By ERIC GARANT
Though their 9-10 record was good for the sixth seed in a historically woeful Eastern Conference, the Detroit Pistons cannot feel good about how they have started the season.
With the addition of forward Josh Smith and another year of maturation for extremely athletic center Andre Drummond, most expected the Pistons to improve significantly on defense but struggle a bit offensively due to the spacing issues that come with starting three non-shooters.
Thus far, the Pistons have impressively sported a league-average offense, averaging 101.8 points per 100 possessions, according to ESPN.com. This is in spite of the spacing issue, which has indeed caused the team problems. Detroit has attempted 377 three-pointers, the 16th-most in the NBA, but converted just 30.2 percent of them, the third-worst mark in the league.
This tells us that Detroit is not getting its few good shooters open shots, and that teams are willing to live with its poor shooters heaving from deep. Smith, perennially criticized for his poor shot selection, has been the worst offender. He has already jacked up 89 triples in 19 games, converting just 27 percent of them.
He and Brandon Jennings have also just been disappointing in general. Jennings is averaging about 16 points and 8.5 assists per game, but he’s shooting just 38.2 percent from the floor, as he too has been too keen to fire away. He is also turning the ball over 3.5 times a game and is one of the worst defensive point guards in the league.
He is one of many creaky wheels on a defense ranked 21st in the league, allowing 102.1 points per 100 possessions.
Smith, an excellent defender during his career in Atlanta, is also struggling on that end with Detroit. He has looked a bit slow trying to guard small forwards, and his pick-and-roll defense has been downright lousy.
But it wouldn’t be fair to pin all of that on Smith. The whole team’s pick-and-roll defense has been so bad that it’s impossible even to narrow down what needs to be fixed among scheme, execution, technique and effort.
It looks like the Pistons want to defend screen-rolls with the “drop” method, where the man defending the screener on a high pick-and-roll drops down to the elbow area to contain the ball-handler while the man guarding the ball-handler chases around the pick and dissuades a three-point attempt.
The league’s best defensive teams – Indiana, San Antonio, and Chicago – employ the “drop” method. It is designed to handle the screening action without requiring major help that forces rotations. Its primary objective is to keep the ball-handler from penetrating toward the basket, and what it concedes, the mid-range jump shot, is the least-valuable shot in the game (because players make it only marginally more often than threes, and it’s worth a full point less).
It looks like this is what the Pistons want to do because they’ve failed so miserably in curtailing the ball-handler’s penetration that, if this is in fact the scheme they’re running, their execution has been sub-professional.
There have been simple mental errors, as well. Smith and center Andre Drummond occasionally gamble for steals or lean too heavily on their athleticism, allowing themselves to get out of position and giving up easy baskets.
This is all correctable, and it’s hard to imagine Smith playing this poorly defensively over an entire season. Giving more minutes to backup forward Jonas Jerebko, the team’s best perimeter defender, also couldn’t hurt.
The poor defense has obscured monster starts to the year for Drummond and guard Rodney Stuckey.
Stuckey is shooting 47.5 percent from the field, which would comfortably be his career high. And he’s doing it at a relatively high volume, averaging 12.3 shots attempt per game. He’s hitting 34.5 percent of his shots from deep, which is also much higher than his career average.
Drummond, for his part, is 10th in the league in player efficiency rating and second in rebound rate, the percentage of missed shots that a player rebounds. He’s still really just learning how to play on both ends, and he still can’t make his free throws, but he has shown absolutely no signs of regression while assuming a much heavier workload so far this season.
With the New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets in absolute free-fall, and with Derrick Rose out for the year with another injury in Chicago, a top-four seed and home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs is completely up for grabs. This is an opportunity the Pistons should not allow themselves to miss.
By ERIC GARANT
When Ohio State plays Michigan, it doesn’t matter how the two teams have fared that year. It’s going to be a tough game.
People say this a lot. Today, it was true.
Quarterback Devin Gardner was intercepted by cornerback Tyvis Powell on a two-point conversion attempt with 32 seconds left to play, allowing the Buckeyes to escape the Big House with a 42-41 victory in a back-and-forth game that was much closer than it was supposed to be.
It’s a call that will come under a lot of scrutiny in the weeks to come, but it was the correct call.
Michigan had moved the ball with great success all game long, and shown no ability to stop Ohio State’s running game. The Wolverines’ odds of scoring from 2 yards out were higher than their odds of defeating the Buckeyes in overtime.
“We weren’t doing a good job slowing them down,” coach Brady Hoke said. “We wanted to go win the football game.”
The execution of the play – in which Gardner was under immediate pressure and threw to a receiver who wasn’t even looking for the ball yet – deserves whatever criticism it gets. But the decision itself accomplished what all coaching decisions are supposed to: it gave the team the best chance to win.
“It’s up to us to execute, and it didn’t happen,” receiver Jeremy Gallon said.
The call to go for two and the win was one of many aggressive decisions made by Hoke, as he correctly identified that his team needed to take some chances to hang with the Buckeyes.
Hoke twice spurned field goal opportunities on fourth down deep in Buckeye territory during the second half. One play failed and turned the ball over; the other led to a touchdown.
Hoke’s worst decision of the day came at the end of the first half. Ohio St. had just scored to tie the game at 21, and Michigan got the ball back on its own 19-yard line with 56 seconds on the clock and a single timeout.
Attempting to move the ball and get a score before halftime in this scenario is risky. With so little time left, any serious attempt to score involves throwing the ball. If Gardner throws incompletions that stop the clock, the Wolverines could be forced to give the ball back to Ohio St. with enough time for the Buckeyes to mount a scoring drive of their own.
But, his team was a heavy underdog, and the decisions he made in the second half show that Hoke knew it. Running out the clock and getting to halftime, as Hoke did, is a conservative move. Conservatism was not a luxury the Wolverines should have afforded themselves.
Conservatism in this spot also implies a lack of trust in Gardner. For most of the year, he was deserving of such distrust. Not today.
Favored by more than two touchdowns, the third-ranked Buckeyes scarcely eked out the win despite gashing Michigan all day on the ground. Running back Carlos Hyde and quarterback Braxton Miller combined for 379 yards and four rushing touchdowns.
But Gardner allowed Michigan to keep pace, producing 476 yards of total offense and throwing four touchdowns.
Though he limped noticeably during the post-game press conference, a morose-seeming Gardner denied that the physical toll of the season had affected him.
“It didn’t restrict me at all,” Gardner said.
Receiver Jeremy Gallon had another huge day in his final game in Ann Arbor, catching nine passes for 175 yards and a touchdown. Freshman tight end Jake Butt had the best game of his career, producing five catches for 85 yards and a touchdown.
Both teams were able to establish a rhythm early on offense, as the first quarter ended in a 14-14 tie with each team averaging over nine yards per play.
Following a Michigan touchdown early in the second quarter, the intensity of the rivalry came to fruition, as a fight broke out on the ensuing kickoff. Michigan’s Royce Jenkins-Stone and Ohio State’s Dontre Wilson and Marcus Hall were ejected.
“We don’t like each other,” linebacker Jake Ryan said. “That stuff’s going to happen.”
The undefeated Buckeyes will play Michigan State in the Big 10 title game on Dec. 7.
It’s a game that should worry OSU coach Urban Meyer. His team played a soft schedule and struggled against the better teams; it won eight of its games by an average of 38.75 points, but its four toughest by just seven per game.
Michigan State is the best team the Buckeyes will have seen this year, and the most physical. The Spartans will not give up 393 rushing yards like the Wolverines did.
Win or lose, the Buckeyes will head to a BCS bowl, and their victory today keeps their national championship hopes alive.
As the Wolverines await their own bowl assignment, they will surely lament how close they came to spoiling their archrival’s season.
By NATALIE WRIGHT
To NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell,
The NFL has a glaring opportunity to step up and decide what it stands for. While some may say it’s just a game, football has become such an integral part of American culture that I would argue the NFL has nearly as much power as any political entity in this country.
No, it does not have the power to enact policies that directly affect every citizen, but it controls an immense fount of soft power. That’s why last year’s average 30-second Super Bowl ad cost $4 million.
The NFL’s influence begins to take hold at a young age. The players are idols to children. The league holds young hearts and minds in its hands – and it has a chance to show them what’s right and what’s wrong. And bullying, regardless of the context, is wrong.
Ever since the story broke that Miami Dolphins offensive tackle Jonathan Martin brought allegations of bullying against his teammate Richie Incognito, the media coverage has focused on the motivations behind Incognito’s racist slurs and threats.
Were the comments meant to be taken seriously, or was it just typical locker room antics?
Incognito has defended himself saying people don’t understand that this is just the way teammates communicate.
What I don’t understand is why the context matters. It’s harassment regardless of the intentions. And when this kind of “communication” is happening continuously, it’s bullying.
This conversation would not even have two sides if Incognito worked in an office. He would be fired immediately.
The only argument Incognito has is that his thinking is a product of the locker room culture. He’s displacing the blame to athletes as a whole rather than taking responsibility for the things that he said and did.
“All this stuff coming out, it speaks to the culture of our locker room, it speaks to culture of our closeness, it speaks to the culture of our brotherhood. The racism, the bad words, that’s what I regret most, but that’s a product of the environment,” Incognito told Fox.
And his teammates, along with many spectators, have agreed and defended him, telling the victim, Martin, to “man-up.”
First of all, to say that bullying and racism speak to a culture of “closeness” is perplexing to say the least.
Second, undoubtedly Incognito’s attitude and actions are a product of his environment, but the fact is that does not mitigate his responsibility for the words that came out of his own mouth.
The NFL needs to take a firm stand against this behavior. Everyone involved should face harsh consequences. For players, that means lengthy and costly suspensions. Coaches who looked the other way, or who may have encouraged the behavior, should lose their jobs. And franchises that have long and continuing traditions of extreme hazing – and the NFL knows who they are – should be fined heavily.
If this behavior is a product of the environment, now is the time for the NFL to decide what kind of environment it wants to foster.
Keep in mind, millions of young eyes are watching.
Photos and Words by Kelly Bracha
By ERIC GARANT
It’s looking like that rarest of Novembers, one in which Michigan residents are thankful for the Detroit Lions.
Leading the division at 6-3 after narrowly beating Chicago in Week 10, the Lions are a strong team for whom the stars seem to be aligning.
Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers suffered a broken collarbone in a Week 9 loss to the Bears, whose own quarterback, Jay Cutler, was pulled at the end of the Lions game and looks battered. The Minnesota Vikings have run a QB carousel all year.
Former Detroit Lions, from left, Billy Sims, Lem Barney and Barry Sanders wear the retired jersey number 20 in a ceremony before a Thanksgiving Day game against Indianapolis in 2004. (MCT COURTESY PHOTO)
After having all of the breaks go against them in 2012, 2013 is playing out the opposite. Detroit is 3-1 against division foes after going winless last year, with the only loss coming without star wide receiver Calvin Johnson at Green Bay.
Rodgers will likely still be out when the two teams meet on Thanksgiving, and his backups are poor. At home, the Lions would probably be about a coin flip against a fully healthy Green Bay squad. In Rodger’s absence, they should be heavy favorites.
This is particularly good news because winning the division looks like it may be the only avenue to the playoffs. The Carolina Panthers, suddenly among the league’s absolute scariest defenses, seem poised to claim one of the two available wild-card spots. The other will presumably go the San Francisco 49ers.
In addition to their divisional opponents falling apart, the Lions also have the good fortune of facing a soft schedule down the stretch, the Packers being the only team left on the slate with a record above .500.
Detroit has improved noticeably on both sides of the ball. The Lions ranked 17th in scoring offense in 2012 and 27th in scoring defense. Through nine games, they rank 7th in scoring offense and 18th in scoring defense in 2013.
The difference on offense has largely been running back Reggie Bush, mostly known for coming out of the backfield and catching passes. He’s done that very well for the Lions, but he’s also been excellent carrying the football, producing 4.7 yards per rushing attempt.
Calvin Johnson has been more-or-less unstoppable in the eight games he’s played, catching 53 passes for 904 yards and nine touchdowns. With both Nate Burleson and Ryan Broyles going down with injuries, the burden has been high on Johnson, and he has not disappointed.
Quarterback Matthew Stafford has improved across the board in 2013. He’s completing a higher percentage of his passes and averaging more yards per attempt on them while throwing fewer interceptions and taking fewer sacks. Last year, Stafford was not the type of quarterback who got a team to the playoffs; this year he is.
On defense, everything begins with the two guys in the middle, tackles Ndamukung Suh and Nick Fairley. Though both players, and particularly Fairley, are still prone to the mental errors that have plagued their young careers, they have simply made life hell for their opponents this year.
Both guys are extremely difficult to block one-on-one, and they are consistently able to collapse the pocket. The two have combined for seven sacks.
But their bigger value is in how they make things easier for their teammates. So much attention has to be spent on blocking Suh and Fairley that everyone else is freed up a bit. Linebackers Stephen Tulloch and DeAndre Levy are good players having strong years. They both owe a debt to the big men in front of them.
The secondary is also improved. Last season, the Lions started cornerback Chris Houston 13 games and shuffled a lot of spare parts around him. This year, free agents Rashean Mathis and Glover Quin have stabilized the opposite cornerback and strong safety positions, respectively.
The Seattle Seahawks and New Orleans Saints look like the best teams in the NFC right now. The Lions are third.
It’s been 22 years since they’ve won a playoff game. It might not be much longer.
The option play was a thorn in Michigan’s side all game, and a bit of creativity from Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong on the play provided his team with the winning score in a 17-13 slugfest in Ann Arbor.
Armstrong started for the injured Taylor Martinez. On the game-winning play, the Wolverines were able to string him out as he came around tackle from the 5-yard line, but Armstrong improvised, flipping a forward pass to running back Ameer Abdullah, who plunged in for the touchdown.
Nebraska Cornhuskers linebacker Zaire Anderson (13) and linebacker David Santos (41) take down Michigan Wolverines running back Fitzgerald Toussaint in the first quarter in Ann Arbor, Mich. on Saturday, Nov. 9, 2013. (Kelly Bracha | washtenawvoice.com)
Abdullah ran for 105 yards on 27 carries and scored both Cornhusker touchdowns.
The loss is Michigan’s first at home under head coach Brady Hoke, ending a 19-game winning streak at the Big House.
Following a week of total offensive futility against Michigan State, the Wolverines fared little better against Nebraska, netting minus-11 rushing yards and again allowing seven sacks.
“It’s hard to explain, isn’t it?” Hoke said, when asked about his team’s minus-69 rushing yards over its past two games.
The Cornhuskers entered the game 46th in the nation in scoring defense, 70th in total defense and 86th in rushing defense. And they dominated Michigan’s offense.
Asked what his team needs to do better, Hoke said, “Just, everything.”
Michigan crucially failed to capitalize on a pair of late Nebraska turnovers. A fumble by receiver Quincy Enunwa handed the Wolverines the ball at the Nebraska 33-yard line at the end of the third quarter. After three plays went nowhere, Matt Wile missed a 52-yard field goal.
Michigan was quickly forced to punt on its next possession, and Nebraska receiver Jordan Westerkamp muffed it, setting the Wolverines up at the Nebraska 27. Two Derrick Green runs lost a yard as the Big House crowd voiced its disapproval. Michigan failed to convert third and long, and settled for a field goal to take a 13-10 lead that did not hold.
“There were a lot of plays out there we didn’t make,” quarterback Devin Gardner said.
Gardner put up respectable passing numbers, completing 18 of 27 for 196 yards and one TD. But Gardner’s problem of holding the ball too long persists; many of the seven sacks he endured were his fault.
An early third quarter play was a microcosm of the Gardner experience. He kept on the read-option, was met immediately in the backfield, miraculously shed the tackler, and ran forward for a few yards. But he continued trying to do too much as he attempted to circle backward around multiple Cornhusker defenders. The result was a fumble out of bounds and a 3-yard loss.
Clearly Gardner is gifted physically, but he has not progressed much at all as a decision-maker, and it’s hurting his team.
“I think maybe on a few plays I did hold it a little long,” Gardner said. “We’ve got to cut out the negative plays.”
By JON PRICE
“When it’s time, it’s time,” said an emotional Jim Leyland, announcing his resignation as Detroit Tigers manager a couple of days after the series-ending loss to Boston in the American League Championship Series. “And it’s time.”
Leyland spent the last eight of his 22-year career with the Tigers. In that time he had won two AL Pennants that put the Tigers in the World Series. Over his career, he won 1,769 games and a World Series with Florida.
But for many, he will be most remembered for his antics, emotions, and old-school mannerisms. He enjoyed a good smoke, a stiff drink and the occasional dustup with the umpire who missed a call.
He told it as it was, right to your face, often mumbling through a mouthful of fried chicken in a post-game interview. Jim Leyland always spoke his mind. On many things.
Here are some of our favorites:
On Barry Bonds: “I am the goddamn manager, and I’m going to run this goddamn team”.
On his unabashed love of cigarettes: “When you step outside in the cold, light up a cigarette and take a deep inhale… that’s about the best feeling in the world., you know? All the smokers out there, you know that feeling. Sometimes, smoking is fantastic.”
On superstition: “I’m going to wear these underwear until we lose, I can tell you that right now. And they will not be washed. And I don’t give a shit who knows it.”
On doubles: “Machado leads the league in doubles. I’m second in doubles: double vodkas, double scotches…”
On expectations: “From Day One of spring training I told them, don’t get caught up in expectations. Get caught up in how we’re going to live up to those expectations.”
On making tough decisions: “If somebody put a gun to my head and said ‘give me your 25 players,’ I could do it.”
On details: “A simple play, but the difference in a game. Happens all the time. Those are the little things.”
On living in Detroit: “What would you think about living in Detroit?”
On fan suggestions: “They’ll make ‘em, I’ll veto them.”
On Tigers fans: “I want to say thank you to our fans. I’m so proud of you, what you’ve done for our ball club, what you’ve done for me since I’ve been here, and I just hope that you feel like you’re getting your money’s worth. Because we try to entertain ya, you keep coming out, and I can’t tell you what you mean to us.”
To understand his Jim Leyland’s coaching style is to understand what made the veteran manager a perfect fit for the Tigers. He connected with this team and this city.
One thing is for sure: Whoever follows Leyland will have a giant’s shoes to fill.
Things move quickly in the coaching business. Very quickly.
Named the Mid-American Conference Coach of the Year following a six-win season in 2011, Ron English now finds himself firmly in the hot seat.
Before the six wins in 2011, English’s tenure in Ypsilanti wasn’t sterling: his debut 2009 season saw the team go winless, and his sophomore campaign wasn’t a whole lot better; the Eagles won two games, but their 10 losses were by an average of 30.6 points, including a 68-point demolition at the hands of Northern Illinois to close the year.
The team matched that 2-10 mark in 2012 against a difficult schedule, and English now finds himself directly under the gaze of new Athletic Director Heather Lyke.
Lyke has made no secret about her desire to make Eastern Michigan a more competitive member of the MAC.
“If we sponsor a sport, if we keep score, we want to win,” Lyke said.
English has made his reputation as a coach on defense. He coached the defensive backs at small colleges before landing the same position at Arizona State University in 1998, where he stayed until moving to the University of Michigan in 2003.
The Wolverines sported extremely stout run defenses in English’s two seasons as defensive coordinator, leading the country in rushing yards against per game in 2007. English also had a reputation for loving to blitz and attack the passer.
He has not found success in either area with the Eagles. Through eight games, the 1-7 Eagles had allowed 44.4 points and 256.4 rushing yards per game, both good (bad?) for 121st or worse among Football Bowl Subdivision teams.
The team has also failed again to generate a pass rush after finishing last season with an astonishingly low seven sacks. Seven sacks would represent one good game for most teams. To total that over the course of an entire season is extremely troubling for anyone, and particularly for someone who has hung has hat on pressure like English.
It’s very hard to see English saving himself. The Eagles have three games left on the schedule. One is against similarly inept Western Michigan; the other two seem like near-certain losses.
Even three or four wins for the season would probably not get English’s head out of the guillotine; there is no way one or two will.
Living it up in the penthouse as 2012 began, Ron English will find himself languishing in the outhouse early in 2014.
English was relieved of his coaching duties on Friday, Nov. 8, less than 24 hours before the Eagles’ home game against Western Michigan University. The Eagles started the year 1-8, including 0-5 in the Mid-American Conference.
“At this time, I have decided that a change in the leadership of our football team is necessary,” EMU Vice President/Director of Intercollegiate AthleticsHeather Lyke said in a statement on emueagles.com.
Offensive coordinator Stan Parrish will take over the head coaching duties on an interim basis. Parrish was formerly the quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator at the University of Michigan, among many other stops.
By ERIC GARANT
Photo by Kelly Bracha.
Michigan Wolverines tight end Devin Funchess (87) makes a leap over Indiana Hoosier cornerback Tim Bennett (24) for a touchdown in Ann Arbor, Mich. on Saturday, Oct. 19, 2013. (Kelly Bracha | washtenawvoice.com)
The numbers are literally incredible: 503 yards passing for quarterback Devin Gardner, on a staggering 17.3 yards per pass attempt; 151 yards rushing and four touchdowns for running back Fitzgerald Touissant; 369 receiving yards for wide receiver Jeremy Gallon.
These are numbers that you put up on NCAA 2K13 with the difficulty on Freshman. They aren’t numbers put up by real players in a real game.
But, they are real. Gardner set school records for passing and total yards, and Gallon set a Big 10 record for receiving yards against visiting Indiana on Saturday.
And their team almost lost.
There seems to be something off in every game for the Wolverines this year. Most of the time, it has been turnovers and lousy blocking, Devin Gardner trying to do too much and the five giants in front of him failing to open running lanes and keep the pass rush at bay.
Michigan turned it over twice against the Hoosiers, but that wasn’t its problem. Nor was blocking; the line, behind an inspired effort from tackle Taylor Lewan, opened up holes for Wolverine runners all day, and Indiana’s pass rush rarely even sniffed the pocket.
For the first time all year, each element of the offense performed at a high level.
Unfortunately, the exact opposite could be said of the defense. Indiana piled up 572 yards of total offense, churning out five-yard run after five-yard run seemingly at will, and making huge plays in the passing game.
A pair of fourth quarter interceptions allowed Michigan to pull away in a shootout, 63-47. Hoosier quarterbacks Tre Roberson and Nate Sudfeld each made a bad decision, unnecessarily forcing the action against a defense that had no answers for them.
The Hoosiers boast a dynamic offense capable of attacking from several angles. They’ve scored at least 28 points in each of their contests this season. It wasn’t the success they enjoyed on Saturday that should be disconcerting to Wolverine faithful as much as how easy it seemed.
As the second half wore on, it became clearer and clearer that touchdowns were going to be needed on each possession, because neither team could do anything at all to slow their opposition. For Indiana, this is annoying; for Michigan, it is infuriating.
The Wolverine’s defense looked impotent, and it looked unprepared. The Hoosiers would occasionally eschew huddling and hurry to the line. Three times Indiana caught Michigan completely off guard and produced a huge gain, including the game’s first touchdown, a 59-yard bomb to receiver Cody Latimer.
Cornerback Raymon Taylor was beaten on that play, and has been victimized repeatedly throughout the year on big pass plays. Opposite corner Blake Countess had a typically strong outing, but his competence is largely irrelevant when every other member of the secondary is so exploitable.
Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison certainly deserves some of the blame as well. In addition to the fact that his unit did not seem at all ready for Indiana’s hurry-up attack when the Hoosiers employed it, Mattison’s game plan was decidedly vanilla.
That was a bad idea going in against such a strong offense, and adjustments were never made. Indiana scored on seven consecutive drives during this game; how many more times did he need to see his defense fail before Mattison admitted that it wasn’t working?
The Wolverines remain unbeaten at home under coach Brady Hoke. So far this season, they have needed a last-second defensive stand against a hapless Akron team and a record-setting offensive day against a ho-hum Indiana one to keep that streak alive.
They’d better hope their genie has one more wish for them when Nebraska comes to the Big House on Nov. 9.
By ERIC GARANT
Detroit Pistons center Andre Drummond (1) dunks over Washington Wizards power forward Kevin Seraphin (13) in the second quarter at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., Saturday, December 22, 2012. (Chuck Myers/MCT)
Protecting the basket is the single most important task for an NBA team defensively. Since the departure of Ben Wallace in 2006 and Rasheed Wallace in 2009, it is a task the Pistons have failed at miserably.
After finishing in the top seven league-wide in defensive rating (which calculates points allowed per possession, a better indicator of a team’s defense than points allowed per game) from 2003-2008, the club fell to 16th in Rasheed’s final year, and has finished no better than 22nd after.
Not surprisingly, these four years of defensive futility did not result in many victories. A 27-win season followed by a 30-win one cost coach John Kuester his job in 2011, and Lawrence Frank did little better in guiding the team to 54 wins over the next two years (one lockout-shortened, to be fair). Maurice Cheeks now takes the reins.
And Cheeks has a heck of a lot more to work with. Andre Drummond and Josh Smith give the team a huge upgrade in terms of frontcourt athleticism and shot-blocking.
The leap from Greg Monroe to Drummond as the primary basket-protector is tremendous. Monroe is a good player, but he is slow-footed and earth-bound. Though smart and talented, Monroe is not capable of dissuading NBA players at the basket. Drummond is. So is Smith.
Just 19 years old last season, Drummond posted the 17th-best Player Efficiency Rating in the league.
PER was created by current Memphis Grizzlies Vice President of Basketball Operations and former ESPN columnist John Hollinger. It basically attempts to take all of a player’s contributions, both positive and negative, and turn them into one number. The important things to remember about PER: it’s per-minute and pace-adjusted, and it doesn’t account for defense outside of blocks and steals.
Drummond’s PER of 21.69 was the second-best among all NBA centers, and placed him ahead of superstars like Stephen Curry, Chris Bosh and Dwight Howard. This is slightly misleading because Drummond averaged only 20.7 minutes per game, and efficiency tends to go down as volume goes up. But again, he was a teenager. The odds are extremely favorable that Drummond will be better this year than he was last, whether that is ultimately reflected in his PER or not.
And that should terrify other teams. Per 36 minutes last year, Drummond averaged 13.8 points, 13.2 rebounds, and 2.8 blocks, while shooting 60.8 percent from the field. Those are All-Star numbers. With even marginal improvement in the next few years, Drummond projects to become a bona fide superstar, with one caveat.
There is no nice way to say it: Drummond’s free-throw shooting is atrocious. His 37.1 percent shooting from last year means that an average trip to the stripe for him produced 0.742 points. So, if a team fouled him on each possession, they would, on average, allow 74.2 points per 100 possessions. For comparison, the Indiana Pacers, last season’s stingiest defense, allowed 96.6 points per 100 possessions.
This is more than a hole in Drummond’s game; this is a chasm. An NBA player cannot shoot that poorly from the line. Drummond could be the best player in the league, and he’d still potentially be more of a liability than an asset if he shot that low of a percentage and other teams consistently fouled him.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that he almost has to improve. Among modern players, only Chris Dudley spent several years shooting free throws in the 30s, and even he eventually pushed his career average above 45 percent. There just isn’t historical precedent for a guy shooting as poorly as Drummond did last year over the long term.
The other good news is that he doesn’t need to improve all that much. Even pushing his average to a still-embarrassing 52 or 54 percent would probably be enough to keep teams from intentionally fouling him in most circumstances.
No matter his level of success in this area in 2013-2014, Drummond should restore the hope of Pistons fans. With he, Smith, and Brandon Jennings joining Monroe, this is the best core Detroit has had since its mid-2000s glory years.
The playoffs are a reasonable proposition, and things should only get better with time as the Pistons’ young center grows into his role. After four years of lousy basketball that have mirrored the city’s decay, Andre Drummond should finally give Detroit cause for optimism.