After losing to the Toronto Raptors, 96-91 on Wednesday night, the Detroit Pistons dropped to 22-21 on the season. Just half a game ahead of the talented Philadelphia 76ers and 3-7 since losing Reggie Jackson to a gruesome ankle injury, the Pistons and their franchise leader Stan Van Gundy are scrambling for answers.
Let’s start with the positives. Detroit hasn’t exactly rolled over for opponents after learning they were to be without their starting point guard for six to eight weeks.
They’ve even managed to pull out a few impressive victories, first by holding the San Antonio Spurs to 79 points with a stifling defensive effort, then by out-dueling a Jame Harden-less Houston Rockets squad 108-101, despite Andre Drummond also missing the contest due to injury. Hell, they even managed to beat the Brooklyn Nets in New York for only the third time in their last ten tries, in what might have been their best all-around performance of the entire season.
But these small silver linings belie a dangerous truth; the Detroit Pistons are in a tremendously precarious position, and should Van Gundy play the situation the wrong way it could easily destroy the Pistons season and possibly even his position in the Motor City.
Since Reggie’s injury, the Pistons have a net rating of -2.0, more than a point and a half worse than their season long rating.
It’s immediately obvious where they miss Jackson, as the Pistons have the fourth worst offense in the league during that span at 101.6 points per 100 possessions.
Let’s be honest, their season-long rating of 103.9 is hardly blowing up scoreboards like Roy Hobbs, but when you’re struggling to put up points worse than the Sacramento Kings, you’re in serious trouble.
The obvious problems lie in the aspects of Reggie Jackson’s game that super-backup Ish Smith simply cannot replicate.
While Jackson has never exactly been a prolific shooter (he’s hit 35 percent from three since Van Gundy traded for him in 2015), Smith is a complete non-factor from outside the arc. He’s currently taking a career low 6.3 percent of his shots from three, and for good reason since he’s shot an anemic 28 percent over eight NBA seasons.
Smith provides similar ability to distribute (Jackson’s assist percentage sits at 33.3, Smith’s at 30.6) and score effectively inside of the paint (54 percent of Smith’s shots and 45 percent of Jackson’s shots come from 10 feet or less of the rim), but while Smith can score near the rim, he lacks Jackson’s ability to draw fouls.
In fact, the difference in the Pistons offensive rating can superficially be explained by the loss of Jackson’s free throws alone. Reggie Jackson takes 1.7 and makes 1.6 more free throws per-36 minutes than Smith. Since his absence from the lineup, the Pistons are down two attempts and 1.8 makes at the free throw line per game.
This, of course, isn’t the only massively troubling statistic, nor the only explanation for Detroit’s struggles, it’s simply the most glaring at the moment.
The Pistons are shooting 40 percent from downtown over their past ten games, but with stopgap starters such as Reggie Bullock almost certain to regress now that opposing teams have one less player to worry about on the perimeter, the three less attempts per game they’re taking will soon catch up with them.
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Frankly, this probably isn’t the worst we’re going to see from Detroit.
This is a very long-winded way of saying that the Pistons are, in the immediate future, pretty much screwed.
Jackson is still at best another month away from returning to action, and even if Stan Van Gundy does trust his oft-injured point guard to bounce back to form, there’s no guarantee that the Pistons will still have a legitimate shot at the playoffs by that point.
The only way forward for Detroit at this point in their season is through the trade market. But even then, there are seemingly insurmountable obstacles in Van Gundy’s way.
First, there simply doesn’t seem to be any sort of a market for a playoff-caliber starting point guard.
Evan Fournier would be nice as a secondary ball handler, and he can create his own shot a little bit, but he isn’t a point guard.
Mike Conley‘s contract would be impossible to take on.
Kemba Walker is a pipe dream.
Who is even available that the Pistons could reasonably trade for at this moment in time?
All are uninspiring choices, even without delving into how the Pistons would possibly pull off a trade for one of them while having few reasonable trade pieces outside of cast-offs like Stanley Johnson or Jon Leuer.
Some in the fanbase would be thrilled to see Avery Bradley and his expiring contract to be moved, but that seems unlikely given Van Gundy’s “Eye-Test Twitter”-like love for Bradley’s hardworking defense, on top of SVG’s unwillingness to play either promising rookie Luke Kennard or plus/minus stud Langston Galloway.
For those who may have forgotten, that’s the same Langston Galloway who Van Gundy inked to a three year, $21 million contract just this last offseason and has already received five “DNP-Coach’s Decision” designations since Jackson went down.
It also must be noted that on the same night the Pistons scored only 18 points during a hapless fourth quarter offensive showing, Utah Jazz rookie Donovan Mitchell did this:
Gee, if only Stan Van Gundy had a shot at somehow getting that kid.
It’s not immediately clear what the Pistons are to do moving forward.
Best case scenario, Van Gundy is able to pull out another incredible trade that nobody sees coming, a la his highway robbery of Tobias Harris from the Orlando Magic.
Worst case scenario, he’s forced to stand pat due to lack of feasible trade options, hoping in vain that Reggie Jackson can return from his second major lower-body injury in two seasons while the Pistons languish in the NBA purgatory they seemed to have a shot at escaping just a season and a half ago.
It seems unlikely that Van Gundy will choose to blow up the team, so if the Pistons are serious about changing the momentum of their franchise, they’re going to need to make a serious move in a short amount of time.