The Pistons were bad last season and they were going to have to prove that a strong start was no fluke. While teams like the Magic have regressed from hot starts, the Pistons have not. At 11-5, they are tied for second in the East with Toronto.
It’s easy to forget the Pistons were a playoff team two years ago. They had a disastrous 2017 season plagued by injuries and down seasons. Stan Van Gundy found a way to replace Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who never quite panned out, with Avery Bradley. Bradley is one of the premier perimeter defenders in the league with his lightning quick closing speed and a better than 40 percent 3-point shooter. Essentially, Bradley is everything the Pistons had hoped he would be when they drafted him.
Reggie Jackson played just 52 games last season and his productivity suffered. This season, Jackson is enjoying arguably his best season as a pro and the team is better for it. It’s hard to gain any ground when your starting point guard is ineffective.
Jackson’s lob target, Andre Drummond is enjoying a resurgence as well. Drummond didn’t have the injury issues Jackson did but he struggled last season. His field goal percentage was down. His rebounds were down. Fast forward to this season and while he hasn’t rediscovered his efficiency, he’s making up for it, shooting it a career high 63.9 percent at the line. Drummond is also averaging career highs in both rebounds (15.8 per game) and assists (3.4 per game). The latter is nearly three assists per game higher than his previous career high.
Losing a winnable game is hard to swallow. It was for Tom Thibodeau when his postgame press conference lasted a minute and a half, consisting mostly saying “Turnovers got us.” Coach was correct. However, the Pistons are trending towards remaining a good team. The Wolves were never going to win every close game and certainly weren’t going to finish the season 77-5. Even if the Pistons were hapless, teams lose and win games they shouldn’t. This organization is fortunate to have passionate fans but not every game has to be a referendum on the team.
The reality is that a strong starting lineup will only take you so far. Without proper depth, a team can be undercut by injuries or simple slumps. This was a big problem for the 2016-17 Timberwolves. The team spent money to solve this problem. Jamal Crawford has been added and Taj Gibson was signed to move Gorgui Dieng to the bench. These upgrades have largely improved the team but the reserves are certainly built like a house of cards.
Take Sunday’s game against the Pistons.
First, Taj Gibson gets into early foul trouble which meant more time for Gorgui Dieng. Sharing the floor with Crawford, the duo looked lost on the floor together. It was as if they were playing together for the first time. Two Crawford passes to Dieng resulted in turnovers. One was Dieng not expecting the pass back from Crawford but the other was a 50-50 pass that was both slightly overthrown but also unanticipated by Dieng. Dieng had been the team’s workhorse the last few seasons but has struggled this season as a bench player.
Then Crawford left the game with a migraine, which meant running Andrew Wiggins for nearly 44 minutes or playing the struggling Shabazz Muhammad. Thibs did ultimately bring Muhammad back briefly but Wiggins finished with 41 minutes with a game in Charlotte on Monday. Karl-Anthony Towns finished with 38 minutes, Jeff Teague with 39, and Jimmy Butler with 41 points. Gibson played 31 minutes but is averaging a career-high in court time at age 32 (In fact, Gibson has never played more than 30 minutes per game in his career).
Gibson can be preserved by giving Nemanja Bjelica some of his minutes. As it is, Bjelica should be the first man off the bench, especially over Muhammad. Bjelica entered Monday hitting 20-of-38 3-pointers and having an overall phenomenal start to the season. The issue is that Bjelica has to earn it and be assertive. The starters will treat him like Gibson, who thrives off of second chance buckets, and may not see the ball a lot. If he gets good looks from 3-pointers, he needs to take them without hesitation.
The Wolves will only go as far as their bench will take them this season. Having Crawford’s 19 points kept the team in the game on Monday despite falling short. What’s concerning is what happens when Crawford can’t play. They’ll have to figure something out if they want to have the best season possible.
I asked Tom Thibodeau before Sunday’s game against the Pistons how many games it takes before a small sample is no longer a small sample. Twenty games out of 82 may not seem like many but it’s right about a quarter of them.
Thibodeau said that 20 games is the benchmark for teams to use in evaluation. The coach said that this is the first time you start to see what you have and what you need. He added teams at this point aren’t necessarily who they are going to be; circumstances like injuries can play a key role. For instance, the Spurs may not truly know what they have until Kawhi Leonard returns and plays a few games. The same could be said for Cleveland and Isaiah Thomas.
What the coaching staff does with this initial evaluation remains to be seen. Do they make a few trades? Shuffle the rotation? We’ll have to see.
You may remember Malcolm Lee. He was a part of the flurry of draft night moves by David Kahn, traded with Norris Cole and cash to Chicago for Nikola Mirotic. Cole was immediately moved to Miami for Bojan Bogdanovic, who was swiftly dealt to Brooklyn for a 2013 second round pick (Lorenzo Brown) and cash.
Cashing out draft picks and swapping players for cash seems to have been all in hopes of paying Kurt Rambis’ contract buyout. Needless to say, the Timberwolves passed on several rotation players that night. Lee, however, was not one of those.
The Timberwolves liked Lee so much that they gave him a guaranteed contract, which is highly unusual for a second-round pick. Lee never came close to meeting expectations. He played in 35 games over two years, including starting 12-of-16 games in 2013. Lee was forced into two surgeries that ended both his season and Timberwolves career.
Lee was dealt that Summer to Golden State, who flipped him to Phoenix. As a part of the Marcin Gortat deal, Lee was sent to Washington who promptly waived him. After sitting out the 2014 season, Lee caught on with the Sixers for one game before being waived.
Poor production and injuries derailed a once-promising NBA career. Lee averaged four points, 1.9 rebounds, and 1.5 assists per game on 38.5 percent shooting from the field. There was more expectation than usual for Lee since second round picks rarely come with any hype. The NBA may not have worked out for Lee but he has extended his career but playing overseas in Turkey and Igokea in Bosnia-Herzegovina.