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The Pistons Are Far From Perfect, But They Could Make Noise In The Playoffs

There’s a natural tendency in the NBA to lavish attention on teams that, with every bad loss, send social media into a tizzy because of what it might mean for the league’s landscape. For instance, if the LeBron-led Lakers don’t reach the postseason — a 80 percent probability at this point — it would seem a foregone conclusion that major changes would take place in L.A. this summer.

On the other extreme, then, are the Pistons. Detroit, which has been to the NBA playoffs once in the past nine seasons, desperately craves a postseason berth. But if the Pistons don’t make it, there won’t be headlines in national news outlets criticizing them for it. And even if there were, it would be tough to make big changes within an organization that has a first-year head coach and a top-heavy roster. This is their team for now.

The Pistons are clearly an imperfect club. But they can bolster their fortunes by simply continuing to play the way they have in recent weeks, winning eight of their past 11 games. Through Feb. 1, the sputtering Pistons’ offense ranked 29th out of the league’s 30 teams in both effective field goal rate and true shooting percentage. Since Feb. 2, though, the club has jumped into the top five leaguewide in both categories.

Unlike earlier stretches in the season, when All-Star forward Blake Griffin was carrying the offense, the Pistons have enjoyed a far more balanced approach over the past month. The team’s share of one-on-one plays — which was the NBA’s second-highest through Feb. 11 — ranked just 12th over the past month of action, according to stat-tracking database Second Spectrum.

After coming into the season showing off a jumper that wasn’t quite game-ready, two-time All-Star Andre Drummond has looked better than ever simply by getting back to the basics near the rim. He’s averaging more than 22 points and 17 boards2 over his past seven games and has found considerable success with a nifty little push shot from about 8 feet out. Beyond that, maddeningly inconsistent guard Reggie Jackson has been consistently good for a month now and is shooting a career-best 36 percent from deep.

All of this is noteworthy for an offense that sometimes shoots as if the object of the sport is to bruise the backboard with repeated misfires. On Wednesday in San Antonio, for instance, Detroit bricked 14 of its first 15 shots to begin the second quarter. Coach Dwane Casey has acknowledged that the iso-heavy games prior to February were largely a necessity: Griffin trying to break down an entire defense — or simply trying to post up — was often Detroit’s best hope.3

The team has to use an array of handoffs and screens, both on and off the ball, to convince defenders to move and to free up jump-shooters.4 No team scores fewer fast-break points per night than Detroit, and the Pistons are less efficient after forcing a turnover on D than any other NBA club.

If there’s been a surprise during the team’s stretch of solid play, it’s that Detroit has shot so well in the aftermath of trading its best shooter, Reggie Bullock — a deal that initially looked suspect and suggested to many that the Pistons were trying to dodge paying the luxury tax. (Signing perimeter threat Wayne Ellington obviously made up for much of that.)

But there’s a strong argument to be made that speedy backup guard Ish Smith has been the catalyst in the turnaround. The Pistons were terrible in the time he missed earlier in the season with an injury but looked competent again once he rejoined the lineup. (With Smith out, the only other point guard Detroit had outside of Jackson was 37-year-old Jose Calderon.)

Heading into Wednesday night’s games, only four players5 had helped boost their teams’ winning percentages more than Smith,6 according to the Elias Sports Bureau. The Pistons have logged a 21-13 record with Smith (61.8 percent) and an 8-18 mark (30.8 percent) without him.

Buying stock in the Pistons feels risky because of their shallow depth and their cold spells that feel like arctic blasts straight from Canada. This 11-game stretch hasn’t been tough, featuring just two wins over teams that would make the playoffs if the season ended today.

Still, Detroit owns an 87 percent playoff probability and a favorable remaining schedule — far easier than that of Brooklyn, Charlotte or Miami.7 The Pistons’ defense has been solid all year (Drummond is among the league leaders in steals), and the club limits opponents to a league-low 33.7 percent from the 3-point line.

There’s a bizarre universe in which the Pistons could reach the playoffs at below .500 and still be favored in the first round. If the Pistons land at the No. 6 seed, and the Pacers minus star Victor Oladipo hold on to the No. 3, not only would Detroit have the top player in the series, but it would also have a real chance to advance to the second round.

Beggars can’t be choosers, and those might be high hopes for now. But for a capped-out franchise that hasn’t reached the second round since 2008, the mere dream itself almost feels like a noteworthy accomplishment.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Behind Houston.

  2. He’s leading the NBA again in rebounding.

  3. With Griffin and others often standing around waiting for things to happen on offense, the Pistons rank third in the NBA in three-second violations.

  4. The team’s lineups lack two-way balance. So despite Bruce Brown’s valuable defensive contributions, his inability to shoot allows defenders to ignore him along the perimeter, making it tougher to find someone like Luke Kennard or Wayne Ellington.

  5. Charlotte’s Tony Parker, Golden State’s Alfonzo McKinnie, Utah’s Georges Niang and Boston’s Semi Ojeleye.

  6. Only counting players who’d appeared in at least 30 games while also missing at least 10.

  7. But slightly tougher than Orlando’s.

Chris Herring is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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