There’s no question that the Detroit Pistons have a roster with problems that seemed obvious before the season.
They are trying to win with a starting lineup that includes three post players, no outside shooters and two highly played players who want to take over at the end of games. The problem is that neither of them is good at it.
Because of that, and Detroit’s 19-29 record that puts them two games out of the eighth playoff spot, even in a terrible Eastern Conference, fans are hoping to see changes at the Feb. 20 trading deadline. Owner Tom Gores seems to prefer that Joe Dumars and Maurice Cheeks work with the roster they have, but thus far, they haven’t had a lot of success with that.
They leaves the option of a trade that would split up the traffic jam in the post, moving Josh Smith, Greg Monroe or Andre Drummond for players or draft picks that could balance Detroit’s roster.
It would be hard to move Smith’s brand-new contract, and it isn’t clear what the Pistons could get in return for Monroe, but Dumars needs to resist the temptation of taking the easiest solution — trading Drummond.
At the age of 20, Drummond is far from a finished product. He doesn’t have much of an offensive game — most of his points come on dunks and put-backs — and he still struggles against top competition. Dwight Howard gave Drummond a lesson in post play earlier this season, beating him up to the point where Drummond thanked him for the lesson after the game.
That said, Drummond is the type of player you build a franchise around, not one you move in order to rebalance your roster. Through 48 games of his first season as a starter, Drummond is averaging 12.9 points, 12.8 rebounds and shooting 61.1 percent from the floor. In NBA history, only two other players have matched those numbers for an entire season — Wilt Chamberlain (three times) and Howard (once). The first two times Chamberlain did it, he won the only championships of his career, and the third time, he lost in the finals. Even Howard took a limited Orlando team to the Eastern Conference finals during his big season.
Drummond, on the other hand, isn’t even likely to make the playoffs. It would be easy to blame him and the flaws in his game, but he is far from the biggest reason the Pistons are struggling to catch Charlotte and Brooklyn. After all, he’s putting up historic numbers before he can legally drink.
The biggest issue is Josh Smith. He was brought in to give the Pistons a dominating front line, teaming up with youngsters Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond to dominate inside on both ends of the floor. It has worked to some extent — Detroit is one of the league leaders at scoring in the paint and Smith and Drummond give them two legitimate shot blockers, but Smith’s offense at small forward is killing them.
Smith is shooting just 41.4 percent from the floor, including 22.9 percent on 3-pointers, one of the worst percentages in league history. Worse than that, Smith is one of the two players — Brandon Jennings being the other — who tries to win games on his own down the stretch, which turns Detroit’s offense into a stagnant mess.
In the first half of games, Smith is a fairly complete player. He’s shooting 44.7 percent, and while he isn’t hitting threes, he averages 23.2 points, 11.1 rebounds, 5.6 assists and 3.3 turnovers per 48 minutes. The turnovers are a little high for a forward, but that is certainly a player that will help you win basketball games.
The problem comes in the second half, when Smith starts pressing to help Detroit close out games. The shooting percentage drops to 37.7 percent, and while he still averages 19.3 points per 48 minutes, the rebounds drop to 7.6, the assists are down to 3.6 and the turnovers jump up to 3.8. He shoots more 3-pointers, despite hitting just 20.2 percent, and he commits more fouls.
Suddenly, you have a player who isn’t helping you nearly as much, especially since Brandon Jennings also changes his game in the second half. Jennings shoots more despite hitting under 40 percent from the floor this season, and too many of his first-half assists turn into second-half turnovers.
Add that up, and you understand how a team that outscores opponents in the first half ends up at 19-29 after 48 minutes.
Trading Jennings, though, won’t help, since he’s the only player that can play point guard on the roster, and while rumors are flying that the Pistons want to trade Smith, no other team is going to want his four-year, $56 million contract.
If Drummond is as untouchable as he clearly should be, that leaves Dumars two options. He can try to trade Monroe, who will be a restricted free agent after this season, and let Smith play his natural power-forward position, or he can stand pat and try to find a way to make the current roster work.
The Monroe option is flawed — teams can wait until the season is over and try to get him to sign an offer that the Pistons can’t match — but Dumars might not have the job security to leave things the way they are now.
It’s going to be an interesting two weeks until the deadline. The short-term and long-term futures of the franchise may both hinge on the decisions Dumars, Cheeks and Gores make between now and the 20th.