Early in Saturday’s Pistons 85-80 win over the Charlotte Bobcats, Kemba Walker made a series of extraordinary moves to get through traffic. They were beautiful to watch. The problem is they didn’t really put him in a better position to get off a good shot, so he took a bad one. It reminded me of former Piston Allen Iverson’s penchant for making breathtakingly beautiful moves that didn’t necessarily lead to great scoring opportunities for him, so I was trying to be funny and tweeted this:
Kemba walker gets the Allen iverson award for working harder than anyone to get a bad shot off. I respect his effort.
— Patrick Hayes (@patrick_hayes) October 21, 2012
I was joking there, but it turns out, this entire game could’ve been dubbed the Allen Iverson Memorial Game. Walker and Rodney Stuckey were perhaps the biggest culprits, diving relentlessly and, occasionally, dynamically, into bad shots in an effort to … I guess draw contact. Walker shot 4-for-15. Stuckey was 5-for-17. Former Piston Ben Gordon got into the act, shooting 4-for-14. Kim English, Ramon Sessions and Gerald Henderson weren’t doing it nearly every time they touched the ball like the aforementioned players, but they each had a shot or two diving to the basket that could generally be described as ‘wild.’
As a result of players going to the basket at all costs, the byproduct ended up being an array of guys begging for bailout foul calls, bad passes after getting stuck in the air, misses, easy blocked shots and turnovers.
But there was a silver lining in all of this. After watching a hideously ugly game that featured the teams shooting a combined 37 percent and combing for 38 turnovers, the Pistons occasionally turnover prone point guard Brandon Knight was not a part of the problem. In fact, Knight may have been the only guard who stepped on the court in this game who didn’t look out of control. He finished with 15 points on 4-for-7 shooting with two assists and just one turnover in 32 minutes. And don’t look at the low assist turnover as a negative, either. Knight was finding teammates all over the court with pinpoint passes. They were just missing. His assist total should’ve rightfully been in the 8-10 range if teammates were simply making open shots. He also set up Kyle Singler and Greg Monroe for what would’ve been sure layups, but Charlotte fouled both to prevent the shot. Knight’s passing has been better this entire preseason. This was the first game he also took good care of the basketball, and it was even more impressive how disciplined he played considering the general lack of discipline for every other guard who entered this game.
Charlie Villanueva’s struggles continue
The Pistons led this game by 19 points at one time and were in control most of the way. Charlotte made a run and briefly took the lead in the fourth quarter. That run by Charlotte happened to coincide with Charlie Villanueva being on the floor. I’m not pinning everything that went wrong in that stretch on Villanueva — the Pistons as a whole were flat tonight with only one or two individual exceptions. This screen shot from the game’s play-by-play about sums up what it was like watching Villanueva tonight, though:
Villanueva, first and foremost, continued to miss good, open looks. He was 0-for-5 in nine minutes. But beyond that, he was a step slow on everything else. His pass that Walker intercepted was a sloppy one. He didn’t move well on defense. I’m sure Villanueva cares and wants to perform well, but it’s become painfully clear in the preseason that the Pistons cannot pencil him or Austin Daye, who didn’t play tonight, into a rotation spot once the season starts.
A few truths are emerging
It’s always hard to write about preseason games simply because its so hard to draw conclusions, particularly with a team experimenting with lineups as much as the Pistons have. But, after six games I feel pretty confident about concluding the following three (two negative, one postive) things:
• The Pistons are going to be a bad shooting team. Keith Langlois tweeted this during the game:
Kim English off the bench in 1Q. With LFrank debating 3- or 4-guard rotation, this is a big chance for him tonight
— Keith Langlois (@Keith_Langlois) October 21, 2012
We know from last season that Frank likes a three-guard rotation as he expressed that several times. Knight and Stuckey are obviously in, and I assume Will Bynum has to be the third since he can play point guard and the other candidates for minutes in the backcourt — English, Khris Middleton and Corey Maggette — can’t. That’s a long-winded way of pointing out that the team’s two best 3-point threats other than Knight this preseason are possibly going to start the season out of the rotation. Add do that fact the struggles of Daye and Villanueva, whose only role on this team was supposed to be perimeter shooting, and the Pistons are in trouble from outside. They were 5-for-20 from three against Charlotte as a team and are shooting just 26 percent (29-for-112) this preseason. If the Pistons can’t find someone who is a 3-point threat capable of taking a rotation spot, their offense is going to struggle.
• The Pistons are really bad at transition defense. The same things that were happening to the Pistons on runouts in the blowout loss to the Heat on Thursday were happening tonight. It wasn’t as big an issue tonight because … well … there is a pretty huge difference between LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in transition and Kemba Walker and Ben Gordon. But still, it was just as easy to see what was happening even if the Bobcats weren’t converting like the Heat were.
The issue is Stuckey is clearly at his best getting in the paint. This preseason, Knight has also shown much more aggressiveness going to the basket. Your guards are usually your safety nets for preventing guys from running out and getting transition opportunities. If both of them are getting caught way underneath the basket at times, teams are going to have an easier time turning long rebounds or turnovers into layups at the other end. This is another reason having a shooter or two matters. If you can put a guy on the floor who has no interest in leaving the 3-point line on offense, you automatically have someone designated to get back on defense.
• Now, for the positive. The Pistons are going to have a really fast, athletic team this season. That, of course, starts with Andre Drummond‘s freakish athleticism. But it’s not just him. Jonas Jerebko is running the floor more aggressively and better than he ever has. Stuckey, Knight and Bynum are all pushing the ball. Greg Monroe is turning rebounds and steals into fast breaks because of his ability to lead the break (although he occasionally gets a bit out of control doing this). Drummond and Jason Maxiell are both explosive finishers and even English and Kyle Singler are more inclined to run than I thought when the Pistons drafted them. I don’t know that that speed and athleticism will translate into better basketball necessarily — it can lead to turnovers, foul calls and other negatives too. But I’m much more excited to watch, even if the team’s record doesn’t improve much as a result. Watching a bad, young exciting team beats watching the bad, slow, mostly old teams of the past few seasons.
Andre Drummond has won one competition handily
The competition that most fans are interested in, of course, is whether Drummond can supplant Maxiell in the starting lineup by the time the season opens. Drummond had another strong performance tonight — eight points and seven rebounds in 15 minutes. Once again, we’ve seen better performances from him this preseason (he had three turnovers tonight), but he did nothing to suggest that he’s not at the very least a key rotation player on this team once the season opens.
He’s developed so quickly and the conversation about whether he should start has sprung up as a result so quickly, that we forget about the kid gloves he was treated with by the organization upon his arrival here. If you remember, they talked as if Drummond was not in a competition for a starting spot, but rather in a competition with Kravstov to simply be a rotation big man. After seeing Kravstov for some extended minutes tonight, if it wasn’t clear already, that competition is over.
Kravstov, as I’ve written a few times before, doesn’t look good on offense if he can’t just catch the ball and go up for a dunk or layup. He brings the ball too low on post-ups (and got it stolen as a result tonight) and he doesn’t have range. He’s still pretty mobile and he’s still strong enough to hold position defensively, but tonight he looked like a six hard fouls at the end of the bench guy. That’s totally fine too — it’s kind of what they signed him for I think. But it’s pretty clear he’s not going to be in the rotation once the season starts.
I assume Drummond very much wants to win a starting job, whether he’d say that or not. But regardless, he and all Pistons fans should feel really good about the progress he’s already made. Guys who block shots, dunk and rebound don’t stay on the bench long. If he can handle big minutes jumping from college to the NBA, he’s going to play big minutes this season.