In what must seem a desert of hopelessness for the Pistons came a glimpse of oasis Thursday when the NBA official injury report came out and Bojan Bogdanovic, for the first time since the season tipped off more than a month ago, was listed as something other than “out.”
He was questionable, which is one step below probable but one step better than doubtful. Coin flip, basically, whether he’d play at Madison Square Garden when the Pistons took on the New York Knicks desperate to snap a 15-game losing streak that has left a young team’s confidence unmistakably damaged. He wound up being ruled out eventually, but his return is imminent now – barring anything unforeseen, Saturday night against Cleveland seems likely – and it can’t come soon enough for a team that showed at New York, in a 118-112 loss that came down to the final minute, the profound effect even a little 3-point shooting can muster.
Let’s acknowledge up front that Bogdanovic isn’t a panacea. No player short of prime Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan or LeBron James can lift a team from the depths the Pistons have mined over a bleak November that saw their injury report reach seven deep some nights.
But let’s also acknowledge that the return of last year’s leading scorer at 21.6 points a game on 41 percent 3-point shooting cures a lot of ills. The Pistons are 29th in the NBA in 3-point attempts and 21st in 3-point accuracy and Bogdanovic immediately boosts both of those areas.
He also led the Pistons last season in free-throw attempts at 5.1 per game and they sorely need to get to the line more often. The Pistons are 24rd in the NBA in free-throw attempts – in the six-point loss to the Knicks, they allowed nine more foul shots than they were allowed – but sixth in free-throw accuracy and Bogdanovic clearly helps both ends of that equation, too. He made 88.4 percent of his foul shots a year ago. The Pistons get outscored by 6.4 points a game at the foul line because they put the opponent there 28.2 times a game, leading the league until Indiana nosed past them on Thursday. Anything that helps shave points off their deficit there helps and Bogdanovic has knocked down free throws at an elite clip for his entire career.
His biggest influence, though, will come in the impact he has on the way defenses set up against the Pistons half-court offense, where for stretches every game it becomes an utter slog – and for young teams, all it takes is one bad stretch, one six- or seven-possession interlude spanning two or three minutes that winds up 14-2 or 18-4 against and gets you fighting uphill for the rest of the night.
Listen to Monty Williams talking about the way defenses are empowered to suffocate Cade Cunningham and Jaden Ivey because they have no fear of them finding 3-point shooters who pose a consistent threat after Wednesday’s loss to the Los Angeles Lakers: “The spacing on the floor isn’t great for those guys and when they take that pick-and-roll alley away, guys on the back side have to knock down shots. That’s just NBA basketball. Any time the paint is crowded, it’s going to be pretty tough for Cade and Jaden.”
That had to part of his calculation when Williams shook up the starting unit on Thursday, bringing on Isaiah Livers for rookie dynamo Ausar Thompson while also swapping out Jaden Ivey for Killian Hayes because, Williams later explained, he’s liked the way Hayes organizes the offense and enables Cunningham to get off the ball more. Cunningham had his most efficient scoring night of the season, 31 points on 12 of 20 shooting, and the Pistons hit 15 of 35 triples, good numbers on both ends of that equation. Rookie Marcus Sasser had 17 off the bench, hitting 5 of 7 triples to snap out of a slump on the heels of his torrid start.
Defenses will stay attached to Bogdanovic – or expose themselves to a greater risk of Cunningham and Ivey getting to the rim unimpeded. Cunningham, on whose shoulders the bulk of half-court possessions are entrusted, has been gang tackled all season. Pistons forwards stand in opposite corners and defenders invariably cheat toward the paint. The defender to Bogdanovic’s side can’t get away with that. The difference between the step the help defender needs to take to impede Cunningham or Ivey’s alley without Bogdanovic on the floor vs. the step and a half that will be required with Bogdanovic lurking at the 3-point line will flip the odds in favor of the Pistons guards more often than not.
The cumulative impact of Pistons injuries – Bogdanovic and Monte Morris and Isaiah Livers and Joe Harris and Alec Burks and Jalen Duren – was overwhelming, but the single biggest was Bogdanovic’s absence for how his efficient all-around scoring would allow everyone else to slot into roles that don’t ask them to step outside their comfort zone.
“When we do get Bojan back,” Williams said after Thursday’s game, “I think it’s going to give us more options to not just play on offense, but he’s a guy that fights on defense. I think it settles the roster down, then your young guys aren’t playing in those long, stressed minutes.”
Morris, still weeks away, would help a great deal, too, for his allergy to turnovers for a team beleaguered by them and for his own scoring efficiency and 3-point threat. But Bogdanovic represents the single best addition to the cast the Pistons could get at a time they so dramatically need a tone-changing impact.
It’s tough getting dropped into the middle of an NBA season when you’ve missed as much time as Bogdanovic has and the Pistons logically will be cautious with him given the fact he now has a history of calf injuries that goes back to his Utah days. That’s another way of saying for as welcome as Bogdanovic’s return is, the impact isn’t likely to be immediately transformative. But if the lineup tinkering Williams enacted Thursday continues to yield positive results, Bogdanovic won’t need to span a yawning chasm, he’ll just need to boost the Pistons over the finish line.
Getting him back moves the needle on the court and in the psyche. Pistons general manager Troy Weaver has maintained since arriving to spearhead a rebuilding that he had no intent to field an entire roster of college-aged kids. He added a veteran infrastructure to this year’s edition of the Pistons – Bogdanovic, Morris, Harris and Alec Burks – that, on paper, added high-volume, high-efficiency 3-point shooting in addition to big-moments experience.
The Pistons have had little to lean on in the moments of inevitable adversity encountered every night. Not their veterans, not their 3-point shooters to bail out possessions and repel runs. Getting back their most accomplished scorer doesn’t solve all of their problems, but it puts confronting all of them much more within their reach.