What gifts do the Detroit Pistons need for the new year?
During the time of year for gift giving and charity, what is it that the Detroit Pistons should wish for?
The team received shiny new toys in the past year (Josh Smith, Brandon Jennings and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, to name a few) and has improved since 2012-13. The young roster is still coming together, and the players are working out how they fit on the court. There is still plenty of work to be done in the new year.
There are some big things that the Pistons need in the final two-thirds of the season to make 2013-14 a success. What else should be on their wish list?
*All statistics compiled from NBA.com and updated as of Dec. 22 unless otherwise noted.
Josh Smith is shooting the most threes of his career, and it's not going well.
If there has been one game this season that properly demonstrated both the pros and cons offensively of Smith's move to small forward, perhaps it was the Pistons' matchup with the Houston Rockets.
For most of the game, Smith was matched up against Chandler Parsons and Omri Casspi, who give up considerable strength defensively as natural small forwards. At times, Smith exploited the mismatch.
With seven minutes, 33 seconds left in the first quarter, Smith posted post up Parsons about 12 feet from the basket, received the ball, took one dribble baseline and finished at the rim while drawing the foul.
With 3:43 remaining in the second, Smith posted up Casspi, scoring on a lefty hook shot from the left block. The very next trip down the court, he posted up at the same spot, this time beating Parsons for a layup.
For the game, Smith made 6 of 11 field goals from within eight feet of the basket and got to the line seven times. He also made two of his three shots from eight to 16 feet.
However, from beyond 16 feet, Smith missed all six of his attempts, including two three-pointers. There was a jumper with 8:15 to go in the third quarter from one step inside the arc, taken with 17 seconds remaining on the shot clock. And with 7:05 remaining in the third quarter, Smith took a contested corner three with 10 seconds left to shoot.
For the season, Smith has shot more perimeter shots than ever before in his career, but he has no reason for taking them; he's attempting 4.1 threes per game (his previous career high was 2.6) yet making just 26.1 percent. But from within five feet of the basket, he's been great, shooting 66.9 percent, per NBA.com.
For the Pistons, I wish that Smith would stop settling for outside jumpers, and that he would realize how good he can be down low against small forwards.
Few teams have shot worse from the arc than the Pistons.
While the Pistons have been among the best in the NBA at scoring in the paint, their outside shooting has been brutal thus far.
The Pistons' three-point percentage is just 31.8 percent—only the Charlotte Bobcats have been worse from the arc (30.1 percent). The Pistons shoot 8.7 percent worse than the league-leading Portland Trail Blazers.
In the offseason, Joe Dumars added players who were supposed to improve the team in this regard, but so far not all of them have lived up to expectations. Brandon Jennings is shooting 36 percent from the arc, but Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is at just 31.6 percent (although 38.9 percent in December) and Luigi Datome has made only 20.8 percent.
For the Pistons, I wish for improved three-point shooting to take pressure off the big men down low, or a trade for a long-range marksman before the trade deadline.
Dwight Howard scored his season high in the Palace of Auburn Hills.
While the Pistons offense has been near league average in the first two months of the season, their defense has been one of the worst in the league.
According to NBA.com, they have given up 104.7 points per 100 possessions, 24th in the NBA and 10.5 points worse than the league-leading Indiana Pacers. They have given up at least 100 points in 15 games already.
Again, the game against the Rockets was a great example of this. While Houston does have a top-five offense, it scored 114 points against the Pistons without James Harden or Jeremy Lin. Dwight Howard was able to consistently attack the paint, scoring 35 points on 13-of-18 shooting against the Pistons bigs.
If the season ended today, 12 of the 13 most efficient defensive teams in the league would be in the playoffs (the other being the now-Derrick Rose-less Chicago Bulls). It's not impossible to win without a good defense (see: Trail Blazers, Portland), but the Pistons aren't good enough offensively to be giving up so many points.
For the Pistons, I wish for defensive focus in the new year and for the big men to start controlling the paint.
The Pistons are still a long way from competing with teams like the Miami Heat.
The Pistons have won nearly half of their games, but hardly any of those wins have come against top-caliber opponents.
The Eastern Conference currently has just three teams with winning records, so the Pistons very well can make the playoffs without winning many games against stiff competition. However, if they want to have a chance to make noise in the the playoffs, they have to prove they can contend with top-tier teams.
Just four of their 17 games through the end of January are against teams with winning records, so the Pistons do have a chance to make improvements and win some easier games before their schedule gets tougher down the stretch.
For the Pistons, I wish for improved play against playoff teams and more signature wins against real contenders.
If the Pistons make the playoffs, it would be best if they could avoid the lowest two seeds.
While the Pistons would currently be the seventh seed in the East if the playoffs began today, they have a great opportunity to get a better seed in the extremely wide-open conference.
There are three Eastern Conference teams with winning records, but the Heat and the Indiana Pacers are the two teams far above the rest. Barring significant injuries, those two teams are destined for the Nos. 1 and 2 seeds. The odds of the Pistons knocking off either of them as currently assembled seem slim, but there's little reason to think they can't beat any other team in the conference.
That being said, the Pistons need to aim for the fifth or sixth seed. At No. 6, it looks like they'd play the Atlanta Hawks, who are very beatable. And if they could get to No. 5, they'd play the winner of the Atlantic Division, possibly the least potent division in major American sports (seriously, the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors are four games below .500 and are tied for the division lead).
So most importantly, for the Pistons, I wish not only for their first playoff birth in five seasons, but for them to get the chance to advance past the first round of the playoffs.
*Jakub Rudnik covers the Detroit Pistons for B/R. Follow him on Twitter.