04 Feb Will D.J. Augustin Lead The Pistons To The Land Of Promise?
Tragedy struck just as the Detroit Pistons were starting to hum on all cylinders. But when we all thought that they were just going to lay down and die, the Pistons look like they’ve found another higher gear.
Pistons’ Coach Stan Van Gundy drew a lot of flak when he decided to waive enigmatic forward Josh Smith last December.
The Detroit Pistons have just announced the release of Josh Smith. Stunning
— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) December 22, 2014
On that day, the move looked like Van Gundy just shot himself in his own foot. Smith was a key contributor to the Pistsons, averaging 13.1 points, 7.2 rebounds and 4.7 assists. Those numbers are respectable, but the team wasn’t winning and Smith wasn’t having the kind of season you would expect from a guy with a four year $54M contract. Smith was not a fit with the Pistons and was definitely on the bubble in Detroit, but no one expected that they would let him walk away without any compensation: present, future or monetary. But that move turned out to be genius weeks later after the Pistons suddenly found themselves winning seven straight games after letting Smith go.
Pistons: 7-0 since cutting Josh Smith. Stan Van Gundy be like… pic.twitter.com/Y2Za36ACpG
— SportsNation (@SportsNation) January 8, 2015
Not only that, the Pistons suddenly vaulted back into playoff contention in the weak Eastern conference:
Detroit Pistons are 7-0 since waiving Josh Smith. They are 2.5 out of the playoffs pic.twitter.com/RIazazzkD1
— SportsBlogNewYork (@SportBlogNYC) January 8, 2015
The Brandon Ending
That win streak ended at seven. But in all, the Pistons won 12 of their first 15 games without Josh Smith and they suddenly found themselves back in the playoff hunt after starting the season with a miserable 5-23 record before Josh Smith left town. And then it happened, injury struck the heart and soul of the Pistons turbo engine-Brandon Jennings:
— Detroit News Sports (@detnews_sports) January 25, 2015
When the Pistons started to win, experts were pointing at the departure of Josh Smith. But more than Smith’s exodus from Detroit, it was Jennings who jumpstarted the Pistons renaissance. Jennings was having the time of his life when Smith left:
Brandon Jennings' PER in Detroit since Josh Smith's departure? A tidy 28.3
— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) January 19, 2015
If we take at the current stats on ESPN, only Anthony Davis (who himself is having a career season in New Orleans) has a higher PER at 32.05.
Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings had the two highest usage for the Pistons during the 2013-14 season at 25.4 and 23.4 respectively. With Smith gone, that usage increased to 30 ( Jennings’ season average is 26.1) for Jennings. So with the ball more in his hands, Brandon Jennings has matured and arrived as a ball player. During that four week period where they went 12-3, Jennings was averaging more than 20 points per game and 7.2 assists per game. He even turned out a historic game on January 21:
21 assists! Brandon Jennings dishes out an NBA-season-high 21 assists, adds 24 points as Pistons beat Magic, 128-118. pic.twitter.com/4ghulwKD4C
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) January 22, 2015
Brandon Jennings is the 1st Pistons player with 20 points and 20 assists in a game since Isiah Thomas on April 4th, 1985 (via @EliasSports)
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 22, 2015
It was so good that even Dennis Rodman noticed it:
Jennings' 21-assist masterpiece got all Pistons involved, produced easy scoring chances http://t.co/4GJKUMIQdj
— Dennis Rodman (@dennisrodman) January 25, 2015
But when Jennings left the January 24 Bucks game with 1:03 left in the third quarter in pain, Detroit’s playoff chances seemed to walk off to the locker room with him. Four straight losses punctuated by a deflating 86-69 loss to the woeful 76ers appeared to pull the plug from their season. But an unexpected hero has emerged for the Motor City boys, and he’s not an accidental hero.
D.J. Playing Right Music
In the absence of Jennings, Van Gundy has given the keys to the team to back up point guard D.J. Augustin. Last season, the former 9th overall pick of the 2008 draft was credited by Chicago Bulls’ head coach Tom Thibodeau for “saving“ the Bulls season:
#Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau was effusive in his praise of D.J. Augustin (23 points): “He was terrific,” he said. “He’s saved our season."
— Mark Potash (@MarkPotash) April 3, 2014
After being let go by the Toronto Raptors, the Chicago Bulls signed Augustin as a free agent in December 2013 as an insurance policy after the season-ending injury suffered by Derrick Rose. The Bulls were 8-12 when Augustin arrived. They ended the season 48-34 and finished with the 4th best record in the Eastern Conference despite playing without Rose and trading away Luol Deng. Augustin averaged a career best 14.9 points and 2.2 three pointers per game in a Bulls’ uniform. His 5.0 assists per game were also his best since 2012 and the Bulls were winning with him at the helm.
The Pistons bagged Augustin from the free agent market during the summer. But with Jennings running the show in Detroit, Augustin had to be content with the familiar back-up role.
But with Jennings’ shut down for the remainder of the season, Augustin was thrust in a familiar situation for the second consecutive season. And he’s responded big time. In the first game without Jennings, D.J. delivered:
With Brandon Jennings out for year, DJ Augustin must step up. He did just that tonight, contributing 35 points, 8 assists, 4 boards vs TOR.
— Alex Kennedy (@AlexKennedyNBA) January 26, 2015
Augustin said he is up to the task once again, via freep.com on 1.26.15:
I feel like I’m in good shape, and whatever coach (Stan Van Gundy) needs me to do, I’ll do it. If he needs me to play 40, I’m going to bust my butt to do it.
In their last five games ( the ones without Jennings), Augustin has logged 35.8 minutes per game and has averaged 21.8 points, 9.2 assists, 3.0 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game. He’s also lighting it up from downtown, hitting 2.2-4.8 (.458) from the three point territory. After three “adjustment games” with Augustin (which the Pistons lost), they ‘ve won two in a row and are just 2.5 games behind 8th place Miami. Remember that the Pistons’ were 2.5 games back of the 8th seed when they won 7 in a row in early January and when Jennings’ got hurt. So despite losing four straight games last week, they are right back where Jennings left them.
Will Lightning Strike Twice for Augustin?
Augustin has proven that he can carry the load when given the minutes. He did that in Chicago last season and he’s doing it in Detroit right now. But the difference is that Chicago was a playoff team with Rose and this Pistons’ team hasn’t been in the post season since 2009. Experience may become a factor as the season goes to the All-Star break and as we near the trade deadline. The Pistons are among six teams who are battling it out for the final two playoff spots in the East. Let us compare the teams:
- Charlotte and Miami currently hold the last two playoff spots. They both have 27 losses. #9 Brooklyn has 28 losses while Detroit and Boston currently have 30 losses. 12th place Indiana is a longshot with 32 losses.
- Of the six teams, only Charlotte has a better record in the last 10 games at 7-3. At 5-5, the Pistons are the only other team to break at least .500 in their last 10 games.
- Looking at the strength of their remaining schedules ( as of 2.4.15), Miami (.502), Charlotte (.499) and Boston (.497) face tougher opponents than Detroit (.496). Brooklyn and Indiana are at .493. So it’s a pretty close race really.
How these factors play in the coming days remain to be seen. Meanwhile, Augustin continues his tear:
D.J. Augustin has gone for 25 pts and 10 assists in consecutive games. The last 2 Pistons to do that were Jerry Stackhouse and Isiah Thomas.
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) February 4, 2015
Isiah is a very revered word in Detroit because the Pistons enjoyed their best years during the days of the legendary point guard Isiah Thomas where the Pistons won back to back NBA titles. It’s kind of interesting to note that if we go biblical and take a piece from the book of the prophet Isiah, there is a verse (Isiah 11:6) which ends with the words “And a little child shall lead them“. No, the Holy Book has nothing to do with basketball at all. But does 6 feet in height and 183 pounds in weight classify D.J. Augustin as a “little child” in the NBA’s land of giants?