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Brandon Jennings can't score, Josh Smith can't shoot and for now the Pistons find themselves on the outside of the otherwise all-inclusive Eastern playoff party. Still, the news isn't all bad for Detroit: they get to play the Bucks on Wednesday.
Assuming that actually happens, the Bucks will have only one starter under 6'10"...
The Bucks have lost nine straight. The Pistons have lost eight of eleven. Not good times in the Central Division, which aside from the rampaging Pacers features the worst-in-the-league Bucks, Rose-less Bulls, and the disappointing/desperate Cavs and Pistons. Wait, is it possible that the Bucks might be only the fourth-most depressed fanbase in their own division? No expectations, no problem, eh?
The problem in Detroit is that there actually were real expectations for this season. I mean sure, everyone could see that adding Brandon Jennings and Josh Smith to the mix wasn't ideal, but raw talent still wins a lot of games in the NBA--and the Pistons have plenty. Andre Drummond is a 20-year-old double-double machine/monster hybrid, Greg Monroe is a load down low, Rodney Stuckey is a major luxury off the bench and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was a guy many of us would have loved to see the Bucks end up with back in June (but hey, I think things worked out OK).
But alas: exactly halfway through the season they're 17-24 and percentage points behind the Bobcats for eighth seed, with little indication that their ill-fitting parts will mesh properly. Monroe's name has been bandied about as a target of the Wizards (among others), and it doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize that Monroe would be easier to move than Smith, who has (not surprisingly) been better at PF than SF once again this year (caveat: his shot selection has stunk at both spots).
Off and on. Coach Mo Cheeks seemed to admit the issues with his big starting lineup this week, saying "It's better having Josh Smith with one of the bigs," though it appears that the team will start all three of Drummond, Monroe and Smith together for the time being.
To see the problem with that group, start with the fact that they're being outscored by 8.1 pts/100 possessions in 426 minutes this season, while Detroit overall is being outscored by a vaguely more passable 3.4 pts/100 overall. According to nba.com/stats, that number jumps to an even -10.0 pts/100 in all lineups featuring Drummond, Monroe and Smith (about 2 pts/100 worse offensively and nearly 5 pts/100 worse defensively). Woof.
The further concern is that no combination of the two has actually been particularly good this season. Drummond/Monroe are -8.6 pts/100 (867 min), Drummond/Smith are -5.8 pts/100 (1003 min) and Monroe/Smith are -4.2 pts/100 (1106 min).
Not Smoove enough. A big part of the problem is Smith's lack of production in general: he's posting the worst efficiency metrics of his career (14.6 PER, 0.040 WS/48, 46.3% true shooting) months after signing a $54 million contract, which means the Pistons are basically stuck with him for now. Like Larry Drew before him in Atlanta, Mo Cheeks hasn't shown any ability to rein in Smith's horrendous shot selection, which is the only way to explain how an athletic 6'9" guy who shoots 65% in the restricted area can be hitting just a shade over 41% overall. It makes more sense when you hear Smith say that he doesn't think about where he is on the court when he shoots, which is just about the dumbest thing ever for (I repeat) a 6'9" guy who shoots 65% in the restricted area....and 23.9% from three.
Battle of the Brandons. Speaking of poor shooting: Brandon Jennings everyone! Jennings enters Wednesday's action shooting a career-worst 36.9% from the field, which is saying something given he shot worse than 40% in three of his four pro seasons leading up to this one. He's also moved up his usual February swoon to January this season, having connected on just 25.5% of his field goals in eight January games, including an 0/7 shooting night in Detroit's 112-103 loss to the Clippers on Monday.
That said, it's not all bad news for Brandon. While his turnovers are also way up, he's finally racking up double-digit assists with regularity and ranks fifth in the NBA with a career-best 8.3 dishes per game.
His replacement in Milwaukee has similarly had his ups and downs, though Brandon Knight at least seems to be improving on his mediocre two-year stint in the Motor City. Like his predecessor, Knight has become a primary scorer in Milwaukee--which depending on your perspective was either a) a role demanded of him given the Bucks' lack of other talent or b) a product of his inability to run an offense/make others better. As always, I'll be the diplomat and say it's something in between.
Knight's assist/turnover rate remains poor (5.2 apg and 3.2 to per 36 minutes), his scoring efficiency remains substandard (52% true shooting) and he still seems to lack the P&R instincts you want to see in a modern point guard. But he's also improved his numbers across the board--raw, per-minute and advanced. The Bucks score 3.1 pts/100 with him on the court, his shooting percentage is creeping towards respectability (52.0%) and his PER is better than Jennings' for the first time in three seasons (16.3 vs. 15.8). Unfortunately that improvement hasn't carried over to games against Knight's former teammates: he's averaged just 10 ppg on 33% shooting in the Bucks' two losses to the Pistons thus far this season.
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