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January 18, 2010
Five Thoughts
Pistons

by Bradford Doolittle

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What's that you're saying? These "Five Thoughts" pieces generally based on TWO teams? Yes, they are. Good catch. In this case, the game in question was six days ago and, besides, the Bulls are over-represented in my previous installments of this series. So today we're going to concentrate on that sinking ship, the SS Pistons.

To say that the Bulls-Pistons rivalry has lost a little luster from its apex about 20 years ago is an understatement, kind of like saying that Howie Mandel doesn't have as much hair as he did in his St. Elsewhere days. But this was basketball, almost NBA quality, and there are always insights to be gained from every contest no matter how dull a matchup looks on paper. There is no reason to complain.

The Pistons entered last Monday's game in Chicago on a 12-game skid and was looking to avoid its longest losing streak since finishing the 1993-94 season with 13 straight defeats. The Bulls were coming off a win over the Timberwolves that halted a three-game skid. The game kicked off a really important--and ultimately triumphant--week for Chicago. The Pistons were simply trying to find a win--any win.

The old Pistons-Bulls rivalry still has some residual effect on today's league, for it served as the foundation that led to Chicago (1st) and Detroit (2nd) to lead the NBA in attendance in the decade ending last season, a trend which has kept right on going in 2009-10 for Chicago (the Pistons have slipped to 12th). Other than that, there was little to recommend the game and it showed in the number of no-shows at the United Center.

Ordinarily, I wouldn't include a game flow from a week-old event, but I insert it here for a reason.

GAME FLOW

DETROIT PISTONS
                  Poss   oRTG   eFG%  oREB%  FT/FGA  TO%
First Quarter      23   110.9   .500  .222   .389   .133
Second Quarter     24    89.9   .452  .000   .143   .164
Third Quarter      23    95.4   .375  .231   .167   .043
Fourth Quarter     22    81.2   .382  .167   .294   .226
--------------------------------------------------------
FIRST HALF         47   100.0   .474  .304   .256   .157
SECOND HALF        45    88.5   .378  .263   .220   .072
========================================================
FINAL              92    94.8   .415  .250   .232   .142
========================================================

CHICAGO BULLS Poss oRTG eFG% oREB% FT/FGA TO% First Quarter 23 124.2 .614 .111 .045 .133 Second Quarter 24 134.9 .556 .583 .111 .082 Third Quarter 23 156.1 .794 .167 .529 .130 Fourth Quarter 22 103.8 .556 .100 .167 .135 -------------------------------------------------------- FIRST HALF 47 129.8 .582 .381 .082 .112 SECOND HALF 45 130.5 .671 .091 .343 .071 ======================================================== FINAL 92 130.1 .605 .270 .186 .130 ========================================================

I return to my bit in the opening about how the Pistons entered the game in Chicago on a 12-game losing streak. Some of the blame for the slump can be laid at the fickle feet of the injury bug. That doesn't explain everything. Last Monday, Detroit had all of its principle performers except for Tayshaun Prince, though several of its rotation players were playing at less-than-full strength and Ben Gordon went down with a groin injury during the game. All of these qualifiers (aka excuses) aside, have you ever seen such a statistical portrait of a team in complete and utter surrender?

Well, sure you have. It happens all the time. However given the Pistons' recent plight, the fact that they were rested and considering they were playing against one of the NBA's worst offenses, the consistently lousy performance of Detroit's defense was inexcusable. The Bulls entered the game averaging about 1.02 points per possession. They posted a mark of a little over 1.30 against Detroit and hit that figure in both halves. After falling behind by 14 at halftime, the win-starved Pistons proceeded to allow 36 points, 1.56 points per possession and a .794 eFG% in the third quarter. As easy as it looked for the Bulls, it's a wonder those figures weren't even better.

My takeaways about the Pistons:

1. The Pistons can't win with Rodney Stuckey playing the point.
There is a school of thought within the league that the point guard position is largely becoming passe. This is obvious to a certain extent in that the old notion of needing a player who could capably bring the ball of the floor has fallen by the wayside. These days, the majority of NBA players are capable of bringing the ball down the floor against similarly-sized defenders and initiating the offense. In most offensive systems, however, point guard responsibilities are still essential to an efficient offense. Whether or not it's a player that fits the traditional mode of "point guard", offenses need a player that can distribute the ball and make key decisions on the floor. Defensively, you normally require a smaller player with the lateral foot speed to corral opposing quick guards and help to keep them out of the lane. In the Pistons' case, there are serious doubts that Rodney Stuckey can develop the traits needed to hold down the point guard spot in Detroit.

According to 82games.com, Stuckey has spent just 12 percent of his court time playing point guard. During that time, the Pistons average a paltry .88 points per possession. Worse, whereas Stuckey grades as solid defender at the two position, he rates as below-average to putrid when defending lead guards. The problem for John Kuester and Joe Dumars isn't what Stuckey has done this season ... it's what he might do in the future. Stuckey is a building block kind of player, with the ability to create his own offense and act as a physical presence in the backcourt. His perimeter game is still spotty, but he does an excellent job of getting into the lane and augmenting his middling midrange game with a good number of free-throw attempts. He is not a great distributor of the basketball, however, and tends to dominate the ball at times. Stuckey's inability to nail down the point guard role has led to Ben Gordon spending over half his time at the position. Playing the point is not what Ben Gordon was born to do, even if he has the body of a lead guard. The Pistons' most common lineup this season, which features a backcourt of Gordon and Stuckey, has more or less been hammered this season, to the tune of .03 points per possession. This doesn't bode well for Dumars' long-term plan, unless he foresees Gordon as a $58 million bench player.

2. We should be seeing more Jerebko / Summers / Daye and less Wallace / Hamilton / Prince.
This is an odd transition season for Detroit, a campaign that bridges the time gap between the outstanding teams of the 00s and whatever comes next. Ghosts from those past teams still haunt The Palace of Auburn Hills. Ben Wallace is back for a final go-round in Detroit after nearly retiring over the summer. Tayshaun Prince is struggling through an injury-ravaged season, the second-to-last on his contract. Rip Hamilton still has two years plus a player option remaining after this season, all worth $12.5 million per annum. Mixed with these stalwarts is a bevy of young and recently-imported talent like Rodney Stuckey, Will Bynum and Jason Maxiell plus rookies Jonas Jerebko, DaJuan Summers and Austin Daye and offseason acquisitions Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva.

Now that Detroit more or less has all its parts back (Stuckey and Prince are battling knee troubles), the tasl for first-year coach John Kuester divvying up playing time from here on out. The upside for this team is pretty much nil, so shouldn't Kuester go all-in with his rookies, laying the foundation for the future? Yes, he should, but perhaps not just yet. Joe Dumars in effect backed himself into a corner with his free-agent investments of last summer. The Pistons don't look to have much, if any, room to add free agents this summer. Meanwhile, it's clear that there are not enough foundation players on the current roster. So Dumars' only recourse is to dangle his veterans on the trade market and, indeed, he told SI.com that he will be aggressive as the trade deadline approaches next month. Prince's contract is the most palatable and his skill set can help any contending team, provided he can get healthy. If Prince's knee gets right and his previous back problems don't resurface, Kuester will likely showcase the long, lean veteran forward over the next month.

As for Hamilton, the problem is murky. He may still be Detroit's best offensive player, but long term, he's clearly behind Stuckey, Gordon and Bynum in the backcourt pecking order. So what do you do? Dumars would likely be thrilled if he were to find a taker for Hamilton and many teams can use a shooter of that caliber. But that contract ... it may be untradeable. Since Hamilton returned from early-season ankle problems, he's averaged about 35 minutes per game. Bynum is down to 15 minutes. Daye has played nine minutes per game over his last 10 outings, a stretch in which Summers has only gotten into one game. Only Jerebko has escaped the shadows cast by Detroit's aging veterans. Indeed, his emergence, position and style of play makes one wonder just what was the point of spending $37.7 million of Villanueva?

This is all kind of a mess, but once trade scenarios are resolved one way or another, Kuester should be at leisure to go young.

3. The Pistons play much like last year's Bulls.
The Pistons have ranked in the top 10 of the league in percentage of assisted field goals six times in the last eight seasons. Even as things unraveled last season, Detroit was still 11th. This is consistent with the perception that the Pistons' egalitarian attack of the last decade was built upon a foundation of unselfishness and ball movement. This season, the Pistons are next-to-last in this category, with barely half of their field goals coming off assists. Part, or most, of the problem lies in the point guard issues outlined above. In watching the Pistons play and noting how many possessions terminate in long jumpers to beat the shot clock, I couldn't help but think of the Bulls' offense the last few years, which often depended on Ben Gordon to bail them out when the ball stagnated. Now that Gordon is with the Pistons, just be aware that this is not a favored strategy for building an efficient offense.

4. Detroit's veterans may not have enough left to help a contender.
Rip Hamilton has been ultra-aggressive since returning from injury, but the results have not been pretty. Hamilton's usage rate is over 30 percent for the first time in seven years, but his True Shooting Percentage has tumbled below .500 for the first time since his rookie season. He's only got 13 games in so far and is presumably still rounding into shape. However, the Pistons would feel a lot better if Hamilton would regain the form that made him one of the game's deadliest shooters of the last decade. At age 31, it may not happen for Hamilton. While he could surely be productive in diminished role, there is still the matter of the $37.5 million left on his deal beyond this season. That's too much money for a fourth guard and certainly not the kind of pay-per-performance ratio that is going to look enticing on the trade market. Worse, Hamilton has been much better than Tayshaun Prince, whose back and knee problems have made him look about 74 years old at times this season. Chances are, neither player is going anywhere anytime soon, further complicating Dumars' rebuilding efforts.

5. Will the 2010-11 Pistons roster look any different?
I keep trying to see the future Pistons through Dumars' eyes. I just haven't been able to make sense of his rebuilding strategy. I have lauded Dumars time and again for his team-building ability and it would not surprise me that much if, a year from now, this all makes a lot more sense. Right now, though, I'm just not seeing it.

You can go back and read my in-game comments and get future Tweets at @bdoolittle.

Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.

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