Would a big move at the trade deadline get the Pistons unstuck?
Kyle Lowry opened the second half by drilling a 3 over Andre Drummond as Stan Van Gundy fumed
The team had just reviewed its pick-and-roll coverages at halftime. Van Gundy wanted Drummond to corral Lowry at the 3-point arc instead of laying back. The Pistons spent training camp testing a more aggressive defense, and Drummond blew away the coaching staff with his speed and footwork. Once the season started, Drummond sank closer to the rim.
"There's a tug of war going on between us," Van Gundy told ESPN.com.
Lowry juked Kentavious Caldwell-Pope before launching. The fact that Caldwell-Pope was guarding Lowry at all is a sore spot. Caldwell-Pope chases opposing point guards because Reggie Jackson, alleged franchise player at that spot, hasn't been able to since recovering from a knee injury. The Pistons usually hide Jackson on the least-threatening wing player, a reprieve that draws shade from teammates -- including during an infamous players-only meeting in December, when a few guys hammered Jackson for his desultory play.
The meeting opened rifts that have only begun to heal. "The way they came at Reggie wasn't cool," Drummond told ESPN.com. "You can't beat a guy up for not playing at 100 percent right after coming back. Guys who have played with pain -- you think they would be more sensitive."
There are moments when the tensions melt away, and the Pistons transform into the team they expected to be after pushing the Cavaliers in the first round last season.
Drummond smothers Lowry 25 feet from the basket, as instructed. The trade-off: Jonas Valanciunas has a free run for an offensive rebound against the rest of Detroit's undersized frontline. But Tobias Harris meets him at the foul line, snares a gritty rebound, and ignites a transition attack in which the Pistons, normally so dull and low on playmaking verve, look positively vibrant.
It ends in an open corner 3 -- the shot Detroit never gives up on defense, but also can't squeeze from an offense that belches up more pull-up 2s than any other team.
"When we are connected like we were on that play," Harris told ESPN.com, "we are a different team."
Note who was not on the floor: Jackson. Detroit has played better, and with peppier spirit, when Ish Smith replaces Jackson. They run more, and fast-breaking helps the Pistons sidestep their crippling lack of 3-point shooting; opponents can't clog the paint if they don't have time to set up. Detroit ranks an ugly 24th in points per possession after opponent makes, but scores at a top-10 rate when they snatch a defensive rebound and flip ends, per the tracking site InPredictable.
"We found a groove with Ish," Drummond said. "And when Reggie came back, it has been a big adjustment."
Opponents have outscored Detroit by seven points per 100 possessions with both Jackson and Drummond on the floor -- a margin that would rank 29th among teams, per NBA.com.
"Reggie came back," Van Gundy said, "and we've struggled ever since."
Few anticipated this after Detroit rode opportunistic trades and an endless reel of Jackson-Drummond pick-and-rolls last season to their first playoff appearance since 2009. The step back has the Pistons worried they're about to approach the luxury tax for a mediocre team with no path to 50-plus wins. Their justifiable fear that no big free agent would ever consider Detroit pushed them to snare decent players under contract whenever they became available, even if they weren't perfect fits with Drummond and Van Gundy.
They needed talent; they would figure out the rest later. The figuring it out part has been harder than expected, especially with both Jackson and Drummond plateauing. Detroit has quietly explored the trade market for each of its franchise centerpieces, according to sources across the league, and come away disappointed with the potential return. (Van Gundy himself has said anyone is available for "the right price.")
Any Drummond deal at the deadline is an extreme long shot, but Jackson remains in play for Minnesota, Orlando, New Orleans, or some mystery destination. Even if Detroit keeps him, missing the playoffs would put dramatic changes on the table this summer.
Flipping Jackson or Drummond seemed an impossibility when camp opened. Jackson sliced up defenses in practices. Drummond was a wrecker blitzing pick-and-rolls beyond the 3-point arc, and even switching onto smaller guys.
Van Gundy wanted to revamp the Pistons on both ends, but Jackson and Drummond would remain the linchpins. He envisioned a side-to-side motion offense in which Detroit's secondary playmakers -- Harris, Caldwell-Pope, Marcus Morris -- would relieve Jackson of some ball-handling duties.
It was not going to be a teardown. The Jackson-Drummond dance would still be Detroit's default option.