The Pistons rattled five consecutive wins, each by a margin of at least 10 points, since waiving Josh Smith. What is the team doing differently now?
First and foremost, Josh Smith is no longer leading the team in minutes and shot attempts. Josh Smith was demonstrably playing some of the most damaging offense in Pistons' history this season, and he is no longer doing so. Addition by subtraction (as I wrote about here).
Digging more deeply, I would point to shot selection. Instead of the stagnant, ball-stopping offense that plagued the Smith seasons, the Pistons are now generating lots of open looks. They are running primarily through Monroe in the post and with Drummond in the pick-and-roll. This has resulted in shots close to the basket and from behind the three-point line, which is exactly where this roster should be looking to score. It helps that our shooters have been hitting shots of late, especially Jodie Meeks.
Even though the team's torrid shooting isn't going to be sustainable over the long term, but the types of shots the offense is generating should be, and there should be enough firepower to be competitive.
The defensive and offensive ratings of the Pistons continue to improve since Smith's departure. Is it even possible to sum up the negative effects Smith had on the team?
In many ways, those five consecutive wins by an average of eighteen points quantifies Smith's impact on the Pistons perfectly. He was an enormous negative for nearly a season and a half.
Since we've already talked offense, I'd point to two things that are helping the Pistons right now on D, both directly related to Smith.
First, Smith's individual defense was terrible as a Piston, in spite of his reputation as a good defender. In spite of racking up a decent amount of steals and blocks, his lackadaisical approach defensively left his teammates hanging more times than we could hope to count - especially when Smith was defending on the perimeter, where his D is weakest. The only times Smith looked remotely interested on defense were opportunities for help side steals or blocks. The rest of the time? Ugh.
Second, the Pistons are making shots, which means they aren't playing nearly as much transition defense as they had been. The saying, "the best defense is a good offense" rings true right now.
Obviously, it helps that the Pistons played sub-par opponents during their five-game win streak. Is it reasonable to assume that the Pistons can maintain the gains they have made going forward even if they taper off a bit?
Since signing Josh Smith, there has been a contingent of us over at DBB who have maintained that the Pistons' roster, last season and this season, was/is capable of paying roughly .500 basketball with a coherent scheme and system. In an absolutely perfect world where everything goes right, maybe something like 45 wins in an 82 game season would have been attainable, if unlikely. We've been fortunate to see that perfect world over the last five!
Realistically, this team isn't among the league's elite, as their recent point margin might suggest. They are probably about a .500 team from here on out, give or take a little, depending on Monroe's and Drummond's ability to gel in the frontcourt, point guard play (which has been wildly inconsistent), and three point shooting.
As I said above, I think the key change post Smith is the types of shots the offense has been generating. Shooting percentages will ebb and flow, but if the team can keep getting good shots consistently - which they should be able to do - the rest of the season should be very encouraging.
Detroit traded Tony Mitchell to the Suns for Anthony Tolliver shortly after waiving Smith. What are the expectations from Tolliver? Is he just a 3-point gunner off the bench?
I'd say expectations are low. Anything Tolliver gives would be a bonus. Based on limited usage, it would appear his only role is as a change-of-pace stretch PF, but he's currently behind Monroe and Jerebko in the rotation, which is probably where he ought to be. If Jerebko struggles, Tolliver may get a chance. He's a better shooter than Jerebko, but Jerebko's energy and clue-collar contributions have been a nice spark.
Is a playoff push a possibility for the Pistons now or have they dug their hole too deep?
There's a lot of volatility in the East right now, and as we all know, the bottom half of the East is so terrible that just about anything could happen. I'm inclined to think the Playoffs are more unlikely than likely, but I think the Pistons ought to push. In my opinion, winning breeds winning, and the best thing that could happen for this young squad is a Playoff berth.
If we assume the Pistons are a .500-ish squad from here out, they would end the season with around 34 wins. That might get it done in the East. But I'd say an awful lot depends on the teams ahead of them, not just the Pistons. I'm watching Brooklyn, Miami, and Milwaukee in particular. Brooklyn and Miami could feasibly seek a blockbuster trade to cement the Playoffs for themselves thus all but ending the Pistons hopes. But the Bucks are just young enough to falter; the season is still very young, and the Bucks still have a lot of proving themselves to do.
And don't rule out a trade from Stan Van Gundy... if the Pistons are still playing well a month from now, he might look to add a piece or two for a Playoff push come the deadline. They don't have a lot of trade chips, but all the chips they have could look a lot better after a month of winning than several of losing.
Thanks, Ben! For more on the Pistons, head over to Detroit Bad Boys.