Pistons Mailbag - December 24, 2013

Pistons.com editor Keith Langlois answers your questions about the Pistons and NBA. Click here to submit your questions - please include your name, email address and city/state on the form. Return to the Mailbag homepage.

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Editor’s note: You can now submit Pistons Mailbag questions via Twitter. Include the hashtag #pistonsmailbag and, as always, your first name, hometown and state or country. Questions submitted via Twitter will also include the questioner’s Twitter handle.

Domenico (Calabria, Italy): Why doesn’t coach Cheeks play Datome? In Italy, many think there’s some discrimination. There are less productive players who always play.

Langlois: Your question came in before Datome got 13 minutes and hit 4 of 5 shots, scoring nine points, in Saturday’s loss to Houston. That earned him more meaningful minutes in both halves of Monday night’s big road win at Cleveland, where Datome scored 13 points, grabbed four rebounds and made several nice plays. After the game, Cheeks said, “He’s more than a shooter. I think everyone thinks he’s just a guy who can spread the floor and make threes. I think he’s a little bit tougher than what we’ve been thinking.” If he keeps producing with that efficiency, his chances will come with much greater frequency. Datome got a rough break with the injuries that set him back and cost him the preseason. Then the schedule worked against him because the Pistons have had precious few practice opportunities since the season started and even the practices they do have are necessarily scaled back to ease the physical toll that playing 30 games in the past 55 days takes. (This is very much unlike the European leagues, where teams play one league game per week and, for the top 16 teams that make up the Euroleague, one game a week there, as well.) So I’m not sure how much of a chance Datome has really had to earn the confidence of the coaches. I’ve seen Datome put on some dazzling shooting displays in individual drill work. But it just hasn’t translated to games so far. Before Saturday, he was shooting 30 percent overall and 18 percent, 4 of 22, from the 3-point line. For a guy whose shot at the NBA came because of his 3-point marksmanship, that obviously won’t pass muster. The Pistons get two very rare five-day breaks coming up over the next month and that could be an excellent opportunity for Datome and other Pistons trying to catch Mo Cheeks’ eye. Also, Datome has a two-year contract, so, worse-case scenario, he’ll have a normal off-season – unlike last summer, when he carried a heavy load for the Italian national team in EuroBasket play that prevented him from coming to Detroit before training camp opened – and a much greater comfort level when next season starts. Rest assured, the only discrimination that goes on in the NBA involves players who haven’t earned the trust of the coaches, regardless of background, experience or country of origin. And, a tip of the hat to Charlie Keenan, doctoral history student and intrepid fan of Marquette University basketball, for the translation of your question from Italian to English.

Ryan (Fishers, Ind.): Where do you think the Pistons will finish in the East?

Langlois: Somewhere behind Indiana and Miami and somewhere ahead of Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Orlando. The East is that muddled, Ryan, and while I would guess that the Pistons are going to find a level of consistency that will allow their talent to push them much closer to the top of the East than the bottom, until they firmly establish themselves as a consistent home winner you can’t automatically pencil them into the playoffs just yet. The Brook Lopez injury, atop all of the other misfortune and dysfunction apparent in Brooklyn, makes it likely that one team we expected to finish in the playoff field is now a long shot. Things look equally bleak across town for the Knicks. Chicago needs all of its other very solid players healthy now that Derrick Rose is out for the season again. Beyond Miami and Indiana, the only expected East contender really playing at its expected level is Atlanta. Washington has rebounded from a rocky start and looks like it’s now on course. Cleveland has been a mild disappointment and hasn’t shown any ability to win on the road. I don’t think it’s unrealistic that the Pistons can wind up with home-court advantage in the first round, keeping in mind that the Atlantic Division winner is guaranteed a top-four seed but not home-court advantage if it has a worse record than the No. 5 seed. But, again, they’ll need to start winning more often than losing at The Palace to make that a possibility.

Fred (Graz, Austria): Given the lack of outside shooting and Monroe’s subpar defense, along with the fact he has sort of a one-dimensional offensive game as he still has not developed a good mid-range jumper, do you think it would make the team better in the long run if Monroe was traded for a true small forward like Jeff Green? The way Josh Smith has been playing of late suggests we would still have an elite frontcourt pairing him with Drummond. It is a widely held opinion that this would be a way more balanced team on both ends of the floor.

Langlois: The Pistons are averaging 103.7 points in 14 December, Fred. Anybody who’s watched this team nightly and still thinks they need to alter the mix to get a more balanced offense … well, I’m not sure what to tell you. They’re scoring more than enough to win at a rate that meets expectations if they can find a semblance of defensie consistency. I’ve answered Monroe trade questions the same way for weeks (months?) now: You’d better be very careful trading away a 23-year-old big man with Monroe’s track record of durability and scoring ability. Also, as I’ve mentioned before, if you deal Monroe, the “stable” of big men would consist of Andre Drummond and Josh Harrellson with the likelihood that you’re going to need pretty big minutes out of rookie Tony Mitchell. Charlie Villanueva and Jonas Jerebko have certain assets they offer Mo Cheeks, but defending conventional power forwards isn’t one of them. Maybe it’s a trade you would consider more seriously in the off-season, when Joe Dumars would have a better chance to make a corresponding move – another trade or free-agent signing – to add a big man capable of giving the Pistons 20 solid minutes a night. Dealing Monroe for a small forward to address a problem the evidence suggests doesn’t exist would leave the Pistons perilously thin or undersized up front, an issue that plagued them for those tough years before they landed Drummond in the 2012 draft.

Vance (Detroit): I have to say I’ve been impressed with Josh Smith’s play of late. His tenacity defensively has begun to show. I know it takes time for all these new pieces to come together, but with his experience and talent I didn’t expect it to take this long for him to understand what we needed from him both offensively and defensively.

Langlois: I don’t know that anyone has ever criticized Smith on matters of effort or intensity. Shot selection has been the consistent criticism of him. It’s going to be a balancing act for Mo Cheeks to give Smith the post touches that have lit up his offensive output while still making sure Greg Monroe gets the opportunities to take advantage of his inside scoring ability, as well. When you say given Smith’s experience you didn’t expect it to take so long for him to understand what was needed, keep in mind that it’s a two-way street. His teammates also have to figure out how Smith best complements them, and how to best allow his ability to complement the whole. Same for the coaches. The fact Mo Cheeks has altered course and decided to make posting up Smith a staple of the offense to take advantage of the matchup edge he possesses over most small forwards is evidence that they’re still finding their way.

Ryvan (Horton, Mich.): I have thoroughly enjoyed watching the Pistons this season. I feel they have a chance to win on a nightly basis. What do you think they need to become an elite team? And where will the missing piece or pieces come from?

Langlois: Improvement can take many forms, Ryvan. There’s no blueprint. For the Pistons, I think the surest means of progress right now is for internal improvement. Nobody in the NBA has a younger starting five. Andre Drummond and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, in particular, have huge leaps in productivity still likely. Mo Cheeks has said countless times that he thinks Brandon Jennings still has vast potential for improvement in areas of the game beyond scoring. I thought Jennings played his most complete game since coming to the Pistons in last night’s win at Cleveland, where he scored 21 points on just 11 shot attempts while dishing out 13 assists, playing pretty solid defense on the dynamic Kyrie Irving and turning the ball over just three times to go with four rebounds and two steals. Greg Monroe is 23. Kyle Singler, despite the common perception, is not a finished product. I think we’ve seen Singler expand his game pretty significantly over last season. (In particular, I think Singler is stronger and more confident and aggressive with the ball around the rim this season.) But the Pistons have a good cap situation going forward, so trades and free agency remains an avenue open to them. And their draft record over the last six or seven drafts is good (Stuckey at 15, Singler and Jerebko in the second round, hitting on all three lottery picks from 2010-12 and looking good so far on ’13), so even if they don’t figure to be selecting in the lottery any longer, there’s still a reasonable chance they can augment depth via the draft, too. Other than that, “elite” status is going to take experience on their part, patience on yours.

Patricia (Negaunee, Mich.): Can you give us any insight into the problems at home and especially in the fourth quarter? Every time the Pistons get me excited, something like the Charlotte collapse happens.

Langlois: I’ll quote Mo Cheeks when he was asked about it Saturday night – after the Charlotte game, before the Houston game: “If I had the answer to that, I would solve it. And I don’t have the answer to it. We’ve just got to get better at playing at home and play the whole 48 minutes.” I could point to the fact I mentioned in my answer to Ryvan’s question – age and relative inexperience – because that’s a logical and valid reason for teams that have repeated problems hanging on to leads. But I’m not 100 percent sure that’s the underlying cause. I think it’s also fair to point out that the Pistons aren’t unique in having leads dissipate in the fourth quarter. They’ve probably had it happen more often and – at least in the case of the Charlotte loss – under more extreme circumstances than many, perhaps most, but every team has losses it simply can’t explain. I doubt it’s something we’ll be talking about in another few weeks.

Carl (Chicago): At the rate he’s going, do you think Andre Drummond will wind up one of the five best Pistons of all-time?

Langlois: Intriguing question, Carl. Probably not fair to either Drummond or those whom he might displace on the list to delve too deeply into it while he’s still 20 and barely has logged a full NBA season. If you pick a Pistons all-time team by position, Drummond is going to come up against some pretty stiff company. Bob Lanier is a Hall of Famer and one of the most uniquely talented players I’ve ever seen. Lanier had brute strength underneath the basket and was a voracious rebounder, yet he had a velvety shooting touch both near the rim and out to 20-plus feet. Had there been a 3-point line at the time, Lanier would have been that much more valuable and decorated. Bill Laimbeer probably will never get his due, simply because he was overshadowed on his own team and was perceived as immensely unlikeable, but the Bad Boys’ success doesn’t happen without Laimbeer’s enormous contributions as a scorer, rebounder and locker room presence. I’ve often thought one of Laimbeer’s greatest contributions to the Bad Boys was that he was not only willing but exuberantly embracing of playing the role of villain, which took the heat off of his teammates in hostile areas like Boston Garden and Chicago Stadium when the Pistons were trying to overtake the Celtics and hold off the Bulls. And then there’s Ben Wallace, a four-time Defensive Player of the Year who, like Laimbeer, was a member of an NBA championship team. Drummond needs good health on his side, but the Pistons have come to know that he’ll provide all the work necessary to take full advantage of his considerable physical gifts. There really isn’t any significant accolade beyond the reach of his potential.

Omar (Beirut, Lebanon): The Toronto Raptors are looking much better after they got rid of Rudy Gay. Do you think Josh Smith decreasing his perimeter shots would help us, as well?

Langlois: Smith is a clever and efficient scorer near the basket, Omar. He’s been less efficient shooting from the perimeter. But he’s playing a position that almost demands some of his shots will come from outside the paint, so this isn’t about criticizing Smith’s shot selection. The Pistons, though, are getting plenty of offense, for the most part. The lion’s share of the reason they’re going to hit Christmas with a sub-.500 record is their defensive inconsistency. They need to do a better job of defending the pick and roll and preventing penetration in general. They also need to do a better job finding shooters in transition. Some of that, of course, has to do with taking better shots on offense. There is an interconnectivity between offense and defense in basketball that doesn’t exist in football or baseball (but does in hockey), for example, but I still think it’s fair to say the Pistons have more issues with their defense than their offense.