Buy stock in the Detroit Pistons
By HUNTER KOSSODO
College Contributor Network
Say what you will about the Eastern Conference, but there have been a few feel-good stories coming out of the West's less-talented little brother.
Chief among them are the 36-8 Atlanta Hawks, a team that can't go five seconds without being compared to the defending champion San Antonio Spurs. The Wizards and Raptors have also taken the leap to being possible Finals teams. Even the Milwaukee Bucks are a surprise six-seed three months into the season despite having lost Jabari Parker to a torn ACL in mid-December.
It was apparent right after the season started that the Detroit Pistons weren't going to be one of those pleasant surprises. A loss on December 21 to the Deron Williams- and Brook Lopez-less Brooklyn Nets brought the Pistons to a 5-23 record. They were the basically the physical embodiment of head coach Stan Van Gundy's patented tortured expressions.
Then something magical happened. On December 22, the Pistons decided the best thing they could do with spacing-nightmare and professional bricklayer Josh Smith would be to actually pay him not to play for the team anymore, and they waived him. After that, the Pistons won their next seven games and are currently sitting pretty, relatively speaking, just out of reach of the playoffs at 17-27.
Detroit's resurgence has been mostly boiled down to two things. The mere absence of Smith's presence in the city of Detroit and Van Gundy's now immortal "form a f****** wall" speech to his team in the waning seconds of a win over the Spurs.
But that isn't giving enough to the players, is it? After all, Brandon Jennings just had a game in which he had 24 points and 21 assists. I don't remember him being able to do that before.
Lets start with Jennings. With Smith out of the picture, the Pistons are running with a starting five of Jennings, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Singler, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond. Drummond stays in the paint, Monroe likes to move around the elbow, Singler knows the three-point line is where his bread is buttered and so does Caldwell-Pope.
That makes it a lot easier for a slashing point guard like Jennings to not have his teammates clogging the paint and to have long-range shooters at the ready for a kick-out.
Ever since his All-Rookie First Team year, Jennings has been labeled a me-first inefficient chucker who couldn't live up to the hype. Over the past month, Jennings made huge strides in dispelling the criticism.
In the first 15 games since Smith was released, Jennings averaged exactly 20 points (on over 41 percent shooting) and 7.2 assists per game. He was also turning the ball over at a career-low pace and at the same rate as Chris Paul.
On the 16th game, on January 24 against the Bucks, Jennings hurt his left leg badly and was still writhing painfully on the floor even nearly 20 seconds after he fell. It didn't bode well then, and it's since been reported that he'll be out for up to nine months. It's a terribly disappointing turn to what was shaping up to be Jennings' best season as a pro.
With Monroe and Drummond on the front court, that gives Detroit two double-double machines who don't get in the way of each other. Monroe is a smart passer and has some touch to his shot outside of the paint. Drummond is an elite defender who stays in the paint and is second in the league in rebounds per game despite being the only one in the top 10 who averages fewer than 30 minutes a night.
Nowhere is their rebounding prowess felt more than on the offensive end, a stat that Drummond is the league leader of. In fact, Drummond has 30 more total offensive boards than second place DeAndre Jordan in 171 fewer minutes of playing time. Five spots down from Drummond on the leaderboard is his teammate Monroe.
What I'm trying to say is this team is just constructed smartly. A season-ending injury to Jennings may be too much for the Pistons to overcome as far as the playoffs are concerned, but there should still be a lot of optimism surrounding this team.
This is a young team, and they've finally just realized how good winning feels. Sure, it's a small sample size of winning basketball of a 12-3 stretch early in the season, but now they have the formula.
Detroit should be a better team next season and have their eyes set on the playoffs from the jump. A lot of that has to do with Jennings picking up where he left off this season and the development of KCP, but Drummond is a future All-Star in this league.
The interesting part will be Monroe, who was sure to be a goner last offseason but accepted Detroit's one-year qualifying offer after the market for him ran dry. Detroit has a decision to make, Monroe has been huge for this team of late and there aren't a lot of 6-foot-11 guys with the skill-set he possesses running around.
Although it wouldn't surprise me to see the Pistons go full Van Gundy and go after a stretch four to surround Drummond with shooters. He did lead a team eerily similar to that to the NBA Finals.
Hunter Kossodo is a junior at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. He is a rabid supporter of Boston sports having lived there for most of his life. Follow him on Twitter: @HKossodo