So far this season, the Detroit Pistons have been a hard team to figure out. Some nights they appear to be a fairly cohesive bunch, able to execute equally well with their bench and first unit.
Other nights, like Tuesday, they show how far they have left to go before they can reach elite status.
For Detroit, this West Coast trip represents the first barometer for Detroit to measure itself against. Thus far this season, Detroit has played mainly second and third tier NBA teams with varying levels of success.
In order for the Pistons to become the best, they need to play the best, and there is arguably nobody better than the defending champion Lakers.
The result was not entirely unexpected for those that have been following this team.
However, teams tend to learn more about themselves from a defeat than they do from a victory, so let's explore what can be deciphered from this latest loss and why this game might be a microcosm of the Pistons' season.
The Pistons offense has been wildly inconsistent this season. When team president Joe Dumars put together this new cast of characters, it was understood that in order for Detroit to win games, they were going to have to put some serious numbers on the board.
For most people that examined their roster, that did not seem to be a problem.
Currently, this version of the Pistons is averaging 93.3 points per game, which ranks 26th in the league. That wouldn't be so bad if there were 100 teams in the league, but sadly there are only 30.
There are many reasons for the offensive struggles, not the least of which being injuries and the fact that many of the Pistons are not only playing together for the first time, but are playing NBA basketball for the first time.
First and foremost, the front court has essentially lived or died by Charlie Villanueva. When the season began, most people figured this would be the case as Detroit would likely be starting either Ben Wallace, Kwame Brown or Chris Wilcox next to Charlie at center, none of whom are exactly Hakeem Olajuwon in the post.
Villanueva is scoring a solid 15.4 points per game, however, the Pistons need to get at least that many from him in order to compete in this league. In the Pistons five wins this season, Villanueva has averaged 18 points, including games of 30 and 25.
In the Pistons six losses, that number drops down to 13, including a sad two points in Los Angeles on Tuesday.
If Detroit is going to win as presently constructed, Villanueva needs to step up every game and shoulder the load offensively.
But he's not the only reason for the offensive struggles.
Where Are The Dimes?
When Detroit traded star point guard Chauncey Billups last year, everyone knew that the assist numbers would go down. They were basically left with only one true point guard, Will Bynum, on the roster.
However, the drop has been precipitous. Actually, it has been a torrential downpour.
In the last full season Billups wore a Detroit jersey, they averaged 22.3 assists per game, which was 10th best in the league. Last year, that number dropped to 20.6, putting the Pistons in the middle of the league.
This year, that number has fallen to 15.7, which puts Detroit next to last in the league.
The biggest culprit is the fact that Detroit still only has one true point guard on the roster.
Too often, the Pistons have gone about their business on offense without proper penetration. When a perimeter player breaks down the defense, it usually leads to easy points for interior players.
Considering the offensive limitations of those interior players (save for Villanueva), that penetration is desperately needed. But so far, starting point guard Rodney Stuckey has been unable to get to the rim consistently.
This has not been due to a lack of trying, but rather because opposing teams do not yet respect his jump shot, allowing their guards to play off of him. Until Stuckey shows an ability to consistently knock down a 15 to 20 foot jumper, he will continue to be played this way.
However, Detroit does have another starting guard that can knock down shots from that distance and further.
Ben Gordon so far has lived up to his reputation as a scorer, checking in with 22 points per game and shooting a respectable 45 percent from the field.
However, too often he is the first and last stop on offense, a trend that will need to change somewhat if Detroit is going to get better ball movement.
Gordon has shown himself to be a much better ball handler than advertised. If he can learn to get his teammates more involved, especially by driving to the hoop, he could single-handedly improve a lot of what ails the Pistons offense.
Help On The Way?
Speaking of ailments, when will Richard Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince return?
The Pistons have been without their two mainstays from their championship season in 2004 for most of the season.
All indications are that Hamilton is still several days away from returning. However, Prince may be gearing up for a return any day now, as evidenced by the fact that he traveled with the team for their four game road trip.
These two have been sorely missed by their mates, and have contributed mightily to the team's struggles.
Hamilton provides not only another scoring option, but he also tends to get his teammates involved by driving to the hoop, something that Gordon would be well-advised to mimic.
Prince will also help in this department as his ball handling ability, post play and unselfish nature will immediately this team.
Prince's return in particular will allow the Pistons to return forward Jonas Jerebko to the bench and back to a role better suited to him at this point in his career: energy player.
The Pistons have been forced to lean unfairly hard on Jerebko during Prince's absence. The Swedish import has done an admirable job, but he is just too limited offensively to help a unit that is in desperate need of firepower.
Times really must be changing with the Pistons. I have gone this far without mentioning the word "defense."
This is with good reason, as the Pistons have been pleasantly surprising on the defensive end, checking in at a respectable sixth in the league with only 91.5 points allowed.
This is due to several factors.
First, early reports of Ben Wallace's demise were, as it turns out, drastically mistaken. Not only has Wallace contributed much more than expected statistically (nine rebounds in 29 minutes a game), but he has strengthened the Pistons team defense by providing an intimidating inside presence.
Furthermore, he has shown a knack for mentoring, helping Villanueva to shake the label of "defensive liability" from his resume. The pride that Wallace takes in shutting down opponents is contagious, and Villanueva seems to have caught that bug.
And while Jerebko is unquestionably green on offense, the edge he plays with defensively is quite a pleasant contrast from the last European player Joe Dumars drafted (I know, it's a low blow to mention this and Billups in the same story, so I will just refer to him as D.M.).
But this isn't to say that everything has been ideal on defense. Kobe Bryant (as he always tends to do) discovered a major weakness with Detroit's defense on Tuesday night when he routinely posted up perimeter players.
Without Prince, you can be sure to see this on a much more regular basis as NBA coaches tend to pick up on weaknesses in a millisecond.
Look for Gordon, Stuckey and Bynum to get burned by this in the next few games, especially Wednesday night against Brandon Roy and the Trail Blazers.
It will be coach John Kuester's responsibility to combat this with new defensive wrinkles.
However, until Prince returns, the Pistons just don't have the personnel to avoid this technique.
Brace yourselves folks, because the next few games could get ugly. This is easily the toughest stretch so far for the Pistons, and it doesn't figure to get easier for awhile.
Wednesday night they play in Portland against the surging Trail Blazers. Portland has been playing great and they will be extra motivated considering their recent winning streak was stopped by the red-hot Atlanta Hawks in overtime and they will be eager to get back on the winning track.
When the Pistons finally make it back home, they will be greeted by the Cleveland Cavs before finally getting a break by playing the Clippers at home.
When it is all said and done, they could be heading into that game on a six-game losing streak.
But these types of trials and tribulations tend to make a team stronger, and with the Pistons featuring such a young group, this figures to be the case.
So far, the Pistons have been an exciting team to watch, and that figures to continue, especially when Prince and Hamilton return.
The key will be for the fans to stick through the tough times, because something tells me that something may be brewing in Motown (more to come on that later).
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