What a mess it's been in Detroit this season. General manager Joe Dumars definitely put together a collection of basketball talent, but the preseason questions of how it would all gel together have not been answered.
One big issue for the Pistons has been the juggling of the frontcourt situation. Let's all be honest here - Josh Smith is not a small forward. He excels as a power forward where he can use his versatility and quickness as an advantage. We all know how Josh can fall in love with his jump shot. However, this is less of a problem when he's playing down on the block as a power forward. When he's the small forward in a lineup with Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond? Bombs away. Not a good thing.
Last year, for example, Smith spent a lot more time down on the block, and his numbers reflect that - 39% of all his shots last season were from within five feet of the basket. This season, however, only 33% of his shots are coming from that distance. Six percent makes a whole lot of difference when you can shoot 70% from within five feet, which is what he did last year. This season, he's still good from the short distance, at 65%, but the fact that he's operating down there with such less frequency is having a big effect on his overall field goal percentage- he's at 41.9% this year, down from 46.5% last year.
It's not that his game suddenly changed coming to Detroit. Instead, it seems that Dumars gathered all these players that have similar games and demanded that Cheeks all start and feature them. It just isn't a sustainable model.
The Pistons had dreams this offseason of Josh Smith, an underrated defender, moving over to the small forward spot to pair with Greg Monroe and budding defensive beast Andre Drummond. Those three together were supposed to create a terrifying, huge lineup like the Indiana Pacers that would dominate the paint. Unfortunately, the lineups with those three players together have been nothing short of miserable together.
The Brandon Jennings, Rodney Stuckey, Josh Smith, Greg Monroe, Andre Drummond lineup is one of the worst defensive lineups in the league, posting a defensive rating (DefRtg) of 112.8, which would be easily the league's worst defense (the Utah Jazz are the worst team at 107.8). If you substitute out Stuckey for Kyle Singler, you have another of the NBA's top-10 worst lineups, with a DefRtg of 110.9.
Let's not entirely blame Josh Smith here. The big man duo of Monroe and Drummond has been very disappointing in their own right this year. Drummond is a future star, and Monroe is one of the more skilled offensive big men in the league. But together, it's a defensive mess. In their 1,032 minutes together this season, the Pistons have a DefRtg of 108.8, which would again be the worst defense in the league. On the offensive end, they post a OffRtg of 103.2, which is right at the average of the league, but it's definitely not enough to offset the terrible defense.
While defense is a big problem for the Pistons frontcourt, offense is the issue for the backcourt. Point guard Brandon Jennings is shooting a miserable 38.3% on almost 16 shots a game for the year. That is fifth-worst in the league of all players that shoot at least 10 times a game, behind Jimmy Butler (36.7% on 10.3 FGA), Trey Burke (37.3% on 12.8 FGA), Ersan Ilyasova (37.5% on 10.5 FGA), and Caron Butler (38.2% on 10.1 FGA).
The shooting guard spot has been a revolving door of players, with Rodney Stuckey, Kyle Singler, Will Bynum, and rookie Kentavious Caldwell-Pope all getting run. Statistically, the rookie has been the best of the bunch - many of the Pistons best offensive five-man lineups involve Caldwell-Pope. However, he's not even at 40% from the field on the year. Most of this is a lack of a mid-range game in his young career, as he's shooting almost 60% from the paint, but most of his shots are at the 20-29 foot range. And he's an awful 30% from there.
The Pistons are in a weird funk that they seemingly can't get out of right now. The guards can't hit a long range shot to unclog the paint, and opposing defenses are rightfully stacking it and daring them to shoot from outside. The terrible guard play has led to the Pistons going big often. However, all lineups are risk versus reward. If you go big, you have to win the paint defensively. As discussed above, this has not happened at all this season.
So what's next? After going through all the things wrong with the Pistons, it's crazy to note: they're still right in the playoff picture! They currently sit in the ninth spot, though they have the same record as the Charlotte Bobcats, who are currently eighth. If Detroit can even stay close to average throughout the rest of the regular season, they will likely make the playoffs.
As the NBA trade deadline approaches, the Pistons will definitely entertain offers for Greg Monroe. We've seen that the frontcourt experiment has been a failure. They've invested too much into Josh Smith, and Andre Drummond is unmovable as a future star. Monroe is likely the odd man out here.
Which leads me to some good news for Pistons fans after dropping a load of awful lineup data above: though they've only played 102 minutes together on the year, the Jennings, Stuckey, Singler, Smith, Drummond lineup has been very good. In fact, they're the only Pistons lineup with at least 100 minutes on the year that has a positive NetRtg (OffRtg - DefRtg). They have a NetRtg of +15.7, while the next "best" lineup has a NetRtg of -1.5. Read that again.
When they go small (and likely would often have to if they move Monroe), they are very good together. Further, they would likely move Monroe for a shooter, which would help this type of lineup even more. Smith is much better operating as a small-ball power forward, and Drummond is at his best when he has room to create havoc in the lane, both on defense and on offense out of the pick-and-roll. Without Monroe, Drummond would likely be the pick-and-roll big man a lot more, and all fans would love to see more of those devastatingly powerful dunks out of those.
In the rough Eastern Conference, though the Pistons are currently out of the playoffs, they're actually only 3.5 games out of the sixth spot. Obviously, that's where teams want to be to avoid a first-round matchup with Indiana or Miami. If Monroe indeed gets moved for a wing player that can shoot from outside and be solid enough defensively to let Josh Smith move to the power forward spot, this Detroit team will surprise people.
Things are still bright for the future. A good shot at the playoffs and one of the best young centers in the league- that is a great position to build from.