By Rob Mahoney
Though the Pistons are completely empathetic to the misfortune that has befallen Rajon Rondo, their condolences will eventually give way to a certain opportunism. Rondo's season-ending injury, after all, puts the East's final playoff spot up for grabs. Boston's hold of the eighth seed was tenuous to begin with, and though the 76ers and Pistons are both a couple games beyond the playoff cut, Rondo's absence and the sheer number of games remaining make that gap very manageable.
I've already discussed the troubles that lie ahead for Boston in this space, and Philadelphia remains a flawed, straightforward team that should only present a serious threat if Andrew Bynum makes a timely and productive return. Detroit is a somewhat more interesting case. The Pistons have played some impressive basketball since late December, but it's taken an unlikely surge for the Pistons (8-5 in their last 13 games) to even qualify as a reasonable contender for the postseason. Is there anything in Detroit's improved play to suggest that this team is actually capable of elbowing Boston and Philly out of the way for a spot in the playoffs?
Reasons For Optimism
• Fast starts. Exemplary first-quarter performance correlates pretty strongly with a dominant starting lineup, as most NBA head coaches tend to ride their first five (with some slight variation later in the quarter) for roughly three quarters of the frame. Lawrence Frank is no different, but what's surprising about the Pistons' first-quarter play is just how well their under-equipped starters measure up with the top players on other teams. That parity between starters doesn't tend to last for the whole game, but Greg Monroe, Brandon Knight, Tayshaun Prince, Jason Maxiell and Kyle Singler have managed to create early leads and/or hold ground against their opponents' runs in the initial frame. For that reason, the Pistons rank in the top 10 for the season in first quarter net rating (point differential as adjusted for pace), and have breached the Top 3 in that same measure over their recent 13-game surge.
Over the course of the season, Detroit's starters have outscored opponents at a rate of 7.9 points per 100 first-quarter possessions. Those early gains were a crucial component for the Pistons, and though that same lineup has regressed on both ends of late to surrender a 1.7-point advantage to their opponents per 100 first-quarter possessions in the last 13 games, Detroit has only become better in the opening frame during that stretch. The reason? Complete and utter domination at the end of the first quarter, when both the Pistons and their opponents begin spicing up their lineups with reserves. From there, Detroit's hybrid starter-reserve lineups have somehow wreaked enough havoc in limited minutes to make the Pistons one of the most dominant first-quarter teams in the league during their recent hot streak, boasting an advantage of 14.9 points per 100 possessions.
• The floor-spreading second unit. The Pistons' roster doesn't give Frank all that much to work with, but the crowning achievement of his head coaching tenure has been the prevalence of a high-octane, all-reserve lineup. Will Bynum has played the best basketball of his career due to the freedom that a bench role provides, not to mention the accommodating nature of second-unit defenses, and from his live dribble comes the means to engage standout rookie Andre Drummond and semi-redeemed shooters Charlie Villanueva and Austin Daye. Frank typically rounds out that unit with either another ball-handler in Rodney Stuckey or an extra shooter in Singler, and both options help create the space necessary to blitz foes with pick-and-roll after pick-and-roll. For a projected lottery team to have this kind of order in a reserve lineup is absurd -- so absurd, in fact, that this group may wind up providing the lift that the Pistons need to truly vie for the eighth and final playoff spot in the East. They're fun, they're effective and they offer a beautiful display of logistically unencumbered basketball.
• The Sixers. Detroit may not have the prolific offense or stingy defense of a postseason team, but neither does the other team on the playoff bubble. Don't be fooled by the notion of the Sixers as a more established postseason commodity. Philadelphia hasn't been able to execute defensively without the help of Andre Iguodala and Elton Brand, to the point that Doug Collins' team now ranks 17th in points allowed per possession. As uninspiring as the Pistons' play has been overall (Detroit ranks 19th in net rating for the season), the Sixers have actually been more so (23rd in net rating). Things have only gotten worse for Philly of late, and though Bynum has the potential to dramatically change the Sixers' outlook, he'll also be jogging through the first phase of his return while unsettling a lot of Philadelphia's offensive and defensive staples. The Pistons still have their work cut out for them in terms of unseating the Celtics, but I suspect that the Sixers won't be as serious a threat for a postseason berth as some might suppose.
Working Against Detroit
• Everything after the first quarter. Now for the bad news. The Pistons may be a splendid first-quarter team, but they often spend the remaining three frames gradually giving up the early advantage they fought hard to procure.
The unraveling begins in the second quarter, when opponents often survive the offense explosion of the Pistons' reserves and begin to exploit the defensive mess that the very same unit introduces. With Drummond unschooled, Villanueva a bit helpless and no chemistry between perimeter defenders and bigs, it's a wonder that Detroit has managed to break even on average in the second quarter. Once the third rolls around, opponents have generally been riled enough to come at the Pistons more deliberately, and, by this point, the defense seems to understand how to soak up the minimal court space of Detroit's cluttered starting five. The offense drops to 97 points per 100 possessions (relative to a 101.3 season average) as the Pistons' offense scrambles for scoring crumbs, and the margin shifts considerably in the process. Then in the fourth, everything completely falls apart. The lack of a go-to scorer, the problems with spacing, the reserves' defensive issues, Knight's limitations as a playmaker and the judgment of inexperienced defenders (as evidenced by a huge increase in the Detroit fouling rate) all come to a head, as the Pistons undo all of their best early efforts.
Teams don't lose 27 games by accident. There may be interesting elements to the Pistons' performance, but Detroit is in the playoff conversation almost solely because they play in a meager Eastern Conference field.
• Whatever is going on between Lawrence Frank and Rodney Stuckey/Lawrence Frank and Andre Drummond/Lawrence Frank and ???. The Pistons may have a better bench than most teams in their position, but that doesn't mean they can afford to squander talent. Some unknown sin inspired Frank to suspend Stuckey from Detroit's most recent game without announcement or explanation, just as some vague faults have prevented Frank from giving the productive Drummond a bigger slice of playing time. No matter how minor these issues seem, they come at a certain cost to the relationship between player and coach or to in-team chemistry in general.
Things will be said and done in the NBA behind closed doors, and the issue here is not at all one of disclosure. Frank and the Pistons are only obligated to share only so much with the public, and I don't fault anyone involved for wanting to keep this matter within the team. But Detroit will need a dozen factors working in its favor to beat out Boston for that eighth seed, and some growing tension between Frank and his players can only make matters worse. Stuckey is set to return to the lineup and Drummond's minutes are on the rise, but if these kinds of backstage issues continue, it may influence the way the Pistons play.
• No help from the schedule. There's not a ton of variance across the league when it comes to strength of schedule, but it certainly doesn't help the Pistons' cause that they have a tougher remaining slate by win percentage relative to the Sixers or Celtics. Among the challenges left on the schedule: three games against the Pacers (including a home-and-home series on back-to-back nights), three games against the Nets, two games against the Bulls (presumably with Derrick Rose back in the mix), two games against the Knicks and one game against the Heat -- not to mention a slew of single-game affairs against some of the best teams in the West (Spurs, Clippers, Grizzlies, Warriors). Should the Pistons make it through all of those games within striking distance of the eighth seed, they'll have a chance to play both the Celtics and Sixers with a lot on the line in early April. Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com.