After yet another surprising victory, the Cleveland Cavaliers have just one game left before the All-Star Break. And it’s against a familiar and troublesome opponent.
Tonight, the Cavs (19-33) will look to achieve their first four-game winning streak since LeBron James played in Cleveland. They’ll attempt to do so in Detroit against the Pistons, who have won seven straight contests against their Central Division rivals.
Not to be out-done by last week’s firing of Cavs GM Chris Grant, the Pistons factually fired their head coach Maurice Cheeks on Monday. They’ve actually been playing better ball of late, however, and beat the San Antonio Spurs later Monday night.
Can the Cavaliers somehow pull off another surprise? What have the Pistons been up to this year? How do the two franchises compare overall? Let’s explore all that in a game preview.
So … how chaotic is Motown really?
The new Pistons interim head coach is John Loyer, a former Akron Zips basketball player and long-time college and NBA assistant. He’s already starting to turn some heads in the basketball universe. He moved former Pistons star Rasheed Wallace to the assistant ranks.
Early indications are that owner Tom Gores will wait until the offseason before bringing in a full-time head coach replacement. Former Memphis coach Lionel Hollins has been listed as an early favorite for the job. But that strategy from Gores could mean others in the organization are in danger.
Of course, most of the organizational blame probably belongs with Joe Dumars by now. The team’s president of basketball operations – loosely linked as a potential Cavs personnel executive target by ESPN’s Brian Windhorst – has had an insanely terrible track record over the last half decade. From some shaky draft picks to countless poor signings, it’s almost all been really, really bad.
But did I mention yet that the Pistons actually have won eight of their last 15, five of their last seven and are just one-half game back of the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference? They were starting to turn their season around even before the sudden firing of Cheeks. And they’re still a pretty young team with all seven of their top minutes guys at 28 or younger, and five of those seven no older than 25.
On a scale of 1-100, I’d give the Pistons maybe a 65 in terms of chaos. There is no organization-wide upheaval just yet. They have intriguing young assets and are playing decently well. They just probably need to ship off one or two current guys for better fitting assets, add another key piece in the next draft and finally fire Dumars.
What makes the Pistons tick on the court?
The differences between the Pistons’ 14-22 start and their recent 8-7 run have been subtle. They’re shooting a bit better. They’re getting to the free throw line at a very good rate. And they’re dominating even more on the offensive glass. They seem to be playing more to their strengths.
Which leads to the biggest basketball issue surrounding the 2013-14 Pistons: How best can a team succeed with big man forces Josh Smith, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond all on the same roster? Smith was last summer’s major free agent splash at four years and $54 million. He’s been a disappointment insofar as his usually poor shot selection and the team’s overall record. His name is already popping up in some trade rumors.
Detroit has struggled mightily when all three of Smith-Monroe-Drummond share the court. Here are the stats on the different combinations thus far this season.
While many would assume there to be offensive spacing issues with the three-big-man lineup, the concern actually has been more on the defensive side. The Defensive Rating (per 100 possessions, not per 48 minutes) is 108.5 with all three on the court, but 104.8 for the season. Lineups with just two of the big men have a much better efficiency on both offense and defense.
During this solid 8-7 stretch of play dating back to Jan. 10, a specific two-man group has been a huge indicator for the team’s overall success. They’re two of the new additions, Smith and guard Brandon Jennings, the former Milwaukee Buck.
Most significantly here, the team’s offense has been elite when both Smith and Jennings share the court. The Offensive Rating (again, per 100 possessions) is 109.3 with both on the court during the last 15 games. It is a much improved 106.0 overall for the team. But without both of those players, the offense struggles mightily.
As NBA.com’s John Schuhmann recently pointed out, the Pistons are by far the NBA’s worst jump-shooting team. They make up for it with the NBA’s best offensive rebounding rate. They grab 31.8% of such chances, far better than second-place Portland (28.7%) and the league-wide average (25.6%). Those boards lead to pivotal extra possessions and easy offensive opportunities.
How do the Cavs match up against Detroit?
The Cavaliers arguably have played their best basketball of the season over the last five days. On Friday, a marvelous offensive performance against the Wizards led to a rare road win. On Sunday, they grinded out an overtime win against the streaking Grizzlies. And yesterday, they had a thorough all-around win over the struggling Kings.
Perhaps unsurprisingly then, this is now only the sixth three-game winning streak of the franchise since the 2010-11 season. They are 0-5 so far when going for win No. 4. They are the only NBA team without a four-game winning streak in the last three and a half seasons.
Anderson Varejao did not make the trip to Detroit. He’s been excellent since the Dec. 28 Andrew Bynum suspension. In 20 (out of a possible 24) games, his 22.0% total rebound rate ranks third in the NBA, behind only the Pistons’ Drummond and the Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan. Varejao’s per-game averages are 10.1 points, 12.4 rebounds and 3.3 assists. He’s been playing like a borderline All-Star again.
Against the Pistons’ massive frontcourt, the Cavs will certainly miss Varejao’s rebounding and defensive versatility. They made up for it against Sacramento in holding them to a season-low 26 points in the paint. They’ll again need solid production and defense from replacement starter Tyler Zeller and backup Henry Sims.
Defensively, the Pistons force the second-highest turnover rate in the NBA. That’s again a huge result of having Smith and Jennings, along with Drummond. But they defend very poorly efficiency-wise against mid-range shots and corner threes. Their wings aren’t really regarded as great defenders. The Cavs could take advantage of that with some very good passing and floor spacing again.
Cleveland last beat Detroit in basketball nearly two years on Feb. 21, 2012. The Pistons have won the last seven by an average of 16.6 points, highlighting by a 39-point shellacking near the end of the 2011-12 season. Only one player remains from the Cavs team that played that night in Auburn Hills. And rightfully so.
Anthony Bennett has been a pleasant surprise of late. No one can expect him to have another 19-point, 10-rebound performance, especially because of Smith’s defensive impact. But Bennett’s offense can be pivotal off the bench for this Cavs team, especially if C.J. Miles misses his second straight game.
Overall, the Cavs are looking up at the Pistons in the East’s downtrodden playoff race. Are they also looking up to Detroit on their respective rebuilding timelines? Perhaps slightly, although finally getting this four-game win streak and snapping a seven-game Pistons skid could trim that conceptions of that gap heading into the second half.
Jacob Rosen is a long-time contributor to WaitingForNextYear. He's also a writer online at SportsAnalyticsBlog and Nylon Calculus . An Akron native, Jacob is a current MBA student at the University of Oregon's Warsaw Sports Marketing Center. You can follow him on Twitter @WFNYJacob or e-mail him at udjrosen(at)gmail(dot)com.