Despite really wanting to witness a Carolina upset, I had made a promise to watch some Detroit basketball this weekend. Luckily they were playing the Nets so not only did I get the game on cable, I was also able to get pretty enthusiastic about rooting for Motor City to beat down the NBA’s  Eastern European cheer squad. That Detroit ultimately won that game made me feel a little better about Kam Chancellor just DESTROYING my Panthers on national television.

Basketball fans no doubt know that the Detroit Pistons have been on an absolute TEAR since waiving maligned forward Josh Smith in December. The team has gone 8-1 since then with impressive back-to-back road wins over San Antonio and Dallas. Their only loss? A down-to-the-wire finish with the East’s best Atlanta that saw Kentavious Caldwell Pope go absolutely nuts in the 4th quarter to scare the living daylight out of the Hawks. Now, with their winning streak reminding people that Stan Van Gundy is actually an exceptional coach and Andre Drummond one of the best young prospects in the league, the Pistons are astonishingly right back in the playoff conversation in the woeful, woeful East (they trail the 8th seeded  Miami by only 2.5 games. Also, how does a playoff team not even come close to a .500 record??) So, is there some kind of terrible Rudy Gay off the Raptors, Josh Smith bad juju gone from the locker room? Or is there something a little deeper going on? Let’s break it down.

Bye-Bye J Smoove

A lot of people were surprised last summer when the Pistons signed Josh Smith to a lavish 4 year $54 million contract. While Smith is a fantastic player: he was a franchise star in Atlanta, a former Slam Dunk Champion, and someone who could fill up the stat sheet with points, rebounds, steals and blocks, he had always played his best basketball at the power forward position. Bringing him to a team that already had two excellent big men in Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe meant bumping Smith to the 3. And, while “Smoove” has the quickness and athleticism to match up defensively with most of the league’s 3s (he had some great battles against Melo) he was an absolute dumpster fire on offense.

In a lot of ways, the dilemma is really more the fault of the Pistons organization and, now-retired, General Manager Joe Dumars, than anything to do with Smith. Sure, the guy fails the “team player” eyeball test, but when you’re asking one of the league’s best finishers around the rim to play next to two towering behemoths, you’re either going to need to bring him off the bench (Not for $54 Million!) or turn him into a jump shooter. And, even though Josh seems to fancy himself a pretty baller 3 point marksman, it is decidedly not the case. When you have someone bricking open jumpers like this AND a career 35% 3 point shooter in Brandon Jennings, the spacing is gonna get real tight REAL FAST.

Personally, I was all for giving the Pistons the benefit of the doubt in the Smith signing. Sure, the warning signs were all there but it seemed to me like a case of simply grabbing the best free agent available at the time. With the cap set to explode in a couple of years, its not a bad idea to roll the dice and overpay a little for one of the league’s better combo forwards. There was also always the outside chance that this signing would have given the Piston’s the biggest frontcourt in the association and ushered in a new era of Bad Boy Detroit that would outmuscle and beat up on smaller mortals, controlling the painted era on both sides of the floor and invoking terror in the hearts of men. I even imagined them following the Smith signing up by prying Tony Allen away from the Grizzlies and having an entire starting unit of long arms, big bodies, terrifying physical defense, and ABSOLUTELY no shooting. Sadly though, we are living in the 21st century and the NBA has evolved almost completely into a 3 point shooting machine, bereft of any of the tough playing, hard fouling attitude that Detroit rode to its championships in the ’80s and ’90s. Signing Josh Smith was a regression, a nostalgic remembering of better times, and it may have ended up as the main reason for Dumars’ resignation. In the end they had to pay the guy to go away.

The Offense

While starting someone like Kyle Singler over Smith looks like an obvious downgrade, it finally allows Stan Van Gundy to begin coaching this team like his powerhouse Orlando Magic during Dwight Howard’s early years. Though Drummond and Monroe both start, SVG will stagger their minutes so that different units will be able to surround a dominant big man with as much as four outside shooters. Singler looks a little wispy, sure, but the dude is shooting over 40% from 3 this season; make one or two of those early and Monroe’s not getting double teamed when he goes to work in the post. Outside of Kyle, Detroit is LITTERED with shooters. Jodie Meeks and his (somewhat) ridiculous 3 year $19 million contract. Mr. Call-Me Caron Butler. KCP is getting better. Hell even DJ Augustin and Jonas Jerebko can fill it up. Having all of these weapons allows Detroit’s big men to go one-on-one under the basket, which is a dangerous proposition for most defenses.

Speaking of the big men, one of the most interesting thing about the Pistons may be the varying style of their two stars. Greg Monroe is a very traditional back-to-the-basket player; a young man with “old man” moves who can post up and use his size and footwork to score in the paint. Drummond, on the other hand, does not seem to have much of an offensive repertoire. Instead, he’ll use his ridiculous size to stay in position and be on hand for alley-oops and put back dunks. I’m sure part of the SVG signing was so that Stan could help mentor and mature Drummond similarly to how he helped Howard develop a world class post presence in Orlando, but for now the team is mainly utilizing Drummond’s frame as a powerful offensive rebounder and recipient of little dump-off passes as guards drive to the basket.

All of the Pistons work hard on the offensive glass too. Drummond is always there, yes, but on some possessions you’ll see Monroe hunkering down there as well AND one of Detroit’s wing players. It’s a risky gamble, sure, but if successful it yields even more open 3s as the guys parked behind the line are left alone. And Detroit hasn’t even been hit particularly hard on the other end. They’re only 12th in the league in fast break points allowed, as many of their wings and guards are quick enough to bust it down court if they can’t secure that board.

With Van Gundy making sure most of his second units retain either Drummond or Monroe, Detroit goes pretty deep. Watching them last night, I was impressed by their bench unit, which paired Drummond with DJ Augustin, Jodie Meeks, Caron Butler and Jerebko. Meeks and Augustin were relentless in attacking the basket, drawing fouls or pulling the defense out of position to open up their shooters. Augustin in particular was on FIRE, not only hitting Drummond on the little hand-offs but showing off some KILLER passing chops in whipping the ball all the way out behind him to an open Caron after driving to practically below the basket. I loved Augustin last year when he was brought in to Chicago on a 10 day contract and ended up completely rejuvenating the offensively inept Bulls. There he was really allowed to do whatever he wanted on their second units, driving into contact or shooting pull-up 3s. Here in Detroit, he’s much more of a playmaker and does a great job of holding down the offense when Brandon Jennings is on the bench.

And Jennings is the last piece of the puzzle for Detroit. One of the few players who eschewed college for a year of playing professionally overseas, Jennings was a lottery pick in the 2009 draft. He played in Milwaukee for several years along with the my-favorite Monta Ellis before being swapped for Brandon Knight and coming to Mo Town. Jennings is a fairly mercurial player, capable of athletic highglight reel plays and scoring explosions as well as terrible, head-shaking 3-19 outings. It seems to me that Jennings has an incredibly spastic shooting form, but when he’s playing well (and he has been recently) it elevates this team to another level and brings out that old familiar word, “underrated”.

The Defense

Arms, arms, arms!

Watching them play, Detroit reminds me a lot of Milwaukee with long, rangy players who can stick their limbs into passing lanes and force turnovers. One of my favorites last night was the Nets going for an outlet pass in transition to a wide open guy under the Detroit basket. Unfortunately for Brooklyn, Drummond was at midcourt and leaped up in the air, PALMING the ball to secure it for the Pistons. That was one of 13 turnovers these guys forced, though to be fair, the Nets played an especially sloppy game of basketball.

Just like with offensive rebounding, though, the Pistons are gambling a lot on these turnovers. Their players are really jumping out of position on these possessions, abandoning their men to try to come up with the steal. It was particularly evident in how many WIDE open 3 pointers the Nets were able to take, though these jokers squandered that once again going 9-31 from beyond the arc for a high school shooting percentage of 29. Still, the fact that a team was able to take 31 three pointers against them, many of them open shots, is more than a little worrisome.

Still, those little gambles might be just what this team needs. While their players have the length and athleticism to project as great defenders, they just aren’t there yet. For Drummond and KCP, they’re still young and learning the nuances of professional systems. Not only that, but the whole team is experiencing a new defensive scheme from their first season with a new coach. For now, playing aggressively on defense might be the better fit as this team grows into itself a little bit and becomes more comfortable with Van Gundy. Not only that, but it makes them more exciting to watch.

The Future

The Josh Smith thing is sad because of the wasted money, sure, but what makes it even worse is how his presence really screwed over their relationship with Greg Monroe. A restricted free agent over the summer, it looked like Detroit was doing whatever it could to find a trade partner for him and ship him off for a 3 point shooting wing player. Just like with Eric Bledsoe, though, nothing really panned out so the Pistons cheaped on him and signed him for a 1 year, $5.5 million deal. Its a MASSIVE underpay for a player of Monroe’s talents, though he definitely didn’t help his value by getting arrested and pissing himself during what must have been a really fun DUI over the summer. Pretty much everything so far has pointed to Monroe leaving Detroit this offseason, which would have been fine had they kept Smith and slotted him to the four. Now, they’ll need to scramble to keep the big man happy, though keeping up the win streak and sneaking into the playoffs could go a long way towards accomplishing that.

If they can lock him down, the future is really bright for these guys (OPTIMISM TIME). Looking ahead at their schedule they have a lot of intriguing games where they’ll have the chance to match up with some good teams that are not exactly the murdering powerhouses of the West. Going up against the Torontos, the Hawks again, the Cavaliers, and the Pellies should give a good indication of how legit Detroit really is and if they can keep riding their momentum to some wins, it will show that they deserve to be in the Eastern Conference playoff picture. Once there, its really not too difficult to imagine them managing a first round upset. The East is looking crappier and crappier every day and Washington’s demolishing of a full-strength Chicago on Friday showed that none of these guys are a real lock for the Finals. If the pace does slow down a little and Detroit can pound teams with their big men, they might be able to come away with some wins. Sure, I’m thinking a little far in advance right now, but I think we have every reason to be excited for these guys.

They are America’s team after all.

(Also, this)

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