At 14-16, the Detroit Pistons stand alone in seventh place in a historically weak Eastern Conference. Though Detroit is very much on pace to surpass its win total of 29 from last season, the Pistons are well capable of being above .500 and fighting for the East’s third seed, especially given the talent of their current roster.
Here are five New Year’s resolutions for the Pistons to take the next step in 2014.
A primary concern heading into the season, Detroit’s loaded frontcourt has struggled to find spacing thus far. The presence of Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond at the 4 and 5, respectively, has forced newly acquired Josh Smith into being more of a mid-range and perimeter player on the offensive end. Smith is known for being a streaky jump-shooter and is shooting a career-low 41.4 percent from the floor.
Above is Josh Smith’s shot chart, courtesy of NBA.com. Smith is shooting below the league average in nearly every spot on the court.
In the new year, the Pistons need to either let Smith play his natural position, the 4, or get him out of the starting lineup. Though the first option seems the most likely, it’ll probably be the result of trading Monroe, who, at 14.5 points and nine rebounds per game, is an expiring contract sure to attract the attention of playoff-contending teams from across the league.
The Pistons are allowing 100.8 points per game, good for 14th in the NBA, and opponents are shooting a staggering 46.5 percent against them, 25th in the NBA. That's improvement from just a month ago, when opponents were shooting over 47 percent against the Pistons and they were the NBA's worst in that category.
Head coach Maurice Cheeks, often asked about his team’s defensive struggles, most recently addressed the Pistons' improvement following their 115-92 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Monday.
Per Bob Finnan of The News Herald:
"We closed off the paint. I thought our transition defense was good. Everything we did, pretty much, was on a string. It allowed us to get some easy baskets, rebound and get out in the open court."
Andre Drummond, favoring his left side against Golden State on Nov. 12, has yet to miss any games due to injury this season.
A New Year’s resolution for most teams, the Pistons’ health will be pivotal in the team’s push for the third seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. So far, so good for Detroit, which has only lost Gigi Datome at the start of the season, Brandon Jennings for two games, Chauncey Billups for 14 games, Rodney Stuckey for four games and Will Bynum for 16 games due to injury.
The rest of the roster has stayed healthy, and the team has avoided any long-term or season-ending injuries to this point. As primary backups to Jennings, the health of both Billups and Bynum will remain priorities, too, and Stuckey is especially important as the team’s third-leading scorer and candidate for Sixth Man of the Year.
In one of the weakest Eastern Conferences of all time, only the top two seeds seem to be accounted for at this point in the season. Though the Pistons haven’t made the playoffs since 2008, there’s no reason for Detroit not to contend for the East’s third seed this season.
Though the Pistons don’t have the chemistry of the Indiana Pacers or the talent of the Miami Heat, it could be argued that Detroit has one of the most complete rosters in the NBA. Unlike previous seasons, Detroit’s talent and energy level are evident on an almost-nightly basis—the team just needs to build consistency.
With an average age of 23, the Pistons have the youngest starting five of any team in the NBA and could be surprisingly dangerous come playoff time in April.
Though the starting five seems to be intact and the Pistons are as balanced as they’ve been in the last several seasons, some important questions remain.
Who’s getting the ball with the game on the line? What is Josh Smith’s role on offense going forward? Is Brandon Jennings going to continue to lead the team in scoring, or will he focus more on distributing first? Will Kentavious Caldwell-Pope eventually have to guard opposing point guards if Jennings' defense doesn't improve?
The Pistons are one of the most balanced teams in the East, but will need a more profound grasp of their identity to take the third seed in 2014.