Detroit Pistons

How this doomed season could have been saved

The Detroit Pistons were playing from behind since the start of the season, but there was a lineup tweak that could have given this campaign hope.

The Detroit Pistons have been playing catch-up since training camp started when Reggie Jackson was ruled out for the start of the season and ended up missing the first 21 games. Jackson never regained full faculties and the Pistons suffered as a result and will miss the playoffs after the promise of a season ago.

While last year Jackson was arguably the best player on the team (and certainly no worse than the second best player), the Pistons showed flashes of hope this season. In fact, noted marksman Ish Smith led one of the most potent offensive attacks in the NBA off the bench through the second half of January, the entire month of February and the beginning of March. Smith’s valiant efforts notwithstanding, he’s one of the worst shooters in the NBA and has a 47.6% true shooting rate. That’s the fourth-worst true shooting percentage in the NBA among all regular rotational players.

Just how did Smith lead such a devastating attack for so long? How could one of the league’s worst shooters quarterback an offense that scored 117.4 points per 100 possessions for almost two months?

It turns out that Smith’s unexpected dynamism may have had an even more dynamic player to thank in Tobias Harris. When the two shared the floor over that span, they scored 119.6 points per 100. That rate dropped to an entirely respectable 110.4 when Harris was off the floor, but the Pistons have been a grim sight since the beginning of February when Ish Smith plays without his partner in crime.

Since February 1st, Smith without Harris yields a 94.6 offensive rating. With Harris, they score 112.1 points per 100. It gets worse when we focus on recent games since Ish Smith moved back into the starting lineup. As of Friday afternoon (before the Pistons played the Bucks), the Pistons were scoring just 50.5 points per 100 possessions when Smith plays without Harris. It’s a small sample size, just over 100 possessions itself, but this is a small sample that tells a tale.

Over the six games that the Pistons have played since Smith moved back into the starting lineup, they’re scoring just 87.3 points per 100 possessions when Harris is not on the floor. That’s over a sample of 112 minutes.

Quite simply, the Pistons cannot score points when Ish Smith and Tobias Harris are split up. Almost 80% of Smith’s minutes were alongside Harris when they have their two month surge (they went 12-6 over that stretch).

Stan Van Gundy has tweaked and managed the starting lineup in countless configurations to find the right mix. He never did, which is tragic because that mix was right under his nose since the Pistons beat the Los Angeles Lakers on January 23rd.

You can’t fault him for trying almost everything, but Van Gundy can be faulted for not discovering the combination that would have given the Detroit Pistons a fighting chance to save their doomed season.