Why, despite blowout loss, Detroit Pistons may be playing their best ball of the season

Detroit Free Press

The Detroit Pistons’ best stretch of basketball this season coincided with a spate of injuries to key players.

But an argument can be made that it wasn’t a coincidence. In their 11 games played since Nov. 11, the Pistons have a net rating of minus-6.8 — not good, but an improvement over their league-worst net rating of minus-10.3 during their first 12 games.

Remove their 30-point blowout loss Tuesday to the New York Knicks, which could be chalked up to tired legs after a long road trip and a grueling schedule, and the Pistons have a net rating of minus-4.5 since Nov. 11; still not good, but a significant improvement compared to the first three weeks of the season. And that’s despite Isaiah Stewart missing seven games, Saddiq Bey missing four, Jaden Ivey out for three games and Cade Cunningham not playing at all during that stretch.

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“Our ball movement, body movement was pretty good,” Dwane Casey said of the team’s improved play Sunday. “(Jaden) Ivey was attacking the paint, getting kick-outs. It sounds trite, but we made shots on the kickouts and we made our open 3s and we got to the rim and finished and made our free throws. I know it sounds trite and elementary, but it came down to that. It came through body movement, ball movement and screening. Offensively and defensively, we were tied together and did a much better job as that road trip went on.”

The Pistons are playing better. The challenge for Casey, who has had to manage a revolving door of injuries since training camp, will be figuring out how to keep it going. Tuesday’s 140-110 loss to the Knicks was their first double-digit defeat since the Knicks beat them on Nov. 9 (prior to that, they lost five games by at least 20 points). Even though Casey believes it was a “schedule loss,” he also thought the game revealed the team has yet to find a viable first and second unit when core players are healthy.

In the last month, the Pistons went down to the wire with the Los Angeles Clippers and Lakers, Sacramento Kings, Phoenix Suns and Cleveland Cavaliers, and picked up close road wins over the Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz. It was an encouraging stretch for a rebuilding team missing at least two of its top-six offensive players during each of those games.

Alec Burks, who made his season debut Nov. 11 after recovering from left navicular fracture surgery, was a big factor. Prior to his zero-point, 0-for-2 shooting clunker Tuesday against the Knicks, he was third in the NBA among bench players in scoring at 16.7 points per game in just 21.3 minutes. He did so while shooting 44.8% overall and 42.7% from 3-point range. Burks also got to the free-throw line at a high rate, leading all bench players with 5.1 made free throws per game.

Burks has a knack for getting defenders off-balance and drawing contact as he rises for a shot. He has become a fixture of Detroit’s crunch-time lineups; his passing and shot-making have helped him emerge as one of the team’s most reliable overall offensive players.

The Pistons have also found success moving away from their two-big lineups, which injuries to Marvin Bagley III at the beginning of the season and Stewart in recent weeks forced them to do. Eventually, they want Stewart to grow comfortable playing both power forward and center — his natural position, but also a position that exposes his lack of size compared to other NBA bigs.

The thought is that with Stewart at the four and one of Bagley and Jalen Duren at the five, the Pistons will be able to maximize their rebounding and rim protection while still providing adequate spacing for their guards. Stewart has embraced the 3-ball, as his career-best 5-for-9 outside shooting performance Tuesday indicates. But the Knicks outrebounded the Pistons, 51-30, and scored 68 points in the paint.

“Playing the four is new to me, and playing with a big,” Stewart said after the loss. “ I feel like me and Marv are going to be fine. We’ve only had small sample sizes. There was times he was out with injuries, I was out with injuries. We haven’t had much time to play together. Now that we’re back, I feel like we’re going to be in sync and that’s going to work out.”

The two-big lineup has also led to Bey, who returned from injury Sunday, being moved to the second unit. Bey came off of the bench for the first time this season Nov. 14, when the Pistons started Stewart, Bagley and Bojan Bogdanovic in the frontcourt. Injuries thrusted him back into the starting lineup, but he came off of the bench once again on Tuesday when the two-big starting lineup returned.

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Bey has been in a slump this season, shooting just 40.6% overall and a career-low 27.2% from 3. Coming off of the bench isn’t a demotion, Casey said. It should give him more time as a primary option, and gives the second unit a big-bodied wing who could provide much of the upside the first unit has gotten from Bojan Bogdanovic.

“Saddiq has done nothing wrong,” Casey said Wednesday. “Him being on the second unit, hopefully, it’s a plus for us like Killian (Hayes) with the second unit last year. It’s about the fit. As far as the usage and the positioning, we have too many cooks in the kitchen on the first unit. I think Saddiq will be a big help to the second unit once they get used to playing with each other, once everyone digests the fact that he’s on the second unit. It’s not a demotion, and I told him that it’s a promotion. It’s hard to understand that being a young player going from starting to off the bench, but he can thrive in that role. We have to see what fits with all of our guys as far as the team is concerned.”

Playing two bigs together is an adjustment, but the Pistons are going to give players time to figure it out. The team found some momentum over the last two weeks. With the roster nearing full health — sans Cunningham, who could be facing season-ending surgery for a stress fracture in his left shin — it’ll be a continuous process figuring out how to maximize the roster’s depth.

“We’re right in the middle of training camp starting all over again without a lot of practices,” Casey said. “I like what the options and versatility gives us. We’ll have to get a good look and see how long it takes us to come together.”

Contact Omari Sankofa II at osankofa@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa.

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