Can the Pistons make the playoffs without Jennings?
On Dec. 9, I wrote a piece about how the Pistons needed to make a move because the duo of Brandon Jennings and Josh Smith was not working in any sense of the word. The team was struggling mightily at 5-23, and they were in the midst of a 13-game slide. Someone had to let go. Less than two weeks later, the Pistons parted ways with Smith, releasing him. Though I figured this was a step in the right direction, what happened next I would have never seen coming. As soon as Smith’s name had been peeled off his locker, it was as if some sort of cosmic weight had been lifted from The Palace of Auburn Hills. Detroit rattled off seven straight victories and won 12 of its next 16 games. The Pistons took down some of the league’s best, including wins at Cleveland, San Antonio, Dallas and Toronto. All of a sudden, they found themselves just a few games out of the playoff picture.
Then came a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions. Jennings, who had increased his scoring — doubling his average from December to January from 9.3 to 20.9 — field goal percentage, 3-point percentage and free throw attempts and makes per game since Smith left, suffered a full tear in his Achilles last Saturday in a loss at Milwaukee. He will be sidelined for the rest of the season. The loss of the Pistons’ leading scorer and assist man leaves them extremely thin in the backcourt with work still needed to be done in the East. So is the chance of seeing Detroit in the playoffs still a real possibility?
The winner of the amazing race for the eighth seed in the East will likely require just 40 wins — if that. Charlotte currently holds that spot at 19-27. More than half of the Pistons’ remaining games are against teams that are currently below .500. Nineteen of 36 games, to be exact, including three matchups with the aforementioned Hornets, who Detroit has yet to play. In the Pistons’ first full game without Jennings, experienced vet D.J. Augustin dropped 35 points in a close loss to one of the conference’s top teams in Toronto. He may not be Jennings, but Augustin is a very solid player for Detroit to have as its next man up. He’s also seen both his scoring output and shooting percentage take significant leaps forward since Smith’s departure. He and Jennings are hardly the only ones who’ve stepped up, either. Big man Greg Monroe is scoring more, grabbing nearly five more rebounds a game, and has seen his shooting percentage sky rocket from about 45 percent in the month of December to almost 53 percent in January.
It’s not all about the offense. Since the move, Detroit is giving up almost three points less per game, and before last night’s off-game in Philadelphia, the Pistons were 3-1 in games where the winner had less than 100 points. San Antonio is 15th in the league, right in the middle, with 101.3 points per game. Before this stretch, Detroit was 3-9 in such contests. There are certain games that can be won by individuals on offense, but defense is always a team effort that doesn’t magically go away when one guy goes down. To go add to that, through the first 15 games without Smith, the Pistons have had five different leading scorers. There’s no reason the Pistons can’t continue to be a feel-good story and make the playoffs.
Not a Chance:
I’m all for feel good stories, but don’t even try it with this squad. While the groove Detroit had after ditching Smith was impressive, it wasn’t earth-shattering. Four of their wins during that span were by five points or less, three of which Jennings was the leading scorer. In the one game he wasn’t, Jennings still hit the game-winning shot at the buzzer. It’s difficult to replace a guy who in a win against Orlando, his last game before the injury, had 24 points to compliment his 21 assists. Sure, D.J. Augustin is a nice bench player, but a bench player none the less. Augustin has career averages of 10 points and four assists per game, and although some of that is due to a lack of minutes, you can’t expect him to stay on par every night in a league full of elite guards. The Pistons still have to find ways to slow down Ty Lawson, Tony Parker, Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard and more before it’s all said and done. Pair Augustin with a still very young, raw Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and it doesn’t look good for Detroit, as competition against talented back courts is always right around the corner. Case in point is Kyrie Irving, who dropped 38 points two games ago in a Pistons loss. Detroit followed that up with a 20-point loss to the lowly 76ers in which the Pistons put up a measly 69 points and Michael Carter Williams was one rebound shy of a triple-double. Augustin had just two points and didn’t connect on a field goal all night going 0-7.
Piston fans, don’t look to a somewhat favorable schedule for comfort. To go with a questionable backcourt and little depth at the small forward spot, you have a bench that’s in the bottom third of the league in scoring production. There are lots of winnable games, but few you’d take Detroit in hands-down. At 17-30, every winnable game has to be considered a must-win. With Detroit already on a four-game skid since Jennings went down, expect the Pistons to be picking in the lottery again next season.
There are clearly arguments on both sides. The Pistons didn’t claw back into playoff contention on Jennings’ shoulders alone, but they’ll certainly need some new faces to step up. Again. It’s clear that for the second time this season, Stan Van Gundy’s club will have to make some major adjustments. Whether it can make them successfully or not will determine whether the Pistons will still playing when 82 games or up or not. Even a trip to the first round would be a huge accomplishment for an organization that hasn’t been there for five straight years.
Follow David on Twitter @Dshug24