This is an interesting thing the Pistons have going here. Against the Lakers, a perimeter-heavy attack made up for a lackluster showing by the overmatched interior players. Against the Hawks, bruising efforts by an aggressive frontcourt allowed the guards to have a relatively easy night. Tonight against the Raptors, it was back to the backcourt setting the tone. The result is three straight wins for the Pistons by playing — dare I say it — like a balanced, versatile roster for the first time in, oh, about four years now.
And oh yeah … this team suddenly defends pretty well. Dan Feldman and I both mentioned during the All-Star Break that, while we noted significant positive differences between Lawrence Frank and the previous two coaches, the biggest disappointment to both of us was at the defensive end. Frank is a defense-first guy and not only were the Pistons bad defensively much of this season, there were a handful of games where they appeared to give only a passing effort at that end of the floor. Suddenly, that has changed some.
The Raptors shot just 40 percent (24 percent from 3-point range) against the Pistons. Now, the Raptors are one of the worst teams in the league, but they’ve also been a difficult matchup for the Pistons in recent seasons. The Raptors hit Detroit with an offensive barrage just before the All-Star Break, so to turn back around and play this well against them is impressive and a testament that this team is slowly but surely learning some things.
The Hawks shot just 43 percent and Detroit held Josh Smith, who was carrying Atlanta’s offense the last few weeks, to 8-for-19 shooting and kept Joe Johnson quiet after he got off to a quick start. We all know what they did defensively to Kobe Bryant by now.
This winning streak is a nice, positive reward for a team that is obviously working hard and growing. It’s important that those work habits are reinforced by getting wins like this once in a while. But also, let’s not get crazy just yet. I’m glad Frank quickly changed the subject today when reporters brought up the ‘p’ word — get your minds out of the gutter — ‘playoffs.’ Yes, this win means the Pistons are only 3.5 games behind New York for that final playoff spot. Yes, the Pistons have closed to within 1.5 games of lapping the two Central teams in front of them in the standings, Milwaukee and Cleveland. But Frank is 100 percent right to quickly brush off any mention of playoff contention. The Pistons took advantage of a team in chaos in the Lakers, a team in chaos that is also dealing with injuries in the Hawks and a team that is lousy in the Raptors. Their next five games are all on the road, all out West, and then they come back home to face Miami.
They haven’t turned any corner yet as far as things like playoff contention are concerned. They’re simply playing better and fun to watch as the season hits its final third. I think any Piston fan would’ve taken that when the season started, so there’s no point in getting greedy now.
As for tonight’s game, I have a lot of thoughts on individual players, so keep checking back for updates (head’s up: I feel wordy tonight. I apologize in advance … do I know how to party on a Saturday night or what?).
I’m going to stop defending myself on my Tayshaun Prince criticisms, which are totally justified, at some point, but for now, I’ll have to keep using this disclaimer: I don’t think Prince is a bad player, I don’t think he’s overpaid on a yearly salary basis, I just think his contract wasn’t a great investment. Also, he was having a really poor season shooting the ball up until a couple weeks ago, when he finally started shooting better. There. Please remember those things before typing your, ‘Yer a hater for thinking Prince is a bad leader and don’t you remember he MADE THE OLYMPIC TEAM?!’ comments below. I’ve rarely criticized Prince the player. I’ve frequently criticized Prince the contract extension. There’s a difference.
Good, now that that’s out of the way, I have been extremely happy to see the return of the old Tayshaun Prince during this three game winning streak. You remember him. I know you do. He was the guy that used to run the floor all the time, fill lanes, spot up for jumpers, find cutters for back-door lobs and keep the ball moving on offense. He made quick, smart decisions on the court and was about the perfect fourth or fifth option for a team with several guys capable of getting their own shot.
Then, as those guys capable of getting their own shot (you remember them too … Chauncey Billups and Rasheed Wallace) left and were replaced by guys who were not so good at this, Prince became asked to get his own shot more and more often. He became the offensive focal point rather than a do-it-all complimentary piece. And don’t get me wrong, Prince can get his own shot. He just has to do it really methodically and his isolations made for a really stagnant offense with little movement the last two seasons. That version of Prince was also showing up pretty frequently in the first half of this season.
But a funny thing has been happening … he’s disappearing. He’s getting the ball less frequently in isos. Young, able scorers like Greg Monroe, Rodney Stuckey and, to a lesser extent, Brandon Knight, are successfully creating shots for themselves. And Prince is becoming that player who does little things, who doesn’t stop the ball and he has been more and more of an asset offensively as a result. Against the Hawks and Raptors, he ran the floor and was rewarded with good passes from Knight and Stuckey, who both love pushing the ball. On the perimeter, Prince has looked for Knight on backdoor lobs three times in the last two games (and they’ve converted on two of those plays, nearly missing on one vs. the Hawks). He’s spotting up for his jumper and being found in rhythm for jumpers that he is now converting.
Prince is always going to be an option capable of getting some sort of shot out of an iso, simply because he’s so much longer than just about anyone guarding him. He can get a passable shot attempt off in just about any tight circumstance. But it’s good to see the Pistons are looking at Prince in iso as simply an option rather than the first option that he’s been the last couple seasons.
My reservations about whether or not he’ll be a productive player for the life of his contract still exist, but as long as he plays the way he’s played the last few games, as an option rather than the option, I have zero issue with him getting big minutes.
Brandon Knight breaks the wall
Last night, I suggested that perhaps Knight, who has played a lot of minutes this year for as young and inexperienced as he is, could perhaps benefit from some rest. Tonight, he made me look silly for that. My apologies, Brandon.
Knight quite simply set the tone for this blowout by being the fastest, most energetic player on the court. He hit a couple of threes early, breaking out of his recent shooting slump, and out-scored the Raptors himself in the first quarter 15-14. He was an absolute blur, diving all over the floor, pushing the ball on every Toronto missed shot, always keeping his head on a swivel looking for cutters or shooter spotting up on the break.
Knight is really fun to watch because he plays the game so fast. He’s also frustrating to watch because he hasn’t mastered the ‘controlled’ part of ‘controlled frenzy’ just yet. Sometimes, his passes are wild, he drives into traffic with no purpose and he’s too fast for his own good. Tonight was not one of those games.
But I like Knight for a different, intangible reason too. He always seems to have games like this when you’re about at your whit’s end with him. He’s had slumps this season. He’s also polarizing among fans — I would argue the most polarizing player on the roster. There just isn’t much middle ground on the opinions of him. You get people saying he’s just a hop, skip and a jump from being the next Isiah Thomas and you have other people suggesting the Pistons should trade him before he’s inevitably exposed.
I like advanced stats (the few that I’m smart enough to kind of comprehend, anyway) and I think it’s important for writers to study them and incorporate them into their evaluations. From that perspective, it’s fair to say that Knight has some serious issues he needs to fix that have been present in his stats dating back to college. But I also like the eye test. Not that I trust what I see or think that I’m some sort of expert capable of picking out skills on a basketball court that no one else can, but I’ve spent a lot of time covering, writing about, talking to people about basketball at all levels. I like to think my eye test is trustworthy, and Knight passed my eye test. Usually, and I suspect this is the case for most people, the advanced stats test usually backs up what the eyes see.
Knight is the exception. I fully understand the red flags that are present in his statistics. They’re valid and should be written about and evaluated. But I still just like him and like watching him play. I like that he can have a few really horrid games where it looks like the Pistons should really consider giving him some rest or doing something with him and then he comes back and looks like the best player on the court (or one of the two best players on the court … more on who the second one was in a second).
That’s a long-winded way of saying that I like Knight. I like his toughness, I like how hard he plays and I like his attitude. I say those things not to piss off the people who don’t like watching him play and who are really concerned about the legitimate weaknesses in his game or start any kind of debate about it. I don’t know what Knight will become and for now, I’m not that concerned about it. I’m just watching a young, potential-filled guy trying to figure things out, and for me, the ups and downs of that experience are pretty enjoyable.
Rodney Stuckey gets it
At least I think. I hope. OK … maybe he doesn’t. I don’t know. Really, I’m as confused as ever about Stuckey. I can’t count the number of times during his career I’ve written something predicting that he’d turned a corner, figured it out, whatever cliché I happened to use at the time, only to watch him slip back to mediocrity.
Here’s the thing … I want him to be really good. I think he can be really good. He has a mix of size, strength, athleticism and versatility that very few are blessed with, and so far in his career, he’s been content to unveil it only occasionally. Over the last month, save for a bad game before the All-Star break, he has been really good. Good to the point where his contract extension will be a bargain if he keeps playing this well.
Against Toronto, Knight was the flashier player because of his hot start. He made long shots, he made jaw-dropping plays with his quickness in the open court and it was impossible to not notice him. But Stuckey was the best player on the court and it wasn’t even close. He scored 20 points on 12 shots (8-for-12 shooting). He bullied his way to the line. He willingly made plays for others.
A lot has been made about Stuckey getting to play his “natural” shooting guard position. Don’t buy that though. Stuckey isn’t a shooting guard. He’s a playmaker. I don’t know if the term “point guard” got in Stuckey’s head or what because of the traditional definition of that position. But when he was technically their “point guard,” he always played like he was keenly aware of that. He played like a robot, basically. “OK, point guards pass, so now I have to dribble up and pass no matter what on this possession because I shot it last possession.” There was nothing natural about the way he played, so although his numbers were typically OK/average for a PG — he got some assists and didn’t turn it over a lot — the offense always struggled.
This version of Stuckey — the one that everyone calls a “shooting guard” for some reason — still dribbles the ball up court a lot. He still initiates the offense a lot. Against the Raptors, he had more assists than the guy who is technically the “point guard” (Stuckey had eight, Knight had seven).
The Pistons haven’t switched Stuckey to shooting guard. They’ve just re-branded him.
The way Knight and Stuckey played tonight, that’s the vision Joe Dumars had when he said all that stuff a few years back about believing traditional positions were becoming obsolete. The thing is, he wasn’t wrong. He just got the personnel wrong. Ben Gordon and Stuckey can’t form that aggressive, positionless backcourt where both guys share the responsibilities of each position, where both guys get their own shot sometimes and make plays for others sometimes. Stuckey and Knight though? They might be onto something.
A few other things …
I’ve already written way too much, so here are a few other things that caught my eye in this game:
• I know that every time someone criticizes Jonas Jerebko on the internet that five adorable kittens/Wages of Wins proponents die, but I haven’t been a big fan of his shot selection lately. I know that he can hit the three, and I know that guys who can hit it really shouldn’t turn their nose up at open looks, but he attempted four against the Raptors and I just think he’s shooting from the perimeter too much. Jerebko’s best skill is offensive rebounding. If he’s shooting from the perimeter, this makes him a less viable offensive rebounder. I’d rather see him cutting to the basket more and running around like a crazy man like he was during his rookie year than shooting jumpers.
• Charlie Villanueva is still scoreless this season, though he did play his first minutes since Jan. 4, getting in in garbage time. He’s reportedly lost 20 pounds (according to the FSD crew). He didn’t get a chance to do much against the Raptors, but perhaps he can be of service on the West Coast trip.
• I have to mention something for two reasons: 1. I’m a fan of defense and 2. I like to troll commenter Frankie D. I really like what Damien Wilkins has been doing over the last three games. I just want to reiterate that he’s not doing anything that Austin Daye couldn’t do. He’s playing really hard, he’s diving after loose balls, he’s getting in passing lanes, he’s running the floor and he’s taking the few open shots that come his way. The blueprint for Daye to earn minutes is a pretty simple one. Watch what Wilkins does and do it better. If you do that, and combine it with your nice 3-point stroke, you will play. It’s that simple.