AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – The first half of the Detroit Pistons' 2014-15 season was one of three big runs sparked by roster moves and injuries.
For the first 28 games, the Pistons were among the NBA's bottom-feeders. With a 5-23 record, Detroit was more focused on April's draft than any hopes of playing in the postseason.
Then, after waiving Josh Smith, Stan Van Gundy's team went on a run that not only brought it out of the cellar, but also featured victories over powerhouses like San Antonio and Dallas. The 12-3 stretch was highlighted by a seven-game winning streak immediately following Christmas, and the Pistons found themselves right back in the mix for an Eastern Conference playoff spot.
But on Jan. 24, the Pistons' run came to a screeching halt when star point guard Brandon Jennings went down in Milwaukee. An awkward fall signaled the end for Jennings as an Achilles injury would sideline him for the remainder of the season.
Jennings averaged an even 20 points per game during Detroit's 12-3 run, shooting 44 percent from the floor and leading the team in assists per game (7.2).
Without Jennings, the Pistons dropped four straight games and limped into the All-Star break on a 4-7 streak.
When the season is broken down into three segments, the Pistons' first half looked like this:
With Smith and Jennings: 5-23 (.179)
Without Smith, with Jennings: 12-3 (.800)
Without Smith and Jennings: 4-7 (.364)
The Pistons are clearly a better team without Smith on the roster, but clearly worse without Jennings. Now, the Pistons are somewhere in between the group that started 5-23 and the one that ripped off 12 of 15.
In the end, the wild ride landed Detroit just two games behind both Charlotte and Miami for the final two spots in the Eastern Conference playoffs, despite a 21-33 record.
But do the Pistons have a realistic shot to make the postseason?
Unbelievably, the answer is yes. Sitting at 12 games under .500 has left Detroit squarely in the middle of a playoff race heading into the final 28 games of the season. That simply speaks to the extreme weakness of the bottom half of the East.
How can the Pistons pull it off? Well, just 10 days ago the Heat came to Auburn Hills and got mauled by the Pistons, despite a 34-point effort from Chris Bosh. A week later, the Pistons travelled to Charlotte and waxed the Hornets by 28. With two games left against the Heat and three against the Bobcats, the Pistons can make up that small deficit rather quickly with a second-half spurt.
Since the Jennings injury, Detroit has been kept afloat by the frontcourt duo of Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond.
Monroe, who is eligible for free agency after the season, averaged 17 points and 11.7 rebounds over the final 10 games of the first half. He took over as the go-to option on offense and shot over 50 percent from the floor during that span.
Meanwhile Drummond, who was struggling to find a rhythm during Detroit's 12-3 run, regained some his 2013-14 form, averaging 12.9 points and 12.3 rebounds during the final 10 games. Drummond added two blocks per game and shot 52.1 percent from the floor. (His free-throw shooting has reached an alarmingly low level, falling to 25 percent during that stretch).
If Monroe and Drummond continue to dominate inside, the Pistons' supporting cast is just good enough to keep them in most games. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is playing a team-high 30.8 minutes per game, averaging 11.9 points and 3.1 rebounds. Jodie Meeks and D.J. Augustin join him in the backcourt and each give Van Gundy more than 10 points per game.
The wildcard for Detroit is the small and power forward play beyond Monroe. Kyle Singler has started 40 games and has generally been an average option for Van Gundy, playing solid defense and adding 7.1 points per game. After Singler comes the cast of Caron Butler, Anthony Tolliver and Jonas Jerebko, a trio that Van Gundy tinkers with on every given night, according to matchups.
These holes in the roster keep the Pistons from contending with real heavyweights like Atlanta and Toronto, but Van Gundy has enough weapons in his arsenal to make a push toward a low-end postseason berth.
Detroit's recipe for success is in the statistics: Monroe and Drummond average a combined 28 points and 23.2 rebounds per game on 49.8 percent shooting. If the offense runs through the frontcourt, the Pistons can linger around the No. 8 seed and squeeze into their first postseason in six years.