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Detroit Pistons Season Outlook

Coming off a 44-38 season, the Detroit Pistons were expected to make a huge splash coming into the 2016-17 campaign. But 12 games in, the Stan Van Gundy led squad sits at an unsatisfactory 6-6, with true contention looking a long ways away.

-by Evan Kolin

The Pistons lost a nailbiter at the Garden Wednesday, playing from behind nearly all night and eventually falling to the Knicks by a score of 105-102. The defeat marked Detroit’s sixth loss on the road in seven tries, with their lone win outside of Michigan coming against the lowly Denver Nuggets. While the Pistons are an undefeated 5-0 when playing at the Palace of Auburn Hills, and the only team in the Association still unbeaten at home, their inconsistency has led to only a mediocre start thus far.

Terrible losses to the rebuilding Suns and god-awful Nets has translated to a .500 record through 12 games, despite having a relatively easy schedule to start the year. Following the midseason trade for Tobias Harris last February, the Pistons went 17-11 down the stretch, a winning percentage that would equate to nearly 50 wins over a full 82 games. So what has caused Detroit’s slow start after all of that promise?

For one, Reggie Jackson is yet to appear in a regular season game due to injuries to his left knee and right thumb. Jackson led the team in scoring (18.8 PPG) and assists (6.2 APG) last season, while leading the entire NBA in clutch time scoring (total points during the fourth quarter/overtime, with less than five minutes remaining, and neither team ahead by more than five points).

That kind of production is hard to replace for a team with not many other reliable scoring options. Ish Smith has been serviceable to begin the season, but is not good enough to be a starting point guard for an NBA playoff team right now, as the Wake Forest alum is shooting just 38% from the field and 9% from three. So is this difference between Jackson and Smith really the origin of the Pistons’ problems? For that, we’re going to have to look at the numbers.

The Pistons’ defense has actually been spectacular this year, ranking third in the league in defensive rating behind just the LA Clippers and Atlanta Hawks. However, their offensive rating stands a lackluster 22nd in the Association with just 99.8 points per 100 possessions. This links right to the loss of Jackson as the root of Detroit’s struggles, as it is that disappearance of offensive production that has led to their middling start. However, the 6’3” guard is still a few weeks away from returning, meaning the Pistons are going to need an increase of offensive output elsewhere on the roster for the time being.

Tobias Harris has had an outstanding start to the year, temporarily leading the Pistons with 17 points per game on 49 percent shooting from the field. He has easily been the team’s most reliable offensive weapon without Reggie Jackson, though his success alone won’t be enough to raise Detroit’s offensive rating to what it needs to be. The Pistons’ X-Factor, in my opinion, is third year shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. KCP, as he is known, is currently averaging 13.3 PPG on 39% shooting from the field and 36% from behind the arc. Those averages, though, are not stellar by any means, and his on and off shooting stroke is something that needs to be cleaned up.

From what I have watched this season, it seems like one of coach Stan Van Gundy’s main goals this year is to integrate Caldwell-Pope more fluidly into the offense. Many of the Pistons’ offensive sets include screens set for KCP, leading to a jumper off the dribble. However, Caldwell-Pope’s shot has been extremely inconsistent ever since being drafted by Detroit in 2013. But maybe it is KCP’s inconsistency that is the very reason for his central role in the offense, with Van Gundy believing an increase in usage this year could help the 23 year old gain the confidence he needs to develop into a true sharpshooter. It is this type of sharpshooting wing that can really transform the Pistons’ offense, and make them true contenders in the Eastern Conference.

Another franchise cornerstone I have yet to bring up is athletic center Andre Drummond. Although Drummond’s offensive game is far from the likes of other big men such as DeMarcus Cousins and Karl-Anthony Towns, it has come a long way since becoming the 9th overall selection in the 2012 draft. Some of his attempts may still clank off the side of the backboard, but Drummond’s hook shot is quietly becoming a dominating force in the low post. Not only that, but the UCONN alum has also improved his free throw shooting up to 53 percent, an increase that could allow SVG to actually let his star center onto the floor late in the fourth quarters of games. Drummond’s improving offensive arsenal, combined with KCP’s evolving outside shot, could prove to be exactly what the Pistons need to take their offense to the next level, and gain respect across the NBA.

It is no secret that Stan Van Gundy is building his Pistons exactly how he built the Magic team he led to the Finals in ‘09: a star big man in the middle surrounded by four sharpshooters. But it is also no secret that this Pistons roster doesn’t quite have the same amount of talent compared to their counterparts from Orlando. That is why, even when Reggie Jackson returns, the development of KCP and Andre Drummond will be essential to the Pistons’ future. If they progress right, Detroit could be home to playoff matchups for years to come. But if things don’t go as planned, it could be a rough next few seasons for fans in the Motor City.