Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Pistons season preview

By Blake Froling

We all know where the Pistons stand in the NBA hierarchy: not good enough to win a title, not bad enough to get a top-3 pick in the draft. Most likely, the Pistons won't inch any closer to either of those extremes this season. That doesn't mean you still can't enjoy the race for the playoffs, even if that means a likely first-round exit. Here are three questions that will be answered in the coming months.

Who will finish more games? Ish Smith or Reggie Jackson

On paper, Jackson is a better point guard than Smith. But knee problems and lack of chemistry made the Pistons worse off when Jackson was on the floor than when Smith ran the point. For the Pistons to be legitimate contenders, they need a fully healthy Jackson to be able to run the pick-and-roll with Andre Drummond and to be that fourth quarter "closer," something that is not Smith's specialty. That would be in a perfect world. We don't live in a perfect world.

Smith has been the best performer on the team during the preseason and said he worked with Tim Hardaway during the offseason to improve his game. He couldn't shoot to save his life last year (47.7 percent true shooting percentage, 362nd in the NBA), but maybe that offseason work will improve his numbers. Players seemed to enjoy being on the floor with Ish more than Reggie last year, and the tension in the locker room was well documented. 

I think Ish will take that next step and become a better option at the point than Jackson. This will allow Stan Van Gundy to rest Jackson during the second night of a back-to-back or to restrict his minutes and keep him fresh. That all adds up to Smith starting more games than Jackson. However, the really intriguing thing to look for is who finishes more games. That's when you find out who SVG trusts in clutch situations. I think that will be Smith.

Check out Blake's interview with Detroit News Pistons writer Rod Beard here.

Can Avery Bradley stay healthy?

The most important offseason addition for the Pistons was clearly Avery Bradley. He's essentially the same player as Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who signed with the Lakers in free agency, only better. Bradley is widely regarded as one of the top perimeter defenders in the NBA and posted career highs in points, rebounds and assists last season with Boston. The only problem was that he missed 27 games with a strained Achilles. 

Bradley has never played all 82 games in a season and has missed a combined 109 games in the last six seasons. With another injury-prone guard in Jackson, the Pistons need Bradley to be the constant in the backcourt; Someone who can play with both Jackson and Smith but more importantly, just play a whole season. KCP only missed an average of 3.25 games per season in four years, and the Pistons need Bradley to be that consistent as well. 

In Detroit, Bradley has an opportunity to have a career year. He can now be the centerpiece of the offense for the first time ever. He's been used to playing with Isaiah Thomas, a ball-dominant guard, and before him the Big Three of Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. In Detroit, he can be leaned on as the go-to scorer in clutch situations, and I expect him to thrive. The only question will be if he can stay on the floor.   

Will Andre Drummond become elite?

Haters will say this is impossible. They'll be silenced when LeBron picks Andre to be on his team in the new All-Star draft. They'll be silenced when he shoots over 50 percent from the free throw line. I can't wait to silence the haters.

If you can't tell, I'm all aboard the Drummond bandwagon. 

He's already an elite rebounder -- he led the NBA in rebounding percentage last season. He's got all the physical tools to become the most dominant post presence in the NBA. Andre's also only 24 years old, still not even in his prime. His performance seemed to dip last season, in large part due to the absence of his pick-and-roll buddy Jackson. A lack of  decent shooters around him also limited his open looks. And we can't ignore the often-horrifying attempts at hook shots and other inefficient post moves too far away from the rim. 

This year, Drummond came into camp 30 pounds lighter and with two working nostrils. This should allow him to play with higher energy and intensity, something that was perhaps his second-biggest downfall last year. This should also help with his effort level on defense, which made him a liability last season. A man with his physical gifts and raw athleticism should never be a liability on defense.

Drummond's main downfall, obviously, was his horrendous free throw percentage, which was the worst in the NBA. In the preseason, Drummond made me and other Pistons fans giddy with anticipation as he sank 80 percent of his shots from the line. Maybe his mechanics changed, maybe his mindset changed. Whatever it was, he might have found the fix. Might.

This 80 percent mark is definitely not sustainable in any way. If Drummond can stay above 50 percent, or even approach the 60 mark, he'll be able to stay on the floor in late-game situations for the first time in his career. Then we'll really see what kind of player Drummond is, and what he can become.


Record: 41-41

Playoffs: 7 seed, loss in first round to the Boston Celtics

All-Stars: Andre Drummond

Drummond free throw percentage: 55 percent

NBA Finals: Cleveland vs. Golden State

NBA Champion: Golden State in six games 

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Lions need 4th quarter mentality all game

Blake Froling

I hope everyone knew it wasn't sustainable.

Matthew Stafford's late-game heroics always entertain us, and eight times last season actually brought the Lions a win. But it was never going to be sustainable. We're seeing that already this year through six games. It's called regression to the mean.

If the Lions are going to be serious contenders, they need to win games from start to finish, and do it consistently. This Sunday's game against New Orleans is the latest example of a team that digs itself a huge hole, then climbs back when the opposing defenses lay off the gas pedal. While Stafford and company should be applauded for not giving up in those situations, it's concerning that they have to do this every single week.

In the Lions' three losses this season, they've been outscored 95-57 in the first three quarters, then outscored their opponents 31-14 in the fourth quarter. Maybe last year those are wins, but those last-second comebacks that seemed to fall in Detroit's favor are now stalling out, and the Lions are 3-3.

If this year is going to be different, if the Lions are going to win the NFC North for the first time since 1993, then they need to show up in the first three quarters. Being a "good fourth quarter team" isn't going to take this team farther than another first-round exit in the playoffs. If that's ok with you, then sit back and watch Stafford chuck the ball around when he's down 21 and see what happens.

If you look at the consistently good teams, the Super Bowl winning teams, they have occasional fourth quarter comebacks, but they don't live off them like the Lions do. Until that changes, they'll never be a Super Bowl contender.

Don't get me wrong, cutting a 35-point deficit to seven like the Lions did Sunday against the Saints is impressive, but good teams wouldn't have been down 35 points in the first place. Regardless of how healthy Stafford really is, that should never happen.

So what's the problem in the first three quarters? Good question.

Right now, the Lions have a paper-thin offensive line that limits the plays offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter can call. Stafford usually doesn't have enough time in the pocket to let deep plays develop. The calls get conservative, the offense stagnates, and the Lions fall behind. Stafford gets beat up in the process.

In the fourth quarter, when opposing teams have the lead on the Lions, the defenses get more conservative and bring less pressure in hopes of avoiding the big play. This allows Stafford more time to throw, the offense gets aggressive, and points start racking up. If the Lions can have a fourth quarter mentality all game, maybe they can be a Super Bowl contender. Maybe.

Part of this will (hopefully) be fixed when left tackle Taylor Decker recovers from his shoulder injury, because Greg Robinson is atrocious. Plain and simple. Getting rookie wide receiver Kenny Golladay back should also open things up for Stafford.

Don't bury the Lions just yet, even if it sounds like I just did. The bye week comes at a perfect time. Stafford has the week off to recover from his high ankle sprain and whatever else he's dealing with, the offensive line can heal up, Golladay can come back, and maybe things can go back to how they looked earlier in the season.

The NFC North is wiiiiiiide open with the possible season-ending injury to the Packers' Aaron Rodgers. The four quarterbacks in the division are now Brett Hundley, Case Keenum, Mitchell Trubisky, and Matthew Stafford. Advantage Lions.

Maybe Jim Caldwell and Jim Bob Cooter will spend the next two weeks trying to dissect the first half woes better than I can, and stop relying on the comebacks to sustain their season. Because they won't. And the Lions will only break your heart once again if things don't change.