Andrew D. Bernstein
Pistons season so far is a good news-bad news mishmash
The Pistons’ West Coast trip was a mixed bag, ultimately falling short of expectations. They snapped their 21-game road skid against Western Conference teams, yet couldn’t produce the four-game split that appeared within their reach until the Lakers pulled away in Sunday’s fourth quarter. Their season has been painted in similar strokes, some good and some bad, which is what you’d expect any team with playoff aspirations might say about a 3-6 record.
There are many good reasons to explain the record, of course, including an unusually top-heavy run of opponents, the rigors of an extended road trip and the backcourt injuries that scuttled their best intentions to use preseason to set chemistry.
Good teams rise above reasonable challenges, though, and the Pistons are already getting a little testy that they haven’t yet dispelled doubts they’ll prove to be a good team – a playoff team, and a feared opponent once they get there – with a little more than 10 percent of the season behind them.
In keeping with the good news-bad news theme of their season to date, here’s a quick look at three things that have gone right and three areas worthy of the Pistons’ attention as the season chugs along to the quarter pole.
What needs fixing, or the areas where the Pistons know they’ll have to improve if this season is to end where they fully believe it should:
- Defense – The Pistons expected their defense to carry them while their offense found its footing after going the preseason without point guard Brandon Jennings. Their offense, though not ideally balanced just yet, generally has been fine. The Pistons have scored enough points to win more than three games. But they’re allowing 103.8 points a game, 24th in the league. Their other defensive numbers are worse: The Pistons are 28th in field-goal percentage defense (.501), 30th in defensive efficiency (1.061) and 29th in 3-point percentage defense (.392). And if you believe that rebounding is a component of defense, then the Pistons will probably tell you they should be doing better than essentially breaking even – they’ve actually been outrebounded 448-446 – on the backboards.
- 3-point shooting – The Pistons rank 29th in 3-point percentage, making only 28.1 percent, and they were 30th until Brandon Jennings hit 4 of 5 in Sunday’s fourth quarter to boost their numbers. There were some concerns about whether the Pistons could find ways to get their 3-point shooters in the lineup. But Chauncey Billups started the first seven games and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope the last two while Billups has been hurt. Kyle Singler is a fixture off the bench and Gigi Datome was given a crack at backup power forward minutes. None are providing consistent perimeter firepower. In fact, those four – expected to be at or near the top of their 3-point shooting list – are shooting a collective 16 of 69, at .232, even below the team’s subpar mark.
- Finishing – The 3-6 record would look a lot different if the Pistons had been able to protect a six-point lead in the final minute before losing in overtime at Memphis, or capitalized on the many chances they had to stretch a single-digit lead they held over the Lakers for almost all of the game’s first 34 minutes. Win those two, the Pistons are 5-4 and finished with one of their two longest road trips of the season. No surprise that a team with precious little history as a unit is struggling to execute in the cauldron of the fourth quarter. It’s almost always the last step in a team’s evolution. But the sooner the Pistons can start finishing off wins, the easier they’ll make it on themselves coming down the stretch in securing a playoff spot or a more favorable seed.
Now, as for what’s gone right, or the things from which the Pistons can draw reasonable optimism for better days ahead:
- Inside muscle – The Pistons continue to lead the NBA in points in the paint, scoring 51.3 points per game near the rim. It’s not just the big guys doing the damage, either, although Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond are leading the way. As Mo Cheeks hones his rotation to maximize favorable combinations and the players gradually learn more about each other’s strengths, their efficiency at scoring near the basket could even increase. Included in that familiarization process will be Jennings becoming more in tune with Drummond and Smith in pick-and-roll plays that typically lead to inside scoring chances.
- Drummond’s growth – The Pistons surely knew Drummond would play more than the 21 minutes a game he drew as a rookie. But his ability to handle a heavy workload has certainly met and probably exceeded anyone’s reasonable expectations through nine games. Drummond has averaged 35 minutes so far, that despite being limited by foul trouble in a few games and sitting much of the fourth quarter in Monday’s lopsided loss to Golden State. He’s showing no signs of wearing down from the work, either. Over the four West Coast games, Drummond produced four double-doubles, averaged 15.3 points and 15.3 rebounds and made 30 of 41 shots.
- Competitiveness – They’ve had breakdowns in execution but only once in nine games has Maurice Cheeks had issues with the 48-minute effort the Pistons have given him – the loss to Golden State where the Pistons, playing their first back-to-back set of the season against one of the league’s hottest home teams, fell behind by 19 points in the first quarter. The Pistons clearly enjoy playing for Cheeks, who gives them rope but doesn’t hesitate to rein them in when he sees something’s amiss. The additions of Chauncey Billups and Josh Smith have changed the makeup, composure and competitive edge of the Pistons and should serve them well in both good times and more challenging moments along the 82-game schedule.