Detroit Pistons’ early record might be fluke: Reasons for hope and pessimism

Detroit Free Press

Omari Sankofa II
| Detroit Free Press

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After losing their first two games of the season, the Dallas Mavericks handed the Los Angeles Clippers a historic 124-73 beatdown last Sunday. Dallas led by an NBA-record 50 at halftime, and the Clippers, who were without superstar Kawhi Leonard, suffered the worst loss in franchise history. 

Later in the week, the Mavericks were on the wrong end of another blowout: They lost to the Charlotte Hornets, 118-99, and trailed by as many as 31 in the third quarter. 

The Milwaukee Bucks suffered a 20-point defeat to the New York Knicks a week ago. A game later, they made an NBA-record 29 3-pointers in a 47-point thrashing of the Miami Heat.

The Washington Wizards started the season 0-5, but picked up their first win Friday with a 21-point win over the Minnesota Timberwolves. 

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Because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, daily testing and fanless arenas, the 2020-21 NBA season was destined to be a weird one. Its first 12 days have been even weirder than many anticipated. The blowouts have been frequent, and a number of teams are either exceeding expectations, or falling well short. 

Detroit Pistons head coach Dwane Casey has a few theories why this season has been so unpredictable. 

“I think there’s a lot of factors,” Casey said before Friday’s game vs. Boston. “One, shortened training camp, guys are out of rhythm, out of sorts, so to speak. Pandemic, testing. I think the lack of fans, you don’t have that energy boost when a team does get behind to pick you up, or even opposing fans to pick you up, so to speak. 

“There’s a lot of different things going on, and I think it will even itself out. But it’s totally unusual, the number of blowouts to start the season.”

The Pistons, who started the season 0-4 before an upset win over the Celtics on Friday, haven’t been exempt from the weirdness. It makes it tougher to evaluate how good or bad they currently are, and how they’ll look at the end of the season. 

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But one thing is clear: The Pistons had little time to prepare following a busy offseason. And it has been reflected by their play on the court.

A common refrain around the league is after a condensed offseason, NBA teams are playing as though it’s still preseason. That’s especially true for the Pistons, who returned four players from last year’s roster and have been together for less than a month. 

Derrick Rose, one of the returnees, said Thursday he deserves more of the blame for the slow start, compared to the rookies who are playing games less than two months after being drafted. 

“I put that on me, as far as the losses, the turnovers, all that,” Rose said. “Not playing ball or pickup for seven to eight months, and coming right back to it. I’m a little rusty, so I can only imagine what everybody else is going through. Preseason usually be eight games, and they cut it short. This is them in preseason, in a way. Can’t complain, we’re pros. We gotta go out there and play with no excuses.” 

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If a legitimate excuse exists for the Pistons, it could be that no team saw as much offseason roster turnover as they did. According to an roster continuity ranking published Dec. 3, Detroit’s returning players account for 24% of the total minutes played by last year’s roster. It’s the lowest percentage in the league, and the actual number is a tad lower. Former two-way forward Louis King, who logged 62 minutes last year, was waived Dec. 14. 

As a point of comparison, the 4-1 Indiana Pacers are enjoying the most continuity of any roster. They returned 15 players and 98% of their total minutes played last season. Even the 29th-ranked Oklahoma City Thunder returned 34% of their total minutes from last year, 10 percentage points higher than the Pistons. 

Like the rest of the NBA, the Pistons are playing despite little time to prepare for the season with so many new pieces. Their final offseason trade was finalized Nov. 27, when they acquired Delon Wright from the Mavericks. Training camp started nine days later. So the Pistons have only been playing basketball together for 28 days — a stretch that includes four preseason games and five regular season games. 

We’re seeing things that usually happen behind the scenes and in low stake-situations during summer league, offseason workouts, training camp and preseason play out during NBA games that will be tallied in their final record. Casey has made it clear it’ll be a few weeks into the season before he finds any consistency in his rotation. He hasn’t even had enough time to install all of his offensive sets. 

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“Our offense is still behind our defense, and guys are still figuring out the nuances, the timing, when to go, how to screen, spacing, all those things that take a little bit more time,” Casey said after practice Saturday. “It’s a plus when you do have continuity.

“There is something to that and we’re eventually gradually going to get there where guys understand and know what we’re doing. Not that they don’t know, but as far as when to do things and where we can take advantage of certain situations, with different looks, all those things will come.”

The Pistons have one of the worst offensive ratings in the league. Through five games, they’re scoring 103.2 points per 100 possessions, which ranked 23rd in the NBA after Friday’s slate (league average is 108.7). The number doesn’t tell the full story: They’re one of the best offensive teams in first quarters, scoring 114.6 points per 100 possessions (sixth overall). In fourth quarters, that craters to 90.2 points per 100 possessions — the second-worst mark. 

It’s reflected in their overall record. They’re 1-4, but had double-digit leads in two of their losses, and led the Cleveland Cavaliers by eight points late in the fourth quarter and nine points in the first overtime. Their lack of offensive chemistry, which hasn’t hurt them early in games, becomes glaring in crunch time. 

Saturday’s upset against the Celtics was nearly more of the same, as the Pistons led by 21 points in the second quarter but saw Boston take the lead in the fourth. But in a reversal of their recent fortunes, they managed to hold on to a 96-93 victory without significant contributions from three of their returning four players from last season. Blake Griffin missed the game due to concussion protocol, and Svi Mykhailiuk and Sekou Doumbouya played 18 and 11 minutes, respectively. However, both Mykhailiuk and Doumbouya played in the fourth quarter. 

The Pistons held Boston scoreless during the game’s final four minutes and 15 seconds and Casey said it’s a defensive effort they can build on while the offense continues to gel.

“Last night we didn’t shoot the ball well at all, but I thought we defended as well as we could at the right time,” Casey said. “We’ve had good defensive stands.”

The Pistons have begun likely the toughest stretch of their season. They play the Celtics on Sunday, and face the Milwaukee Bucks three times in their following five games. According to, the Pistons have the hardest remaining schedule in the NBA. That only includes the first half of the season, as the second half has yet to be announced. But their record will likely get worse in the short-term. 

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Their inconsistencies have added more noise to an already chaotic portion of the season.

But beyond their record and performance, one of the biggest issues plaguing them remains time: They haven’t figured out how to make this big, young and sometimes-awkward roster fit together yet. 

Contact Omari Sankofa II at Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa. Read more on the Detroit Pistons and sign up for our Pistons newsletter.

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