Detroit Pistons: Midseason review and grades

Jan 20, 2016; Houston, TX, USA; Detroit Pistons guard Reggie Jackson (1) shoots against Houston Rockets forward Clint Capela (15) in the second half at Toyota Center. Pistons won 123 to 114. Mandatory Credit: Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 20, 2016; Houston, TX, USA; Detroit Pistons guard Reggie Jackson (1) shoots against Houston Rockets forward Clint Capela (15) in the second half at Toyota Center. Pistons won 123 to 114. Mandatory Credit: Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports /

The Detroit Pistons have proven to be better than expected this season, and it’s time to take a look at which Pistons have stood out.

The Detroit Pistons were widely predicted to finish with a win total in the high-30’s, somewhere in the 36-39 win range. Writers and observers across the basketball world, including most of us here at Piston Powered, saw this as a reasonable ceiling for the Pistons to have, assuming all went well and no injuries or similar chaos occurred.

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After 42 games, however, the Pistons have proven themselves to be full of surprises. They are on pace for 45 wins, and it wouldn’t be a huge surprise to anybody but the most pessimistic observers if the Pistons broke 50 wins. Even more impressive and important, the Pistons are sixth in the surprisingly tough Eastern Conference, and if the season ended today they would face the third place Atlanta Hawks. The Pistons have already defeated the Hawks on the road this season, and are only 2.5 games behind Atlanta at this point.

Not only have the Pistons beaten the Hawks, but they have also beaten the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Chicago Bulls, the Miami Heat, the Boston Celtics, the Golden State Warriors, and put big scares into both the Los Angeles Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies in spite of being swept in the season series’ against those last two teams. These Pistons can jump up and bite anybody on any given night.

This past offseason, the Pistons were roundly criticized for a spending spree in the form of a five-year $80 million extension for Reggie Jackson. The contract extension was frowned upon by none other than All-Star point guard John Wall, among fans and pundits alike but Jackson has turned that extension into a virtual bargain in comparison to the kind of money he could command if he had waited to sign until this coming offseason.

Andre Drummond got off to a tremendous start to the season, particularly in the first ten games, and has coasted to some degree on his early season numbers while having historic issues from the free throw line, but he’s been the single biggest difference maker for the Pistons through 42 games.

The Pistons have been able to count on the performances of their primary stars, but they’ve gotten some help beyond the expected fine performances from their top end guys. We’re going to grade the team, player by player. Use the comments section to grade the key players as you see fit as well.

B. Reggie Jackson has fulfilled every expectation placed upon him this season and more. Nobody was quite sure what to expect out of him in his first full season as a starting point guard at the NBA level, but he has delivered. His performance late last season after Greg Monroe went down with an injury has proven to be no mirage, and he’s upped the ante a touch. As I mentioned earlier, there are no naysayers left about Jackson’s contract, and even John Wall might need to pull back on his criticism, as Jackson has a better PER than Wall does, with 21.4 versus Wall’s 20.4.. PG. Pistons. REGGIE JACKSON

SG. Pistons. KENTAVIOUS CALDWELL-POPE. B-. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has taken a step forward this season on defense. He’s been the number one stopper on the perimeter, drawing the assignment on opposing elite wing scorers virtually every night, and doing a fine job of it. He’s already given Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors and James Harden of the Houston Rockets some of the toughest defense they’ve seen all season. That said, his shooting could be described best as streaky. He won’t win you many games with his shooting, with splits of .417/.322/.815, but he’s averaging a career high of 14.6 points per game and playing 37.4 high value minutes every night. KCP has proven to be essential to the Pistons.

On a team full of surprises, the biggest surprise might just be Marcus Morris. The Pistons acquired Morris in a salary dump from the Phoenix Suns who were endeavouring to sign marquis free agent LaMarcus Aldridge (because nothing goes right in Phoenix, Aldridge opted to sign with the San Antonio Spurs instead), and he’s made an impression. Most fans and observers expected rookie Stanley Johnson to grab the starting small forward position from Morris by the All-Star break, but barring injury there is no way that’s happening. Morris has posted career highs in every counting stat, averaging 14.1 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.1 assists, and his defense has been very dependable. I would never have thought this before the season, but the Pistons are better with Marcus Morris than without him.. SF. Pistons. MARCUS MORRIS. B-

Pistons. ERSAN ILYASOVA. C+. Ersan Ilyasova has been about what you would expect this season. He’s primarily valued as a stretch-four power forward, allowing Andre Drummond to operate in the paint with impunity thanks to his ability to stretch the floor, and he’s hitting a reasonable 38.1 percent from three-point range. He’s shooting a near career-low from the field overall, shooting just 42.8 percent, but a great deal of that is due to shooting 4.2 of his 9.8 field goals per game from long range, which is the highest ratio of three-pointers to field goals of his career. He’s scoring 11.3 points per game and adding 5.5 rebounds, and he has a knack for drawing big charges on defense. The downside? He can’t hit a clutch free throw to safe his life. That needs to get better.. PF

ANDRE DRUMMOND. B-. Andre Drummond is a 50 percent free throw shooting percentage away from an A- grading, but you can’t be the worst free throw shooter in the history of the NBA and get away with it. I could probably pick a random grandmother out of a crowd to have a free throw shootout with Drummond, and I’m not sure who would be the favorite. That said, Drummond is a force of nature in the paint. His early season numbers will be the stuff of Piston legend for decades to come, and he is the most important and valuable player on this team by a landslide. In spite of the free throw shooting woes (which are almost certainly here to stay, let’s not kid ourselves), the Pistons organization should thank their lucky stars on a daily basis to have this young big man.. C. Pistons

C. The Pistons had high hopes for Stanley Johnson coming into the season, and while he’s shown flashes of the star he may one day become, he’s not there yet. To be fair, he’s 19 years old, and most rookies aren’t very good, let alone rookies of that age. He’s going to be fine, but he won’t be usurping Marcus Morris’s starting small forward spot anytime soon.. SF. Pistons. STANLEY JOHNSON

Pistons. BRANDON JENNINGS. C+. Less than a year after rupturing his Achilles, Brandon Jennings made his triumphant return to the Pistons lineup on December 29th. He’s still working the rust off, but he’s shown flashes of being the Brandon Jennings that we saw every night after Josh Smith was stretched last season. A good example is the January 4th torching of the Orlando Magic, a game which the Pistons won 115-96 thanks in large part to a second half clinic that Jennings put on, scoring 17 points on nine shots in 18 minutes. Jennings will get better as the season progresses, and that’s an exciting prospect for the organization.. PG

B-. Reggie Jackson wasn’t the only Pistons to get criticized for his contract. Aron Baynes signed a three-year deal with the Pistons this past offseason, worth $20 million, and that contract was widely panned as one of the worst of the offseason. Like Jackson, Baynes has outperformed the expectations that led to the outrage over that deal. Baynes has been vital to the Pistons, particularly in late game situations where Andre Drummond is an unplayable liability due to teams hacking him to put him on the free throw line. Baynes is averaging 5.2 points and 4.3 rebounds in 13.8 minutes per game. That leads us to a per-36 minute average of 13.6 points and 11.2 rebounds, which is more than acceptable.. C. Pistons. ARON BAYNES

C. Anthony Tolliver has wowed nobody, but he’s basically been ok. If his three-point shot isn’t falling, most nights he’s a neutral player at best. Strangely enough, however, according to Tolliver has the best net rating of anybody on the roster who is receiving regular minutes, as the Pistons are outscoring their opponents by 12 points per 100 possessions when Tolliver is on the floor. He’s able to play some defense, particularly in spot assignments, but his shooting has been inconsistent this season.. PF. Pistons. ANTHONY TOLLIVER

D+. Steve Blake has quarterbacked one of the worst bench units in the NBA for much of the season. He hasn’t been a disaster, and he played better in December than he did in November, but he hasn’t played much at all since Brandon Jennings returned in late December. Since Jennings return, Blake has appeared in just two games and played ten minutes of garbage time. He’s likely out of the rotation barring injury.. PG. Pistons. STEVE BLAKE

Jodie Meeks fractured his foot after just six minutes of play in the Pistons second game of the season, a home victory over the Utah Jazz. He’s expected to be out until at least the end of February.. SG. Pistons. JODIE MEEKS. Inc

Inc. Joel Anthony doesn’t really play. He’s averaged 4.2 minutes per game in his 12 appearances, and is essentially a victory cigar at this point in his career. That said, he does have a team best net rating of +38 in an infinitesimally small sample size.. C. Pistons. JOEL ANTHONY

PG. Pistons. SPENCER DINWIDDIE. F. Spencer Dinwiddie is currently with the Grand Rapids Drive, and will likely finish out the season in the NBA D-League. Dinwiddie had a poor preseason and only played 12 minutes per game in nine appearances before being sent down, so it’s reasonable to assume that head coach and president of basketball operations Stan Van Gundy has moved on from any plans involving Dinwiddie in the rotation. What exactly is in Dinwiddie’s future is anybody’s guess, but any relevant minutes with the Pistons going forward seems unlikely.

Inc. Darrun Hilliard II hasn’t gotten much run, playing just 6.3 minutes per game in 13 appearances. It’s unlikely he’ll see much action this season other than garbage time unless a catastrophic series of injuries strike the Pistons.. SG. Pistons. DARRUN HILLIARD II

REGGIE BULLOCK. Inc. Reggie Bullock hasn’t delivered on the promise that he showed in a blazing hot preseason. He hasn’t gotten much run, playing just 5 minutes per game in 17 appearances, but he’s only hit one of his 19 shots from the field. It’s hard to play him more when he’s such a stunning liability on the floor. The Pistons picked up his option for next season in the preseason, so he’s not likely to be going anywhere, but it’s unlikely he’ll see anything but garbage time going forward.. SG. Pistons

Next: Lowe on Pistons' all-star merits and positional versatility

B. Stan Van Gundy has certainly crafted this Piston team in his image, and has managed to squeak out something extra from guys like KCP, Marcus Morris and Aron Baynes. It’s difficult to grade a coach, and even harder to grade an executive, both of which are roles that Van Gundy fits, but the Pistons have been fortunate enough to find themselves a basketball guy who has a vision for his team and who will move heaven and earth to bring it about. Some moves may be puzzling, and things like sticking with Andre Drummond to the point where he can shoot 37 free throws in a game like he did Wednesday in Houston may be perplexing, but the total body of work from Van Gundy is excellent.. Head Coach. Pistons. STAN VAN GUNDY