The Detroit Pistons had high expectations for the 2013-14 season after the acquisitions of Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings, but following a highly disappointing second half of the season, there's real concern about whether either player can successfully be part of the team's long-term plan.
This was supposed to be the Pistons' first playoff appearance since 2009—a season for the young Pistons to prove that they were an up-and-coming team in the Eastern Conference. But instead, they will finish with the eighth-worst record in the NBA, and one loss in their final two games will ensure their fifth consecutive season with 30 wins or fewer.
The Pistons are a team with plenty of youth and potential, but they clearly have a long way to go to become a team capable of competing in June. They have many talented players, but after this season, their front office will have to make big decisions on which of those players fit into the team's future.
Jennings, 24, and Smith, 28, are the right age to fit into a roster that expects to grow into a playoff contender over the next few years. But questions about their on-court decision-making and coachability make it an uncertainty that they can be a key member of a serious contender. For each, that will linger over their offseason.
The Pistons acquired Jennings in a sign-and-trade deal with the Milwaukee Bucks last offseason after deciding that watching two years of Brandon Knight playing point guard for them was enough. They gave Jennings a three-year, $24 million deal.
Through the first two-thirds of this season, the contract looked fantastic for the Pistons. Jennings' stat lines the first four months of the season:
- November: 15.6 points, 8.1 assists, 1.4 steals
- December: 18.9 points, 8.4 assists, 1.6 steals
- January: 15.6 points, 7.9 assists, 1.6 steals
- February: 17.0 points, 7.2 assists, 1.2 steals
Jennings' scoring was on par for what he'd done the rest of his career, but he was averaging far more assists than ever before. It appeared that he was really tapping into his potential and maybe even becoming one of the top 10 point guards in the league.
But after February, things have gone terribly. In March, he averaged just 11.7 points, 7.3 assists and .9 steals, and in April, he has put up 13.7 points, 5.5 assists and .5 steals. As the Pistons fell out of the playoff race, Jennings' play dropped off as well.
The typical criticism toward Jennings includes his questionable shot selection and lackluster defense. There's no question that he looks for his own shot more than other point guards (he ranks No. 10 among point guards in field-goal attempts per game, according to ESPN), but his 14.2 attempts per game this season is the lowest of his career.
That and his increased assists average—his previous career high was 6.5, and he's at 7.6 this year—is evidence that his point guard play has improved overall.
The Pistons need to find out whether Jennings is the player who was among the top five in the NBA in assists through three months, or the one who has averaged fewer than six in April. At 24, he should have plenty of room to improve, but what is his ceiling? And does he have the mental dexterity to reach that ceiling?
Jennings can still be a strong player for the Pistons, but they must find a coach who can keep him motivated and put the right players around him. Adding shooters on the wing will make his life easier and help him to improve as a point guard.
At just 24 years old and with a salary of $8 million for each of the next two seasons, Jennings very well can be salvageable for the Pistons. He played four months of solid basketball at point guard. If the talent around him improves and he's asked to do less scoring and more creating, he's the kind of player who they should look to keep.
For Smith, the season went much differently than Jennings', starting extremely slowly.
After being moved to small forward full time for the first time in his career, Smith struggled mightily in the first months of the season. In November, he averaged just 13.4 points on 38.1 percent shooting after averaging 17.5 points and on 46.5 percent shooting the year before. He also made just 25.4 percent of his 4.5 three-point attempts per game.
But his play steadily improved, as his scoring went to 16.4 points in December, 17.2 in January and 18.9 in February. It dipped to 16.4 in March, but it has jumped back to 17.3 in April.
There are still many issues with Smith. The first—which is not his fault, but still needs to be addressed—is that he's being forced to play out of position at small forward. As long as Greg Monroe is on the roster, there just isn't room for Smith to play the 4. And with his lack of a jump shot, he just kills floor spacing when he plays small forward.
But if the Pistons want to think about moving Monroe and shifting Smith to the 4, they have to consider whether he has the right attitude to build a team around.
For everything he does on the court—scoring inside, rebounding, distributing, blocking shots and forcing turnovers defensively—he can lack effort at times and experience bouts of poor body language. The perfect example is his play in their March 31 win over the Milwaukee Bucks, as evaluated by Piston Powered:
Smith played terribly for the game’s first 42.5 minutes. He shot 1-for-6 outside the paint and defended even worse. Cutters easily surged by an idle, ball-watching Smith for easy shots at the basket. At one point, Smith found himself in position to defend Jeff Adrien inside. Rather than contest the shot, Smith just jumped on Adrien’s back. Easier to watch Adrien shoot free throws than sustain defensive energy for even two seconds. Smith didn’t grab a single rebound in the first 42.5 minutes, either. He looked like he had given up on the season, not to mention this game. Then, suddenly, he didn’t. With the Pistons down six with 5.5 minutes remaining, Smith took over. He shot 6-for-7, including 2-of-3 on 3-pointers, down the stretch with his 15 points in that span leading the Pistons to victory.
That is what Smith brings to the table—at times he can be absolutely dominant. In many games, he's the most athletic and skilled player on the court. But his attitude can hold him back from being the kind of player he's capable of being.
Smith's contract—$13.5 million for each of the next three seasons—may make him untradeable anyway. But if there was someone willing to trade for him, Smith would likely be more talented than anyone they could get in return.
At 28, Smith is likely less willing to change than Jennings, so in that sense, it may be harder to salvage his talents. But a move away from the perimeter and to the inside would certainly help. And like with Jennings, creating a better balanced roster would create more space for Smith to make plays. An improved team record would also help him to stay motivated.
If they plan (or are forced) to keep Smith next year, the only way to salvage him is to get him in the right position. But improving the team around him and finding a coach capable of motivating him would also be essential.
Jakub Rudnik covers the Detroit Pistons for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.