Motor City melancholy
The Detroit Pistons seemed like they had finally put it together and achieved coach-GM Stan Van Gundy’s vision early in the season, winning 14 of their first 20 games. Since then, they have gone 8-20 and have lost eight in a row. Center Andre Drummond — in his mind, an All-Star snub — and company own the worst January record (2-11) in the NBA.
The offense has been problematic during this stretch, unable to score effectively in Reggie Jackson’s absence, as he injured his right ankle against the Indiana Pacers 15 games ago.
Jackson’s vacancy has resulted in the fourth-worst offensive rating in the last 15 games, but what has been more instructive is has been their play in close games. Without Jackson, they have posted a 1-6 record in games decided by 7 points or fewer.
Against Utah on Jan. 24, the Pistons were up 88-79 with three minutes remaining. Their following offensive possessions were: a contested Avery Bradley 3-pointer, a blocked Tobias Harris floater, two Ish Smith long 2-pointers with Ricky Rubio draped all over him and one open three by Stanley Johnson, a career 30 percent 3-point shooter. Utah quickly tied it at 89 and won in overtime.
The two Smith jumpers stand out in what was especially awful late-game offense. The Pistons have not yet adapted to Jackson being out; both Harris and Bradley give up the ball very quickly here, leaving the poor option of a Smith-Drummond pick-and-roll. On the second shot, the Jazz do a great job to deny the pass once Smith picks up his dribble to keep the ball in his hands.
Detroit needs to adapt and run late-game sets that put their best players in position to make plays. With Jackson, these pick-and-rolls would be fine, but Harris and Bradley must embrace their standings as the creators and be much more aggressive down the stretch in tight games.
A similar moment occurred in Toronto on Jan. 17. The Pistons were only able to muster 4 points from the 10-minute mark to the 2-minute mark, going from up 4 to down 9. The bench-unit-plus-Drummond lineup was just not able to maintain the lead. Such are the woes of having a lack of playmaking on the floor, with Drummond as the best offensive player on the court.
Here, Detroit tries to get the ball to Langston Galloway off some floppy action, which doesn’t work. Without any other players who can create, Drummond ignores Reggie Bullock on the dribble hand-off and feels obligated to drive from the elbow and fumbles the ball into a turnover.
Van Gundy needs to ensure that he has one of Harris or Bradley on the floor in such key moments by staggering their minutes, at least while Jackson is hurt. They were subbed back in with five minutes left in the game, but the offense had suffered enough, as Smith cannot be relied upon to create consistent offense in the fourth quarter alone.
The Pistons sorely miss starting point guard Jackson, and their season has begun to crumble without him. The future of the Drummond-SVG era looks more and more uncertain with each loss threatening their playoff prospects this season.
After hovering around .500 for most of the season, the Oklahoma City Thunder (30-20) have gone 10-5 in their last 15 games and have ripped off a eight-game win streak. They are now fifth in net rating on the season (+3.9) and are creeping up the standings, only behind two games from third-seeded San Antonio and one behind fourth-seeded Minnesota.
Their offense has exploded in this period, with an offensive rating of 113.3, second to only Golden State. This has largely been due to their starting lineup, which has improved on its season net rating of +14.2 (539 minutes) with a remarkable stretch in the last 15 games (+29.3 net rating in 113 minutes, first among lineups with 100 or more minutes).
They have seemingly figured out how to play with defensive ace but offensive zero Andre Roberson on the court. Usually, on a defensive scramble when an offense gets middle penetration, the ball is swung all the way around the wing and eventually into the corner where the offense get an open shot.
Instead, watch here as Roberson ignores the tradition of spotting up in the corner and instead sets a ball screen for Carmelo Anthony as the defense is still in recovery mode. No one was guarding Roberson, so the screen gets Anthony wide open for a jumper. This is a clever adaptation to Roberson’s limitations and much better than having him stand in the corner while the defense rotates.
Unfortunately, it is all a moot point, as Roberson ruptured his patellar tendon against the Pistons on Saturday and is out for the season. It’s also a real shame, as it would have been quite fun to watch a Thunder-Warriors playoff series with Roberson and Paul George harassing Kevin Durant and Steph Curry. Young players, such as Terrance Ferguson, Josh Huestis and Jerami Grant, will need to step up and play well for the Oklahoma City to have success in the playoffs.
The injury bug made a stop in New Orleans late Friday night in the waning seconds of the Pelicans 115-113 win at home against the Rockets, as All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins ruptured his Achilles tendon in a noncontact injury going after a free-throw rebound.
The injury is quite disappointing for Cousins, who was looking forward to competing in the playoffs for the first time in his career. It came days after Cousins posted a historic 44-24-10 stat line, first to do it since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1972.
Without him, the Pelicans’ playoff push is seriously compromised. They just do not have the talent down the roster after Anthony Davis, Cousins and Jrue Holiday to survive such a blow, even though their role players E’Twaun Moore and Darius Miller have been having good seasons.
What does this mean for the rest of the West? New Orleans sits at sixth, tied with Portland and one game ahead of the Denver. The Pelicans, barring a superhuman effort from Davis, will likely fall out of the playoffs, allowing one of either the Clippers or the Jazz to sneak in.
The Achilles injury could potentially have some dramatic contract ramifications for Cousins. After the Kings traded him during last year’s All-Star break, he became eligible to receive the massive designated player extension, worth $207 million over five years.
He will be a free agent this summer, and only a handful of teams would have the money available to sign such a big-ticket player. There are only five teams projected to have any cap space to go out and sign free agents (Indiana, Chicago, Los Angeles Lakers, Dallas and Atlanta). These teams may choose to spend the money elsewhere or be scared off because of his injury, and Cousins may be forced to accept a sub-max deal from the Pelicans.
Dev Navani covers women’s water polo. Contact him at [email protected].