Against a string of elite defenses, Pistons offense runs aground – but now the schedule turns

Tobias Harris is on pace to break the Pistons franchise record for 3-point shots made in a season, held by Allan Houston.
Chris Schwegler (NBAE/Getty)

DETROIT – With the caveat that it’s almost never as simple as one factor that causes losing streaks, the Pistons current six-game slide is about one thing overwhelmingly: offense.

In running up a 14-6 record through the first 20 games, the Pistons had the NBA’s No. 7 offense. They scored 106.8 points for every 100 possessions. Over the last six games, they’re the No. 29 offense, better only than Charlotte. Every 100 possessions have produced just 96.8 points. In five of the six losses, the Pistons have still been in the game in the final minute. Four of them came by five points or less.

And so the Pistons find themselves at the sort of juncture that arises in various ways for a plethora of reasons a few dozen times every season – the junctures that test coaches and make the good ones worth the bidding wars owners wage to hire those who’ve built gilded resumes.

Stan Van Gundy, firmly in that class, has to decide how much tweaking is required by the current slide. Among the factors to consider will be how much of the offensive downturn was due to the schedule – not just facing good teams, but teams built on great defenses. And how much of it – Sunday’s loss to Boston the shining example, but hardly the only one – was due to suddenly missing open shots that the Pistons had made with regularity while winning at a .700 clip through the first 20 games.

“You’ve got to look at that and got to try, as a coach, to be honest with yourself,” Van Gundy said. “It’s easy to just blow it off and say you’ve got to make shots. You’ve got to look and say, ‘Can we get better shots?’ I do know the only time we’re good offensively is when we’re at a high energy level.”

The Pistons are 4-9 over their last 13 games, a brutal stretch that included nine road games among the first 11 of them before the weekend at Little Caesars Arena with Golden State and Boston and their cumulative 44-11 record.

More than that, the Pistons have played three of their last four games against teams ranked in the top four in defensive efficiency – Boston No. 1, Golden State No. 3 and San Antonio No. 4. They held the high-powered Warriors to 102 points and both the Celtics and Spurs in the 90s. So defense, clearly, has not been the issue.

“Am I satisfied with the defense? For the most part, yeah,” Van Gundy said. “It goes up and down, but it certainly hasn’t been the problem that the offense has been.”

The good news? The schedule lets up at least a little bit now. Only one game among the last 13 was against a team either currently in the playoff field or likely to be there at season’s end. In the only one that wasn’t, the Pistons hammered Phoenix by 24 after leading by nearly 40 points at various times. Only three games in the last 13 were against teams in the bottom third defensively and the Pistons went 2-1, losing only to Cleveland – which has regained its defensive footing after bumping along at the bottom of the ratings for the first month.

Next up for the Pistons is Denver, sporting the same 14-12 record, but the Nuggets haven’t built their success on defense. Denver is 23rd in defensive efficiency. Only three of the next eight games are against teams with winning records, including a home and home with Indiana.

Tobias Harris admits the Pistons have lost a little of the swagger they’d been playing with at the offensive end.

“I think everybody’s a little bit tight, including myself sometimes out there, because we want to win so bad and you want to play your best. I think we just have to relax, go out there and have some fun and embrace each other and just feed off of each a little bit more.”

The Pistons didn’t just shrug their collective shoulders and attribute the losses to a run of superior opponents with stout defenses. The same team that scored 81 against Boston’s No. 1 ranked defense on Sunday scored 118 against the Celtics 13 days earlier on the road. From Van Gundy and his coaching staff through the roster, there’s a sense that if they execute the newly installed motion offense with proper force, they can score enough on anyone to win more often than not.

“The ball has got to move,” Van Gundy said after Sunday’s loss. “We’ve got to play at a quick pace. I’ve got to go back, watch the film and be as honest as you can with yourself. What do we have to do differently?”

The first clues will come Tuesday. It can’t hurt that the Pistons won’t be testing themselves against another top-five defense, for a change.