Championship or bust has been the motto this past decade in the NBA. As some franchises have loaded up on stars in an attempt to win championships, others have torn their rosters down to the studs in an attempt to land the next big thing. This season has been strange because more clubs than usual find themselves firmly in NBA limbo -- neither bad enough to land a top pick nor good enough to be more than playoff fodder.

Nine teams in particular find themselves in this no-man’s land. We’ll take a look at each of these club’s situations and examine how potential paths forward will affect their organization and the league itself going forward.

Next Up: Detroit Pistons

The Path to the Middle of the Pack: 

Detroit is barely clinging to their playoff dreams. After Wednesday’s loss to the Bulls, ESPN’s playoff odds only had the Pistons with a 29.1 percent chance of making the postseason. The fact that this team will have to beat the odds just to make the playoffs is a far cry from where the franchise thought this up-and-coming team would be at this juncture. 

The stories for most teams in this series have been fairly complex, mostly lacking a singular figure or problem. Just like life, basketball is nuanced. But when examining why Detroit went from rising to reeling in the span of a year, it’s hard to get past the faults of the team’s two most prominent players: Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson. 

These two were supposed to the Pistons cornerstones. At 23 years old, armed with a max deal and fresh off an All-Star appearance, Drummond rightfully began the season with label of “franchise player.” But this year, the cracks in Drummond’s game have begun to surface.

In a broad sense, Detroit has been light years better this season with Drummond off the court. According to, the team has outscored opponents by 6.1 points per 48 minutes in the 1,329 minutes Drummond has been off the floor but been trashed by 5.0 per 48 in the 2,147 minutes he’s played. Now with raw plus/minus data, there are obviously some holes. Drummond usually finds himself playing against an opposing team’s starting and closing lineups -- the ones typically including the other team’s best players. And Detroit has had issues with their starting units keeping afloat to open games, something that may be linked to things other than Drummond. Clearly, factors like this can make these results look a little less friendly toward Piston’s big man. 

That said, where there’s smoke there’s fire. Such ugly splits can partially be explained by these underlying factors, but it’s hardly some flukey scenario that absolves Drummond of blame. Looking at some of the underlying data, and you start to see why. For starters, the Pistons are a worse rebounding team with Drummond -- who averages 14.1 per game -- on the floor. The concept of “empty rebounders” isn’t really new and with Drummond in particular, it’s been happening now for two seasons.

Those rebounding issues also tie into the fact that the Pistons are drastically better defensively when Drummond has sat this season. When Drummond plays, Detroit posts a defense rating of 108.7, per, which would be one of the bottom marks in the league if it held up over an entire season. When he’s sat this year, the Pistons post a suffocating mark of 99.8 -- just over full point better than the league-leading Spurs.

When watching Detroit on film, you will see why there’s such a large gap. Drummond’s engagement defensively comes and goes almost on a nightly basis. He can be prone to lazily reach for steals in pick-and-roll defensively and could definitely get a lot from a class in the Marc Gasol school of defensive positioning and anticipation. And for all the talk of his athleticism, Drummond doesn’t deter opponents’ success near the rim.

When he’s on the floor, opponents shoot 61.3 percent on shots less than five feet from the basket, per To put that in perspective, only seven teams allow less resistance on those types of shots. Five of those clubs rank 19th or lower in defensive efficiency while the other two (Dallas and Houston) are tied for 14th. For all the talk of Drummond’s defensive presence, it isn’t manifesting itself into things that actually, ya know, stop opponents from scoring. 

On the other end of the floor, Drummond weighs Detroit down due to his perception as a franchise player. True offensive hubs typically have a stand out offensive skill or excel in a particular action -- like coming off screens, posting up, etc. Drummond lacks touch from the perimeter, the handle to attack from even the elbows and the skill(/desire) to be more than just a lob catcher in pick-and-roll. And this year, his post game has completely went off the rails.

The data supports any subjective analysis too. According to Synergy’s database, Drummond’s most efficient offensive play is as a pick-and-roll finisher, where he ranks just outside the top quarter of the league. On cuts, offensive rebound putbacks and isolation attacks -- three other play types tracked by Synergy -- Drummond ranks in the 49th, 44th and 14th percentile, respectively. These are not marks of a highly influential offensive player. 

Things get even uglier when looking at the data behind Drummond’s post game. Because of his status on the team, Drummond has been the benefit of 308 post up attempts as tracked by Synergy -- only eight players in the league have logged that many opportunities from the block. Drummond is currently producing  .734 points per possession on those attempts, placing him in the 16th percentile of all NBA players. Redistributing Drummond’s post touches to nearly any other starter in any other action would likely see the Piston’s 22nd ranking offense see a substantial boost.

On top of that, Drummond has failed to make a marked improvement in his abysmal free throw shooting. While most of these hack-a-player strategies aren’t always the mathematically correct, a player shooting 39.9 percent from line is damn close to being an automatic foul. And the mental tool it has on Drummond, who at times wants nothing to do with being fouled, probably has a negative effect on the Piston’s overall offensive output. In general, this year has to make Detroit take a hard look at Drummond’s true impact versus his perceived value and potential.

Despite seeming more cut-and-dried, Jackson’s case is a little bit murkier. The obvious part is that the Pistons have, like with Drummond, been substantial better without Jackson, especially in the latter part of the season. Over the course of the year, Detroit has been outscored by 7.1 points per 48 when Jackson plays and have outscored their opponents by 3.6 points per 48 when he sits -- over a 10 point swing.

The gripes against Jackson have been pretty well publicized. He’s an inefficient scorer who struggles to get his teammates involved -- the latter knock being something that has stood out far more with the presence of Ish Smith in the Piston backcourt this season. When Smith plays, you see a generally different (and better) Detroit team as they play with more pace, more ball movement and typically more engagement defensively. And though there isn’t a single damning split, the numbers generally back up Detroit’s improvement across the board sans Jackson. 


Jackson On Court

Jackson Off Court

Turnover Percentage






Assist Ratio



Defensive Rating



Now the reason it’s hard to completely scapegoat Jackson is because of his knee. It’s clear at times that Jackson still isn’t 100 percent healthy, likely contributing to his lackluster performance on both ends this season. So Jackson and his balky knee are just one of the many questions facing this Pistons going forward. 

Reload, Rebuild or Stand Pat?

These last ten games for Detroit are going to be very interesting. For starters, the idea that this team cuts bait on this season and secures a spot in the lottery should, at the very least, be thrown around in meetings. No matter what juggling head coach/team president Stan Van Gundy does to his roster this year, will shake something loose that will turn the Pistons into a bona fide playoff threat. After 72 games, there’s no hiding that this is a very average basketball team.

In fact, a lot could be gained from sparingly using or straight up shutting both Jackson and Drummond down for the rest of this season, aside from the obvious health issues surrounding Jackson. There are a lot of questions facing this roster that Van Gundy could find some answers to if his sole purpose isn’t to win games from this point out.

Rookies Michael Gbinije and Henry Ellenson have basically redshirted this season, which is fine in terms of their NBA development, but obviously not ideal. Slotting them into the rotation over these final few weeks could give Van Gundy -- and potential trade partners -- a better sense of where those two fit going forward. The 23-year-old Darrun Hilliard also fits into that approach. And Reggie Bullock, at 26, isn’t really in prospect range anymore so the Pistons would be wise to give him extended run and see where they stand on a player about to hit restricted free agency.

With Drummond being held out, Van Gundy would also get to assess where his big man rotation is at. There are plenty of other questions facing this group that need some answers. Like if the team be competitive with the relatively limited Aron Baynes -- who has a player option this summer -- as a spot starter? Is Boban Marjanovic capable of real rotation minutes or a $21 million free agency flub? 

Then there’s the curious case of Jon Leuer. Brought in under the guise of being a Ryan Anderson-like player in Van Gundy’s system, Leuer has been a mixed bag. In his first season of extended minutes, Leuer hasn’t produced neither the accuracy nor volume of looks that make him anything like Anderson. Instead, Leuer has looked more like a funky, smallball 5 than a pure stretch 4 -- it’s just that Van Gundy hasn’t ever really fully unleashed him.

Some of the Detroit 5-man lineups with Leuer at center have destroyed opponents. The problem is, there are very few that have played over a handful of minutes (though one group that has played 10 total minutes has outscored opponents by 60 points per 48…). With the way the NBA is going, Van Gundy would be wise to explore just how effective personnel groupings with Leuer at the center can be -- something that would help with offseason decisions involving Baynes, Marjanovic and Ellenson.

Getting answers to questions like these, or seeing a Jackson-less/Drummond-less team make a surprising run, would do far more for Detroit going forward than grinding out enough wins over these last 10 games to make the playoffs. Being quickly and mercilessly dispatched by a Cleveland team using the same middling approach that’s gotten to this point doesn’t really do much for the team’s future. It may feel better in the short term and pump up some bank accounts for the franchise and players, but it doesn’t actually help with team’s direction at this point.

The Pistons came into this season looking to take another step forward, but instead tumbled back, in part to some concerning performances by their two franchise pillars. So instead of doubling down on a perplexing present, Detroit would be wise to start finding answers to questions about their future right now.