LOS ANGELES – If a .500 record logically earns a C letter grade, then 18-23 – where the Pistons stand at the mid-point of the 2018-19 season – just as logically should earn a D. In their case, the D might as well stand for Disappointment.
When the Pistons stood at 13-7 on Dec. 1 after a convincing win over the Golden State Warriors, they felt they hadn’t yet played their best basketball. They were winning in spite of subpar 3-point shooting they expected would pick up after playing much of the first quarter of the season without their two best shooters, Reggie Bullock and Luke Kennard.
Then two things changed: The schedule stiffened and a run of injuries struck. What didn’t change: The 3-point shooting remained maddeningly spotty. The Pistons have gone 5-16 since.
And yet, for all of that, they woke up a mere one-half game out of the playoff field after Saturday’s win over the Clippers, led by Blake Griffin’s dominant 44-point outing.
That’s the jumping off point for a half-season review – what went right, what went wrong, what’s to come.
WHAT WENT RIGHT
Blake Griffin, healthy and fully engaged – Griffin has been everything the Pistons could have hoped when they sent Avery Bradley, Tobias Harris and a No. 1 pick to the Clippers nearly a year ago. He’s averaging a career-high 25.6 points and leads the team in assists at 5.3 while shooting .363 from the 3-point arc on a career-high 6.3 attempts per game. His true shooting percentage (.594) is the best of his career and his usage rate (29.7) is one-tenth of a percentage point off his career high. Don’t overlook the fact that he’s been available for all 41 games – the Pistons chose to rest him twice, but he’s been healthy after injuries claimed big chunks of his last four seasons. Slam-dunk All-Star.
Andre Drummond, rebound machine – Drummond remains the dominant rebounder of his generation, again leading the league at 15.0 a game while averaging a career-best 16.8 points. He’s on track to be the first player since Moses Malone in 1982-83 to average at least 15 points and 15 rebounds. A losing record might hurt his All-Star case, but the Pistons still have time to turn that around so Drummond can join Griffin for what would be his third All-Star berth in the last four seasons. Drummond remains incredibly durable, playing all 41 first-half games. Since missing 20 games of his rookie season with a stress fracture in his back, Drummond has averaged 80.6 games per season.
Bruce Brown, a keeper – The second of two second-round picks by Ed Stefanski in his first draft as leader of the front office, Brown has settled in as the fifth starter. Dwane Casey has tried Stanley Johnson, Glenn Robinson III, Luke Kennard and Langston Galloway at that spot but Brown’s superb defense and ability to guard multiple positions has proven the best fit. He’s already a good rebounder, passer and secondary ballhandler, needing only to improve his perimeter shooting (.224 3-point percentage) to cement his hold on the job. His athleticism and competitiveness are first rate.
WHAT WENT WRONG
Shooting blanks – Who saw this coming? The Pistons finished fifth in 3-point percentage last season at .373 and, yes, they lost Anthony Tolliver, a .436 shooter last season, in free agency. But Tolliver only accounted for 15 percent of their 3-point attempts, not enough to explain the collapse to .330, 29th in the league. If the Pistons were shooting the league average (.354), they’d be averaging 2.4 points above their 106.9 a game. That would take them from 24th to 19th in scoring. If they were shooting at last year’s level, they’d be averaging 4.3 more points a game, taking them to 111.2. They’d be no worse than an average offense instead of 23rd, where they currently sit. And that probably would be enough to reverse their record to 23-18 and have them as a comfortable No. 6 seed.
Injuries – Part of the reason the Pistons have fallen off so badly in shooting? Injuries, including to their two best shooters, Kennard and Bullock. Kennard missed 16 games with a late-October shoulder separation and Bullock had two bouts with a sprained left ankle that cost him all of seven games and almost all of two others. After a slow start, Bullock has climbed to .396 in 3-point shooting – good, but not the elite level he exhibited a season ago. Kennard, after shooting above 40 percent as a rookie, has dropped off to league average at .355. Ish Smith’s Dec. 5 adductor tear – the Pistons hope to get him back as soon as Monday night at Utah after he was listed “questionable” for Saturday’s win – has cost him 19 games and the Pistons are 5-14 over that span. Zaza Pachulia, the other key to Dwane Casey’s bench, has missed the last seven games with a calf injury. The Pistons had major injury concerns for Griffin and Reggie Jackson coming into the season; neither one has missed a game due to injury. But almost everyone around them except Andre Drummond hasn’t been so lucky.
Inconsistencies – Other than Griffin and Drummond – Bullock, after a slow start and the sprained ankles a month apart, is moving into that territory – the Pistons aren’t sure what they’re going to get from anyone. Jackson shows spurts but hasn’t reached peak 2015-16 Jackson after major injuries each of the past two seasons. Stanley Johnson had a good stretch but is again being held back by an unreliable perimeter shot (a career-worst .267 from three on a career-high 4.2 attempts a game). Glenn Robinson III was brought in to be a complementary 3-point shooter after consecutive 40 percent seasons but is shooting .275. Kennard scored a career-high 28 in early December, became a starter and scored 24 over his next six games. Jose Calderon, a career 41 percent 3-point shooter, only recently improved to 20 percent for the season. It’s been a challenge for Casey to find effective lineups given all the ups and downs.
Smith’s return – In compiling their 13-7 record, it could have been argued that the bench was as important to the Pistons’ success as Griffin. Many times the bench inherited a deficit and turned it into a lead. Smith was at the heart of that unit and, in fact, would be nearly as likely to finish games as Jackson. The damage would have been mitigated if Calderon hadn’t fallen off so dramatically as a shooter, but Casey’s flexibility – he would frequently pair Smith with Jackson to give the Pistons a jump start if the offense stagnated – was also limited by Smith’s injury. Getting him back and up to speed can’t come soon enough.
Rookie impact – Brown’s defense and versatility have helped solidify the first unit. His anticipated growth should only make him a more effective player over the second half. Now it bears watching if Khyri Thomas can also make a mark if veterans like Langston Galloway and Robinson can’t be more consistently productive. Thomas offers more two-way promise than perhaps all of the candidates to seize a more stable role. He sure didn’t hurt himself with his play in Saturday’s win when Casey needed somebody to guard Lou Williams for the final five minutes of the first half after Brown picked up his third foul. It’s a small sample size, but Thomas’ .538 3-point percentage is indicative of his shooting potential and he’s right there with Brown for his defensive impact.
Development advances – Casey’s emphasis on player development hasn’t produced the hoped-for results with some of the team’s young veterans, Johnson and Kennard most prominently. But it’s an ongoing process and they continue to have regularly scheduled individual work before and after team practices. Casey hired three player development coaches (D.J. Bakker, J.D. DuBois and Bryston Williams) and topped it off by adding a guru of player development, 76-year-old Tim Grgurich. Getting incremental improvement in consistency and productivity from Johnson, Kennard, Robinson and the rookies would be a huge boost to playoff chances in the final 41 games.