3-on-3: Pistons measure up with NBA's best?

Modeled after ESPN’s 5-on-5, three of us will answer three questions about a Pistons-related topic. Please add your responses in the comments.

1. Coming off three ugly losses, the idea of the Pistons pushing Portland and taking out Indiana seemed rather preposterous. So, who deserves the most credit?

Dan Feldman: Josh Smith. Regardless of how many bad shots he takes (basically none against Portland and several against Indiana), Smith getting to into the paint regularly is huge for the Pistons. He’s so efficient on those short looks, and they come with everything settled, so make or miss, they allow the defense a better chance to set. When he gets inside, he also offensively rebounds better.

Patrick Hayes: Smith. His Pistons tenure consisted mostly of performances that were either forgettable or unforgettable for the wrong reasons prior to the Portland and Indiana games. With some of the more vocal fans ridiculously comparing Smith’s signing to much inferior free agent busts Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva, Smith finally showed off the skillset that makes him one of the league’s most versatile players — he defended well, he scored around the basket, he passed … basically, he looked like the type of position-less force who could succeed no matter what his spot in the lineup is called.

Brady Fredericksen: Maurice Cheeks. There are a lot of variables that go into the Pistons being highly-competitive against two of the league’s best teams after being highly-flatulent against some of the most mediocre. From tweaking the offense to make Smith more comfortable to finding a pretty sturdy rotation, Cheeks has slowly but surely gotten this team playing consistently — for better or worse. Obviously the team is still far from a finished product, but compared to how discombobulated they were just a month ago, it’s refreshing. They’re slowly that is slowly but surely discovering what works and what does not on both sides of the ball.

2. Smith has found his groove and has been a big part of the Pistons’ success against Indiana and Portland. How sustainable is his current level play?

Dan Feldman: I know I’m setting myself up for disappointment, but I think it’s pretty sustainable. Smith, when staying on the perimeter too often, had been falling out of favor in the Pistons’ offense. When he goes inside more, he’s the focal point. We know Smith loves his jumpers — his way of proving his doubters wrong by repeatedly proving them right — but I think he’d improve his shot selection in exchange for a bigger role. There’s no guarantee Smith will stick with this, but I think he’s genuinely interested in doing things the right way with his new team. The bigger question is how long Smith can remain committed to playing smart. There’s a difference between wanting to do something and having the focus to do something.

Patrick Hayes: I’m cautiously optimistic. Fans have understandably been hard on Smith — he’s played poorly, he’s the highest profile (and most expensive) free agent signing in Pistons history and the team hasn’t performed as well as expected. Those occurrences will not make things easy on Smith. But it’s also important to remember, he’s played his entire career in a different city, in a much different role and with a surprisingly small amount of core turnover on those Atlanta teams. He’s still getting adjusted to a new team, a new city and he’s playing with a much less veteran group surrounding him. I think Smith’s game will always be frustrating to some extent, but he’s also a much better player than he’s shown overall so far, and I don’t think it’s a leap to think he continues to get better as his comfort level rises.

Brady Fredericksen: Not likely, but that’s not a bad thing. The chances Smith continues to semi-efficiently score 30+ points a night are about as slim as an NBA team ever offering me a 10-day contract. But, there are still plenty of positives that are sustainable from Smith’s current streak of success. His shot selection — though it’s seemingly included him taking a million shots — has been good. He’s getting the ball close to the basket and has been able to post up more than he has all season. A lot of his interior-shooting struggles are based on the fact that he has to use a dribble drive to get to the rim. That’s not his game, but posting up, being able to use the baseline to get open and being able to roll as a screener is. The more creative ways the Pistons get him the ball, the fewer 3-pointers he’ll see him shoot; I think.

3. The Pistons have won 6 of 10. Is their recent play what we should expect the rest of the season, or does this team need to evolve further?

Dan Feldman: Both. The Pistons look more cohesive than they did early in the season, which was to be expected with so many new faces and odd fits. I expect them to have a winning record from here out, but there’s still some confusion, especially defensively. The Pistons should improve in-season more than most teams.

Patrick Hayes: There might only be 12ish teams in the entire league that actually prefer to win games this season. The Pistons are definitely among that group, and with the Eastern Conference even tankier than expected, I think it’s a good bet that the Pistons not only make the playoffs, but have a chance to win a round. The fact that the Pistons are trying really hard to win separates them from a significant portion of the league. Then, on top of that, injury issues for Chicago, age issues for Brooklyn, LOL issues for the Knicks and things not coming together as quickly as hoped for up and coming teams like Cleveland and Washington all but assure the Pistons are a top six team in the East, flaws and all. I’m not sure how much good a playoff run by default does the Pistons in the longrun, but it probably does Joe Dumars a lot of good in the shortrun.

Brady Fredericksen: There’s more to come. The thing about this team is that it’s got a ceiling. They can keep improving and potentially slip into the No. 4 or 5 seed in the East, sure, but there’s always going to be limitations. Some teams are going to be superb matchups, but some are going to be horrific ones. As long as the Pistons can limit the damage done to them by teams who can really shoot while still beating the hell out of smaller teams, they should be in good shape as they continue to develop as a group.

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