Like Weezy said, I’m goin’ in.
And although I respect people who aren’t, Friday’s preseason finale against the Memphis Grizzlies, even in a loss that they should’ve won, proved one thing beyond a doubt to me: the Detroit Pistons are worth watching this season, are worth investing time in if you love basketball.
They are far from a perfect team, and my hope that they are reasonably successful and fun to watch won’t prevent me from writing about what I see as problems as the season goes along. As fans, we only saw two preseason games, the first and the last. Both were against good teams, albeit Miami in the season opener is several notches above Memphis. Anyone who watched those two games and didn’t come away thinking that the team didn’t make significant progress from the start of camp to now isn’t really giving an honest assessment. The Pistons have talent, the on-court chemistry is much better than last season and, mismatched or not, they have lineups that are interesting to watch.
The Memphis game was well-played on both sides, played at the intensity level any coach would be happy with in the game before the regular season starts, and the Pistons had many bright spots while also getting exposed on some things that need to be shored up. Below I’ll break down, based on the Memphis game, some things both pluses and minuses that I’ll be watching for this season.
Daye is worth going out to watch
+ Watch the team because of Austin Daye. Daye scored 22 points against Memphis, led the Pistons in scoring this preseason and has an array of skills that allow him to score from essentially any spot on the floor. Last season, I (like many fans probably) admittedly questioned the Daye pick. My thinking, at the time, was that the Pistons could’ve come out of the draft with Ty Lawson, Dejuan Blair and Jonas Jerebko rather than Daye, DaJuan Summers and Jerebko. And although I’ll forever rue not taking Blair and his lottery pick-worthy talent when he was still on the board in the second round, I fully believe that by season’s end no one who watches the Pistons will complain about the Pistons taking Daye over Lawson. He’s teeming with potential offensively. I’m no longer skeptical of that aspect of his game. Daye will score in this league for a long time.
Daye will have defensive struggles no matter what position
– We have to be realistic about the fact that Daye will struggle defensively, and I don’t mean because he’ll be playing some power forward. Daye started off the game covering Zach Randolph. For real.
Just the thought of it is enough to make people laugh. Daye was noticeably overmatched strength-wise against Z-Bo. But his length allowed him to battle — Randolph shot only 2-for-6, Daye had a hand up every time Randolph shot, Daye was able to knock away a couple passes by fronting the post and he got a hand on a Randolph pass as he tried to kick the ball out and re-post for better position. The fronting strategy didn’t always work, as Daye was in terrible position to give up offensive rebounds if Ben Wallace was pulled away from the paint, but overall, he’s smart enough and competitive enough to use his long arms down low to at least be bothersome, even if he is going to give up some points.
Where he’ll struggle is on the perimeter defense against strong wings who can put it on the floor. Against post players, Daye can use all of his weight, plant himself and hold on for dear life. Against wings who are athletic enough to get a running/dribbling start, Daye will get off balance as he has to move his feet, and as we saw on Sam Young’s driving layup to put Memphis up two in the final minute, once Daye is moving and off balance some, the offensive player can use contact to simply bump Daye out of the play. Young drove into Daye, created contact, Daye bounced off and Young had a wide open shot in the paint.
I certainly don’t want to see Daye get beat up by playing the four, but don’t assume that the four is the only place where he’s going to face physicality. He lacks strength, something he’s working on, but that can be exposed by perimeter guys just as easily as we assume it will be exposed by fours.
Making up for poor defense with activity
+ Teams that aren’t great defensively can still make plays. The Pistons have too many guys who are porous defenders to ever be considered good defensively as a team. Wallace won’t be on the floor enough and is not the feared rim-protector he once was, so the solution isn’t going to be simply funneling everyone inside to him when they beat their guy on the perimeter.
Against Memphis, the Pistons made plays defensively that helped their offense. Both centers, Greg Monroe and Wallace, had active hands (busy hands?) all night. Monroe isn’t an elite shot-blocker by any stretch and although Wallace can still block the occasional shot, he’s not exactly Dwight Howard hanging out inside. Bigs who don’t block many shots can make up for it by having quick hands down low. Wallace and Monroe both exhibited this, each coming away with two steals. Monroe has actually averaged nearly two steals per game for the preseason.
And the team is not devoid of shot-blocking either. Both Tayshaun Prince and Daye not only had blocked shots, but blocked shots that led directly to run-outs and buckets. The Pistons might give up some high percentage shooting nights to opponents, but if they can come up with ways to use their quickness to force turnovers or their length on the perimeter to block shots and get quick scores, they’ll remain close enough to have a chance to win in many games.
Too many transition hoops
– With the positives of the defense came ample negatives. The second unit did a pretty terrible job against the Memphis second unit. In the second quarter, after the Pistons starters held Memphis to just 40 percent shooting in the first quarter, the Memphis bench came in against the Pistons bench and immediately went on a run. For the game, Tony Allen, Sam Young and Darrell Arthur shot 19-for-27 and scored 42 points.
The major problem was transition. Memphis got a lot of uncontested run-outs on defensive rebounds and executed several medium breaks after missed and made shots that really helped those active bench guys get easy shots. One factor was the fact that Rodney Stuckey was the only healthy point guard on the roster. With Stuckey resting in the second quarter, Prince ran the point (kind of) by bringing the ball up. But after he got the offense started, he did what a natural wing does — clears out and moves either to a corner or closer to the basket. On many plays, there didn’t seem to be anyone taking on the usual point guard role of being the last line of defense to prevent leak-outs. Everyone seemed to be caught underneath the free throw line or trying to crash the offensive glass.
Charlie V looks more disciplined
+ Charlie Villanueva‘s shot selection is going to be much better. Twice in the first half, Villanueva had OK looks at three-pointers. Both times, he passed them up and ended up with better shots for himself. It seems like a relatively minor point — NBA players pass up shots to try and get better ones all the time. But not Villanueva.
Throughout his career, the biggest reason he’s been a streaky player is because he always plays in a hurry. He gets a semi-decent look, and he’s shooting it. On nights when his shot is falling, that’s great. He can score points in bunches when he’s feeling it. But there were many more nights when he wasn’t in a rhythm, and the more he missed, the more he’d seem to hurry shots. Against Memphis, he was under control, he shot it well and he didn’t take any shots that I considered poor shots all night.
Villanueva has to get active on the boards
– Villanueva’s rebounding was a problem. The main problem was he didn’t do any. He finished with one in 27 minutes. I think in the role it appears he’ll be playing — scoring big man off the bench — it’s not vital that he be the best rebounder on the team. It’s unrealistic to expect he’ll morph into that. But you can’t be nearly seven feet tall and get one board in a game.
Better shooters on the court will make Stuckey a better PG
+ Rodney Stuckey is going to play really well if he’s on the floor with good shooters. No one can say that Stuckey didn’t play an efficient game. He had seven assists to two turnovers, the offense ran smoothly with him in the game, he shot well (would’ve been at 50 percent if not for a three-point attempt with the shot clock running down and a halfcourt heave at the end of the game). He even played pretty good defense against Mike Conley, who had a poor shooting first half before hitting a couple shots late to get up to 4 -for-9.
The difference with Stuckey is simply being on the court with people who can shoot. Having Daye’s three-point stroke in the starting lineup will help Stuckey more than anyone. Daye drew Randolph out of the paint, taking one big man away from the rim and giving Stuckey less traffic to finish in.
When Stuckey played with Daye, Villanueva and Ben Gordon on the court at once in the second quarter, the driving lanes really opened up. Stuckey (sometimes fairly, sometimes not) has been labeled as a poor passer because of his low assist total and the fact that he gets hung up in the lane and can’t get the ball back out when he should pass. Playing with shooters will change that. Spacing is so key in the NBA, and the Pistons had terrible spacing all season a year ago. This isn’t an argument for or against Stuckey as the long-term answer at point guard, but if Daye plays as much as he should and if Gordon and Villanueva shoot it better, Stuckey will have more opportunities to finish and passing lanes to kick it out will be bigger. On top of that, passing to better shooters will make his assist total go up if they are converting a higher percentage of their jumpers.
Decision on final shot was a poor one
– Stuckey’s decision when the Pistons had the ball, down two, with :22 seconds left was pretty terrible. It was hard to tell if it was a designed play or a play that Stuckey took upon himself to try and make, but as soon as the ball was in-bounded, Stuckey immediately drove it inside and had his shot blocked by Allen. Greg Kelser seemed to think it was Stuckey calling his own number. I hope that’s what it was, because I can’t say it would be a good coaching decision to not run a play that will give your team the final shot in that instance. After all, it’s the preseason. No reason to try and extend the game out. Hopefully the real play called for the Pistons to try and win or lose on a final shot.
I admire Stuckey wanting the ball in that instance and trying to make a play. But it wasn’t a good decision, even if the shot went in.
Pistons have intangibles to be a pesky team
+ We’ll close on a positive. Memphis came into the game trying to get to 8-0 in the preseason, so they played with more intensity than perhaps many teams would in that instance. Detroit was short-handed as Will Bynum and Jason Maxiell joined Tracy McGrady on the sidelines nursing minor injuries. Gordon played 11 minutes, but banged his shoulder against Marc Gasol in the first half. He came back into the game, but didn’t play much as a precaution.
So basically, the Pistons played a good NBA team extremely tough with only eight guys at their disposal. Teams that have lacked elite talent or had roster deficiencies have made up for those things with smart play, toughness, being opportunistic and playing with great chemistry in the past. The Pistons have those qualities. There are still tough decisions that need to be made with the rotation when everyone is back healthy, but there is also plenty of reason to think that the Pistons can be highly competitive on a nightly basis and be worth watching this season, whether that results in a decent win total or not.