on screens. Jackson’s return at the level he was playing at – he had 13 assists in 21 minutes before going down against the Pacers – would be the biggest boon, of course.
2. Get Johnson right. Just as Leuer is the Pistons most versatile frontcourt defender, Johnson is their most versatile perimeter defender with his size, strength, lateral foot speed and temperament. When he’s right offensively – making plays off the dribble, running the floor and knocking down open jump shots – he’s an invaluable piece of the puzzle.
3. Consistency of focus. The Pistons will very likely have beaten the NBA champion this season with wins over the Warriors, Rockets, Spurs and Celtics. (They’re 0-1 against Cleveland with three more chances coming.) When they’re locked in defensively they’re a very tough out. To the degree that there’s a common element to their losses, it’s starting games without a collective intensity at the defensive end. For all of that, the Pistons are still No. 8 in the NBA at the defensive end. Given their injury situation, that’s better than good – and the reason Van Gundy expects a higher level on a more consistent basis.
4. Rebound better – Despite Drummond’s presence, the Pistons sit outside the top 10 in both offensive rebound percentage (23.2 percent) and defensive rebound percentage (78 percent) and, thus, are a disappointing 19th (49.7 percent) in overall rebound percentage. That doesn’t paint rebounding as an Achilles heel, but it should be a strength. Even amid last season’s disappointment, the Pistons were No. 1 in defensive rebound percentage (81.2 percent) and No. 5 in offensive rebound percentage (51.6 percent).
So, bottom line: There’s a lot to like so far for the Pistons and – if they get healthy sooner rather than later – reasonable expectations that the second half of the season, with a more favorable schedule in their corner, should be even more rewarding.