By: Brian Chapman
This week the Pistons played a two-game home stand at The Palace against a pair of teams that missed the playoffs last season. It was a chance for the team to turn some of those close losses into wins and finally start making some headway. Instead the Pistons couldn't execute down the stretch against the Orlando Magic on Monday or against the Phoenix Suns on Wednesday and fell to an abysmal 3-9 on the season. That is the fifth worst record in the NBA and if the Pistons don't start winning soon, fans may start calling for the team to tank for a better draft pick before the calendar turns to 2015.
Even though the Pistons haven't been winning, that didn't keep me from attending both games this week and here are four takeaways for Pistons fans based on what I saw on the court and in the locker room:
1. Drummond has to play more… Before the start of the season, I expected to see Andre Drummond break out and surge into his first All Star Game. When he's been on the court, he's shown flashes of improvement on the offensive end and he's still rebounding at a good clip. The problem is that he spends too little time on the court and too much time on the bench due to foul trouble. On Monday, Drummond committed three fouls in less than five minutes in the third quarter. He followed that up on Wednesday with two fouls in the first five minutes and a third foul early in the second quarter. That kept his total time on the court for the home stand under 54 minutes. Also, note that I did not say Drummond needs to commit fewer personal fouls. That's obvious. He has the second most personal fouls in the league at 50 through twelve games. I said he needs to play more because when he's on the floor, he's making a positive impact. Drummond may be sixth in the league in rebounds per game, but he is first in rebounds per 48 minutes at 19.5. The problem is that he only plays 27.7 minutes per game. Such limited minutes not only limit his opportunities to grow as a player, but also hamper the Pistons' ability to win games.
2. Smith didn't win himself any fans… Did you see his stat line on Monday night? If so, something should have popped out and slapped you in the face. He finished the game without a single rebound. A six-foot nine-inch starting forward actually finished an NBA basketball game without grabbing a single rebound. Not even by accident. Some of that was due to him spending too much time behind the three-point line on offense (which is an issue in and of itself) and defense where Tobias Harris was 3-for-6, but he played for over 30 minutes and had two fewer rebounds than DJ Augustin. Then on Wednesday he finished with just four rebounds, five points and a spot on the bench during crunch time. This could not have been by accident considering after the loss on Monday, Van Gundy said, "I made some questionable substitutions and stuff down the stretch." To be fair Van Gundy said his questionable substitution was decision was leaving Drummond on the bench, but Wednesday provided a chance to correct any questionable substitutions errors of the past and perhaps he did so by playing Jonas Jerebko (who came up with a clutch rebound) instead of Smith. Lots of fans have been harsh and I think too harsh when it comes to their criticism of Josh Smith. Some say he just flat out sucks and some say the Pistons need to just cut him. The fact of the matter is that he is a quality NBA forward when he stays around the basket to work in the post, gets to the free throw line and blocks shots and he will usually play solid defense. But when he has a game like he had on Monday where he doesn't grab a single rebound and misses all three of his shots from downtown, follows it up on Wednesday with just five points while being noticeably absent in crunch time of a close game and he happens to be the highest paid player on the team, it's hard to blame fans for not falling in love with him.
3. Jennings should be turning skeptics into believers… Jennings' first season in Detroit was not easy on the eyes. He finished at or near his career worst in points per game, field goal percentage, three-point field goal percentage, turnovers per game and free throw percentage. A new season and a new coach seem to have unleashed a new Jennings, especially after the first couple of games of the season when he was benched at the end of games. Jennings has fueled several comebacks and has a better sense of when to try to take over a game with his hot hand and when not to do so. Coach Van Gundy has seen a changed Jennings: "His number of times getting to the rim and percentage are way up. I think Brandon's playing outstanding basketball." A career high 44.2% from the field and a career 41.7% from three-point land would suggest Van Gundy is right. Greg Monroe has seen a change as well: "This year he's definitely more aggressive. He's more comfortable making plays." I just don't know if the fans have noticed. Maybe a 12-game stretch to start the season is just not enough for people to buy in to him like I am starting to do. I don't completely blame them because the argument can easily be made that if you're buying in to Jennings as a changed point guard after just 12 games, then you should also buy into Andre Drummond as a foul prone kid with bust written all over him and nobody believes that to be true. In addition, I don't think it's right to judge Jennings solely on how he played with Mo Cheeks and John Loyer as his head coaches last year, neither of whom are coaching NBA teams as we speak. With Van Gundy, Jennings and the Pistons have gone from one of the league's worst coaches to one of its best. After Wednesday's game, Jennings said Van Gundy is "actually one of the best coaches at preparing for a team and getting ready for a game." Based on his improvements, perhaps Jennings should add getting the best out of point guard when praising his coach.
4. As the 3pt shooting goes, so goes the team… Coach Van Gundy may like to point out the importance of the defense or the frontcourt. Fans may like to point out the effort that hasn't been consistent or they just don't have much talent. I like to point out the three-point shooting because the fact of the matter is that in the Stan Van Gundy offense, many more threes will be taken compared to last season and many more must be made for the offense to be a success. The Pistons are in the middle of the pack in three-pointers attempted per game (22.9) and three-point field goal percentage (35.3%) despite signing sharp shooters like Jodie Meeks (who has not played due to injury) DJ Augustin and Caron Butler. In the Pistons three wins this year they're shooting 42.9% from beyond the arc. In their nine losses, they're shooting just 32.3%. Furthermore when they score 96pts or more in a game, they shoot a solid 39.3%. But when they score fewer than 96pts in a game they are just 49/153. The Pistons just have to make threes if they're going to win games.
After losing a pair of home games to Orlando and Phoenix, allowing Tobias Harris and Nikola Vucevic to go off for a combined 49pts on Monday and playing no interior defense on Wednesday (including one blocked shot), do I still think the Pistons can turn this 3-9 start into 40 wins and a playoff spot? Yes, because I have that much confidence in Stan Van Gundy as a head coach. He's already gotten major production from Monroe and corrected several of Jennings' flaws. Perhaps Drummond or Smith are next. However, if the team doesn't show improvement by actually winning games by the turn of the calendar to January expect the fan base to start calling for the Pistons to tank like a No Limit Soldier.
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