Christmas Fast Break

No one’s been busier than the Pistons in the pre-Christmas portion of the NBA season. Well, check that. The Utah Jazz have played 31 games, one more than the Pistons. But nobody else has played as many or more games than Maurice Cheeks’ team, which has meant practice time – especially in a jam-packed December – has been a precious commodity.

That’s about to change.

After beating Cleveland on the road Monday, the Pistons don’t play again until Friday, their first three-day break of the season. They’ll play three games over a four-day period, including a back to back with Washington on Saturday and back home on Monday, and then cool their heels for five days before their first 2014 game on Jan. 5. They’ll have a similar five-day gap in the schedule between Jan. 11 and Jan. 17 home games.

They’ve played their 30 games in 55 days since the Oct. 30 opener, a win over Washington at The Palace when the Pistons played without both Rodney Stuckey and Brandon Jennings. Consider this: Over the next 51 days – which takes the Pistons to the All-Star break – they’ll play only 23 games.

With the benefit of both practices and the luxury of built-in rest and recovery time made possible by the slowdown of their schedule, the Pistons can work on sharpening their strengths and bolstering their weaknesses.

Here’s a quick look at five from each category.

5 Areas of Strength

  1. Road Success – The Pistons have won seven of their last eight road games, including wins at Miami, Chicago and Indiana and coming back from 21 down to win at Boston. Winning on the road is usually one of the last steps in a team’s maturation. That will come in handy when the Pistons face 13 of their final 20 games on the road.
  2. Andre Drummond – One of the few questions about Drummond coming into the season was whether he could maintain his level of productivity over longer minutes. No problem. His points and rebounds per 36 minutes are both up over his eyebrow-raising rookie numbers and he’s logging 33 minutes a game, above even the highest expectations most held for him. Worth keeping in mind: He’s 20.
  3. Smith and Jennings – Over the last two weeks, there is growing evidence that the two major off-season acquisitions are finding their stride as Pistons. Smith has become one of the focal points of the offense, the Pistons usually probing his post scoring early in games. And Jennings, who exudes tremendous respect for Maurice Cheeks who in turn has consistently expressed his confidence in Jennings’ future, has made great progress in finding the balance between exploiting his natural scoring strengths and setting up teammates in the most favorable circumstances.
  4. Stuckey’s Stability – The most consistent aspect of the season to date? Rodney Stuckey anchoring the second unit. Aside from the five games he’s missed with various injuries (broken thumb, knee tendinitis, shoulder) and a game or two getting his timing back after them, Stuckey’s been a rock. Like Jennings, he appears to have benefited greatly from the confidence his head coach consistently displays in him.
  5. Offense – After a rocky start when their 3-point shooting was hovering in the low to mid 20s, the Pistons have largely laid to rest concerns about their offense. Floor spacing might still be a question, but their overwhelming ability to score in the paint (52.1 points per game, No. 1 in the NBA) and in transition (16.5, No. 5) nicely compensates. In 14 December games, the Pistons are averaging 103.7 points a game.

5 Areas for Growth

  1. Defense – The Pistons went into the season thinking their defense could carry them while the offense found its way. It hasn’t worked out that way – the Pistons rank in the bottom third in several key defensive metrics, including defensive efficiency – but the same reasons they felt confidence coming into the season still exist. The size and athleticism of their frontcourt – Andre Drummond and Josh Smith, in particular – give them a solid start. As Drummond becomes more experienced guarding the pick and roll, great improvement at that end is possible, perhaps even likely.
  2. Monroe’s Role – As Josh Smith’s post touches have become the starting point for the Pistons, Monroe’s opportunities have sometimes diminished. It will be a feeling-out process to make sure both players get a chance to exploit matchup advantages, but Maurice Cheeks is a most willing experimenter. Jennings’ continuing education as a point guard who looks to put his teammates in advantageous situations should also help.
  3. Other Pieces – Cheeks is fairly unique among modern NBA coaches for his rotation flexibility. It seems to be paying dividends, too. Over the past week, Jonas Jerebko, Josh Harrellson and Gigi Datome have all contributed to wins without being every-game staples. The 3-point shooting of Harrellson and Datome, in particular, could make the Pistons even more dynamic offensively.
  4. Home Sweet Home – The Pistons are the NBA’s only team with a losing home record (6-10) and a winning road record (8-6). As fans start returning to The Palace to give it the home-court edge it long maintained and the NBA’s youngest starting five, average age 23, gains more experience and familiarity, the home record logically figures to come into balance.
  5. KCP’s maturation – The Pistons are keeping the to-do list for their most recent lottery pick pretty simple: play defense and play with a high motor. If he can knock down one or two open 3-pointers a game – and as his shot selection has improved, so has his accuracy from the arc, from 28 percent in November to 36 percent in December – so much the better. KCP’s quickness and length on the perimeter is a critical component to the Pistons’ hopes for improved defensive play, and his court-running ability augments their transition offense.