For the first time in several years, the Detroit Pistons came into this season with positive expectations.
No, no one expected them to repeat the championship they won a decade ago, but they were supposed to take the first step toward contending again. It helped that they were in the terrible Eastern Conference, where several teams had built rosters designed to earn high lottery picks rather than playoff spots.
Three weeks ago, it looked like those limited goals were going to be met easily. The Pistons had started 10-10, then lost four of the next five games, but that was when they pulled off what looked like a signature victory. Two weeks after winning in Miami against the Dwyane Wade-less Heat, Detroit became the first team this season to win in Indianapolis. They followed that by coming from 21 down to win in Boston, and on Dec. 18, they were 13-14 and comfortably locked into a Eastern Conference playoff spot.
That’s when everything fell apart in spectacular fashion.
Detroit came home to play a bad Bobcats team, led by 20 points in the third quarter and still managed to lose 116-106. Charlotte’s 41-17 edge in the fourth quarter looked like an aberration, but was actually one of the first danger signs. In the next game, the Rockets came in with James Harden, Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik all hurt, but Dwight Howard destroyed Andre Drummond and Houston won easily.
A win in Cleveland seemed to have things back under control, but Detroit was blown out by a terrible Magic team in Orlando, then lost back-to-back games to Washington. In the second loss to the Wizards, back at the Palace, Detroit had a double-digit lead before being outscored 28-12 in the fourth.
Detroit had five days off before the next game, plenty of time to fix the late-game issues. It didn’t help. The Pistons led at halftime, only to see Memphis beat them 61-28 in the second half. Tuesday against the hapless Knicks, they melted down in the third quarter, falling behind by as many as 17 points. They put together a rare fourth-quarter rally, but still lost 89-85.
Seven losses in eight games, almost all of them against teams with losing records. A five-game losing streak, and no home wins in almost a month. All with a new-look roster, built with the cap space that Joe Dumars had been hoarding, and featuring a new veteran coach.
Much of the problem has been Detroit’s lack of shooting, a problem that Dumars was never able to fix despite his offseason spending binge. Detroit’s biggest acquisitions, Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings, are both poor outside shooters who are most effective when they can get the ball to the rim. That was never likely to work in a lineup that included two young post players in Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond that, for all of their potential, can’t take defenders away from the paint.
As a result, while the Pistons are among the NBA’s best teams at scoring inside, they don’t have anyone who can consistently knock down a jump shot, much less a 3-pointer. Against the Knicks, Detroit made just 23.5% of its shots from outside the paint.
Dumars drafted Kentavious Caldwell-Pope instead of Trey Burke, hoping he would provide some offense from the shooting guard position, but the rookie has struggled to make any impact as a scorer. Chauncey Billups and his 37-year-old knees haven’t been able to provide much help, and Italian import Gigi Datome has been a bust.
Now, though, the team has become undisciplined late in games while Maurice Cheeks can only watch helplessly from the sidelines. He has benched Smith on multiple occasions, but Jennings seems to be the bigger problem. Cheeks, Dumars and Billups, all championship-winning guards, were hoping that Jennings could transition from a scoring point guard into a passer.
That has worked, but only to a point. In the first half of games, Jennings regularly puts up big assist totals without taking a lot of shots. After halftime, though, the numbers change drastically. He takes more shots, turns the ball over more and registers fewer assists. Far too many games have seen him taking the offense into his own hands, either with low-percentage jumpers or drives into the packed paint.
Smith gets the few shots left over, while Drummond becomes a liability because of his free-throw problems and Monroe gets lost completely. The high number of missed shots and turnovers allow the opposition numerous fast-break opportunities, which is how the Pistons have managed to see big leads turn into double-digit deficts in a matter of minutes.
Cheeks held a team meeting after the loss to Memphis, but things only improved slightly against the Knicks. There’s not an easy fix — he was forced to try to get late-game offense from Charlie Villanueva in New York — but he will hope that the return of Rodney Stuckey from a shoulder problem will provide a little more scoring.
Stuckey, though, has never been a model of consistency in his Detroit career. The fact that the team is waiting anxiously for his return shows just how bad things have gotten.