5 Players Who Must Step Up for Detroit Pistons' Remaining Games
For the Detroit Pistons to make a late-season push for the playoffs, they need several key players to step up their play.
After losing six of their last seven games, the Pistons are now 12 games below .500 and are four games in the loss column behind the Atlanta Hawks for the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference. In no way are they out of the playoff race, but they need to turn things around sooner rather than later.
According to MLive.com, owner Tom Gore "put down a playoff mandate" before this season began, which is in line with the major acquisitions that the team made in the offseason. It would also seem to be the biggest factor in the midseason firing of first-year coach Maurice Cheeks.
Gore expects his team to be in the playoffs, and general manager Joe Dumars is feeling that pressure. Which players need to play their best basketball of the season in order for the Pistons to make the postseason?
*All statistics compiled from NBA.com and updated as of March 1 unless otherwise noted.
The Pistons have struggled to score throughout this season, but one player who can help change that is Will Bynum.
Coming off the bench, he is a score-first point guard who has the ability to get hot on any given night. He can provide a much-needed spark to the offense, which ranks 19th in points per possession, according to NBA.com.
He started the season off relatively slowly, averaging just 7.1 points on 38.6 percent shooting in November, but he's seen steady improvement throughout the season. February was his best month to date, as he averaged 9.6 points and 47.9 percent shooting in 19.9 minutes per night.
That's the kind of play the Pistons need from him down the stretch. Bynum is a defensive liability, but they can live with that if he's putting up points like he has been—he's averaging 11.9 over his last eight games. With that kind of play, he should see increased playing time in the near future.
Like Bynum, big man Greg Monroe played his best basketball of the season in February, despite the Pistons' struggles.
He averaged 16.3 points and 9.3 rebounds and shot 51.5 percent from the field while averaging the fewest turnovers (1.8) of any month this season. He finally appears to be getting comfortable at the power forward position and is showing the kind of improvement you'd expect from a player in his fourth season.
When he plays like he has over the past 13 games—at least 12 points in every contest and double-digit rebounds six times—he looks like the kind of post player that a team could build a championship contender with. And that it would commit financially to.
The next few months will be essential for the Pistons as they try to determine if Monroe, who will be a restricted free agent this offseason, is a piece to build around. According to David Aldridge of NBA.com, they won't let him leave for another team without compensation:
If [Monroe's agent David] Falk finds a team ready to give Monroe the max or something close to it, expect Detroit to match the offer sheet and worry about the money later. At worst, you'd have a 24-year-old, 6-foot-10 power forward under contract that you'd then be able to shop. The Pistons had to lose a lot to wind up with top-10 picks in three straight Drafts. Those assets mean more to them than they probably do to others.
The way Monroe was playing to start the season, it would have seemed like quite the risk to commit $40-50 million to him over the next four years, particularly with Josh Smith's deal on the books.
But if he keeps playing like one of the best offensive bigs in the game, especially if he can help push the Pistons back into the playoffs, then offering such a contract will be a no-brainer.
In an attempt to shuffle things around, the Pistons have replaced Kentavious Caldwell-Pope with Kyle Singler in the starting lineup.
After starting 74 games as a rookie, Singler had almost exclusively come off the bench this season before February, but he has now started the last 11 games.
Despite a 4-7 record during that stretch, it seems that he will be there to stay based on interim head coach John Loyer's comments to the Detroit Free Press' Vince Ellis: "He’s done a nice job. He’s a worker. He sees the shots he’s gonna get in a game and by golly those are the shots he works on, He’s a guy for two years, every day you walk in and don’t think about him, but you know what you’re going to get out of him."
Singler's minutes had increased each of the first three months this season, from 22.9 to 23.1 to 26, but in February his time increased drastically—to 36.5 minutes per game.
And given the opportunity, the second-year wing has thrived. He averaged 12.6 points per game during the month, shooting 47.5 percent from the field and 50 percent on nearly four attempts per game from behind the arc. The Pistons have struggled from deep all season—they're 29th in team three-point percentage, ahead of only the Philadelphia 76ers, per NBA.com—so Singler's recent output has been especially important.
Though his shooting numbers will almost certainly regress—he's a career 36.7 percent shooter from three—the Pistons need him to continue producing on the wing if they are to fight for a playoff spot.
In November, Rodney Stuckey looked like one of the NBA's best reserves and a possible candidate for Sixth Man of the Year. The Pistons need him to bounce back to that form after a lackluster February and again provide some big-time production off the bench.
In the first full month of the season, he averaged 16.9 points on 49.5 percent shooting from the field and 37.5 percent from three. After a poor December, he performed well in January at 14.8 points on 45.7 percent from the field. But February was again tough, as he dropped to 11.7 points per contest and shot under 40 percent from the field and just 26.7 percent from downtown.
Like Bynum, Stuckey is one of the few players on the Pistons bench who is capable of generating offense. When he's playing well, he creates off the bounce, getting to the rim and drawing fouls. In November he averaged 4.9 free-throw attempts, and in January he averaged five.
In December and February, he averaged 2.7 and 3.2, respectively.
He is one the team’s veterans and most talented offensive players. As the Pistons fight to salvage the season by snagging a playoff spot, he will be instrumental in leading their bench unit.
When Josh Smith signed his four-year, $54 million deal this past offseason, he was expected to immediately become a team leader and Detroit's best two-way player. Though he struggled in the first half of the season, there is no better time than the present for him to prove that the signing wasn’t a mistake.
Part of his struggles has been that he’s playing out of his natural position at small forward, but he hasn't helped with his poor shot selection—particularly the excess of threes he’s taken (3.4 per game).
But he’s been playing more efficiently as of late, shooting 2.7 threes per game in February, and his overall field-goal percentage was up to 45.3 for the month (against 42.4 for the season). It was also his highest month of the season in both scoring and rebounding, at 18.9 and 8.2, respectively.
Smith is capable of even better play—he averaged 18.8 points and 9.6 rebounds in 2011-12 with the Atlanta Hawks—but his performance in February is hopefully a sign of how he will play through the end of the season.
With his status as the veteran of the starting lineup and his massive contract, no player has more pressure to perform down the stretch than Smith. And although many fans have lost faith in him, nothing would restore their confidence faster than him leading the team to the postseason.
Jakub Rudnik covers the Detroit Pistons for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.