This year, Reggie Jackson, the presumptive point guard of the Pistons’ future, missed the first 21 games of the season as the Pistons went 11-10. Ish Smith, yet another savvy offseason signing by Stan Van Gundy, provided a much needed spark in the starting lineup during those 21 games, and placed the Pistons in a good position to possibly contend for a top 4 seed in the East. However, it took Reggie a couple weeks to get back in the groove of things, and he didn’t play 30 minutes in a game until 11 games into his return. The team hit their undisputed lowest point in the season when they dropped all the way to 15-20, with a 4-10 record since Reggie’s return. SVG decided the team needed a change, and decided to take Tobias Harris out of the starting lineup and replace his spot with Jon Leuer. They’ve been playing roughly .500 basketball since, and have been hovering a game or two behind the 8 seed in the playoffs in the East.
There are many places that the team can improve in, but it starts with the offense and their energy. The Pistons are currently in the bottom 10 of the NBA in points scored per game and assists per game and in the bottom five in 3 point percentage and free throw percentage. There isn’t a single qualified 40% shooter from three on the roster, and it makes everything harder for the pick and roll emphasized offense Stan Van wants to run. Without any elite shooters, it is increasingly difficult for Reggie and Andre Drummond to find space in the lane to operate and get easy shots at the rim. This sometimes leads to too much isolation and stagnate possessions, resulting in forced, low percentage shots. With increased energy on a night-to-night basis, the Pistons can play team basketball from wing to wing, contest shots, and get out in transition. They’ve done this in spurts, and looked great when they have, but it’s not nearly as normal as it needs to be.
In addition to the 3 pointer on offense, the Pistons have struggled with the 3 on defense as well, as they rank in the bottom five in opponent 3 point percentage. Other than that, the Pistons defense has been solid, a top 10 one in scoring, albeit without forcing many turnovers or generating much resistance at the rim until recently. Andre has become more involved on the defensive end, and that is great news for Pistons fans and their hopes of making the playoffs again, as he can be a difference maker on that end of the floor.
In regards to the trade rumors that have been swirling, this team is still young and there is no need to blow it up right now. Andre, KCP, and Tobias Harris are all 24 or younger, and Reggie is still 26. This core group haven’t played many games together because of injury either. Tobias was a trade deadline addition last year, and Reggie, Leuer, and KCP have suffered injuries this year. As a result, the Pistons have just recently been able to field a team at full strength. Contrary to popular belief, SVG should not make a huge splash before the upcoming deadline, as there are not many available and attainable players that fill a need, for instance a 3 point specialist. A smaller move, like one including Aron Baynes, who has not looked good the last few weeks and whose contract is up after this season, makes more sense. The Pistons do not plan to retain Baynes, as evidenced by the offseason signing of former Spurs big man, and runaway fan favorite, Boban Marjanovic.
Quick tangent: there have been 4 rookies in NBA history to average 28 points and 18 rebounds per 48 minutes: Wilt Chamberlain (Hall of Fame), Walt Bellamy (Hall of Fame) , Elvin Hayes (Hall of Fame), and…..Boban Marjanovic (BOBAN!!).
Boban has been good in limited minutes again, even sporting the best PER on the team. It only makes sense that SVG hears any and all offers for Baynes, an above average backup big man, and try to get something back for him. Another player that could be available via trade is the struggling Marcus Morris, who hasn’t truly found his shot this season for any extended period of time. If SVG was able to get back a good shooter, he could start in Marcus’ place or Tobias could re-enter the starting lineup and once again provide another scoring option. As for the rest of the team, we must give them a chance to play together and reveal whether or not their ceiling is as high as we think. They’ve had the 7th hardest strength of schedule thus far (according to ESPN RPI) and the rest of the season presents an easier schedule, with only 18 of the remaining 34 opponents being current playoff teams. There is still time to make a run for the playoffs, with a 5 or 6 seed appearing to be the highest they can go. Nevertheless, it will require better shooting from the guards and wings, better play around the 3 point line on offense and defense, and a night to night consistency this young team hasn’t displayed yet. They’re at their best when they can get in transition and the ball is moving around the entire court, allowing penetration into weak spots in the defense and opening up shots from outside and offensive rebound opportunities for Andre. Tobias (an outrageously underrated finisher at the rim) and Reggie are at their best when attacking the basket, and resultant open shots from the outside can really catalyze the offense.
It has been close to a worst case first half of the season, but the Pistons are nowhere near out of a playoff spot and a potential playoff run. They still have a chance to take that next step and advance in the playoffs this year, just like fans and the team hoped they’d be able to do before the season started. But it has to start sooner rather than later.