As we approach the 40-game mark of this NBA season, there have been a number of surprises to date. In the East alone, there’s the underachieving Knicks and Nets and the overachieving Toronto Raptors turning the tables on expectations. Just as big a surprise is the struggles of the new-look Detroit Pistons though. With the additions of Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings in the offseason, the Pistons retooled in an attempt to become a relevant postseason presence once again. Taking a look at their squad, in a diabolical Eastern Conference, they should have more than enough for a fifth- or sixth-seed finish, yet they have struggled so far. The Pistons currently find themselves six games below the .500 mark, in a precarious position of yo-yo-ing in and out of the playoff picture. For a team with such talent, what has gone wrong though? The Pistons have recently snapped a six-game losing streak to string back-to-back wins together, but can they learn from what they did right in those two wins?
The Pistons front three of Smith, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond is one of the most talented and athletic frontcourts in the entire NBA. The one worry that many onlookers raised before the season was that their collective lack of jump shooting ability might lead to them clogging the paint. It’s transpired that the greater concern should have been that they would shoot the jump shot more frequently than usual in an attempt to force spacing.
Drummond has been the most efficient of the three so far. The former Connecticut Husky knows his limitations and plays to his strengths. Of his 360 field goal attempts so far this season, only nine of them have come from outside of eight feet. With Drummond receiving the ball in what would be deemed high-percentage positions for him, he has been lethal inside, shooting 60.4 percent from within that eight-foot marker.
Where Drummond is excelling by playing within himself, the same cannot be said for Smith and, to a lesser degree, Monroe. Smith has had a reputation for hoisting up misguided jump shots for years now and since his move to Detroit it has become an even more frequent occurrence. In his final year in Atlanta, Smith averaged 13 2-point field-goal attempts per game and 2.6 attempts from long range. This year has seen a dropoff in his total attempts, with his 2-pointers down to 11.8 per game, but his 3-point field goal attempts rising to 3.4 per game. As a 27.9 percent career 3-point shooter, an increase in long range shots coinciding with a decrease in his overall shot totals is not a good combination. The impact on Smith’s game is clear too. He is averaging his lowest points per game total in five years, while his field goal percentage is at a startling career low of 40.7%.
Greg Monroe is giving solid production in line with his career averages, in fact his field goal percentage has improved slightly on last year to move back up to better than 50 percent. Where the problems lie for Monroe is when he tries to step back a little to take advantage of the many open opportunities big men can get from stepping back just a little. From 10 to 19 feet, Monroe is averaging only 24.5 percent on more than 60 shots. Although that shot shouldn’t be his primary focus, if he wants to take it he’s going to need to improve. Lets compare him to Al Horford, an elite power forward/center with a similar physique and skill set to Monroe. Before going down to season ending injury, Horford had taken more than 180 attempts from 10-19 feet, making 49.7 percent. By developing a mid-range shooting touch, Horford is a much tougher challenge to guard than Monroe, but until he develops a competent stroke from that distance, the Pistons big man would be best advised to leave that shot alone.
It’s easy to blame the likes of Smith and Monroe for taking shots that are out of their comfort zone, but in truth the blame must lie with the Pistons in a wider sense. Head coach Maurice Cheeks has to draw up plays to get high quality looks inside and point guard Brandon Jennings needs to execute, finding his targets in and around the rim. Where the potential for good news comes for the Pistons is that in the past week when there has been evidence of these two things happening, the team has played much better.
Having lost six straight, there was a need for changes, and the Pistons managed to mix it up to grab Ws against both the Sixers and the Suns. First and foremost, having averaged 36.8 attempts per night as a team from inside five feet, they brought this up to a colossal 48.5 attempts in their last two. Such a high volume of shots inside will go a long way to guaranteeing high quality shots for the three key bigs. There was also a slight increase in the number of 3-pointers attempted, which isn’t as bad a thing as it sounds on the surface. As much as the Pistons don’t want to watch Josh Smith launch 3 after 3, it’s still a valuable weapon for a team and often a wiser shot than the long 2. The Pistons have some capable 3-point shooters on their roster, so if the right players can be found open on the perimeter, good things will happen.
That ties in nicely with the second key component of those two wins: assists. The Pistons rank in the bottom half of the NBA in assisted baskets with 20.2 per game. With 24 against Philadelphia and 32 against Phoenix, their offense had a much greater flow. Brandon Jennings has long had a reputation for being a streaky shooter, but with this current group of players he should consider changing his game to become a pass-first point guard. Against the Suns, Jennings racked up 18 assists with ease, including 16 of them in the first half. This shows the potential firepower of this Pistons group if the offense is managed in an intelligent, effective manner.
Another aspect of Detroit’s play from these two wins that could be incorporated going forward was Josh Smith’s aggression. For the two games Smith averaged 23.5 points, 12 rebounds and most importantly six assists. Smith often has his greatest assist totals in the same games that he racks up high points tallies. The reason for this is that both tend to be a by product of him making the correct decisions from around the perimeter. Generally, this means driving to the rim. Smith’s pace and power mean he can move towards the rim at will, while his accomplished passing touch means he can spot the open shooters in the corner if the layup or dunk isn’t there for him. Kyle Singler, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Jennings all benefitted from J-Smoove kick outs in those two victories.
As a microcosm of the two possible directions the Pistons season can go from here, lets take a look at the direction the Pistons took in two close games over the course of five days. First up against the Knicks in Madison Square Garden. Having trailed by double digits, the Pistons had an outstanding fourth quarter to claw themselves back into the game. With 10 seconds remaining they trailed by one and the ball was in Josh Smith’s hands. Defended by Carmelo Anthony, Smith decided to shoot a long 2-pointer from the right wing. The shot was about three feet short, an air ball that would allow the Knicks to prevail by four points. Days later against the Suns, the ball was once again inbounded to Smith with the game on the line. This time, instead of pulling up, he put his head down and drove to the hoop. Heavily guarded he was forced into a slightly wild layup off the glass. It got a friendly bounce, though, rolling in to give the Pistons a two-point victory.
The Pistons 2013-14 season will fall in line with the outcome of one of those two games and it’s far too soon to say if they will learn from their recent success. One thing is for sure though, when Smith, and the Pistons generally, drive to the rim; good things happen.