Commentary

PER Diem: Jan. 23, 2009

Some poor personnel moves and the regression of key players have turned the Pistons from one of the NBA's best to a team struggling to make the playoffs.

Updated: January 23, 2009, 4:44 PM ET
By John Hollinger | ESPN.com

Allen IversonAllen Einstein/Getty ImagesDespite trading for Allen Iverson, the Pistons have struggled offensively.

So what's up with the Pistons?

Detroit came into the season expecting to challenge Boston for Eastern Conference supremacy, much as it did a year ago. Instead, the Pistons checked into midseason at 24-17 with a barely positive point differential despite playing the easy part of their schedule (just a .459 opponent winning percentage).

The Pistons are just 17th in this morning's Power Rankings, and the Playoff Odds give them an 18.9 percent chance of missing the postseason entirely. More likely, they're on pace to be a one-and-done squad in the postseason, but that's not the expected result for a franchise that views a trip to the conference finals as an annual rite.

Analyzing Detroit's decline reveals a pretty straightforward problem: The team just isn't scoring. Despite owning a relatively high-scoring guard trio in Allen Iverson, Rodney Stuckey and Richard Hamilton, the Pistons are only 21st in offensive efficiency.

Part of the explanation is that they traded a high-efficiency player (Chauncey Billups) for the less-efficient Iverson. But there's a less-discussed issue for Detroit as well: Namely, what the heck happened to their bigs?

Rasheed Wallace, perhaps, we can explain. He's 34 and has battled some nagging injuries this season, so his declines in scoring (nearly two points per 40 minutes fewer), shooting (43.2 percent to 41.4 percent) and PER (17.13 to 14.15) are easy to rationalize.

But one of the Pistons' strengths was supposed to be the legion of quality bigs they could bring in to support Sheed. Thus far, it hasn't really materialized.

Amir Johnson, who showed so much promise last season while ranking among the league leaders in highest rate of rebounds and blocks in the league, has made a mysterious U-turn toward anonymity.

He's received plenty of opportunities -- in fact he's back in the starting lineup now -- but he fouls at such a high rate that it's overwhelming the rest of his game. Johnson averages a personal every five minutes, rivaling Pacers rookie Roy Hibbert for the title of the league's most foul-prone player. Thus he's often limited to a cameo before checking out with foul trouble.

The Pistons' other sometimes-starter up front has been Kwame Brown, signed in the offseason in a rare mistake by Pistons GM Joe Dumars. He's averaging only 9.0 points per 40 minutes and is threatening to replace Ben Wallace as the worst foul shooter in team history: He's shooting 38.5 percent from the line, his third straight season at 44 percent or worse.

Then there are the self-inflicted wounds.

Detroit's most effective frontcourt player has been Jason Maxiell, and he's hardly playing. With a 16.9 PER, Maxiell leads all Detroit bigs, and he's shooting 54.4 percent from the floor. While he has made some defensive mistakes, he's also tough and blocks shots. Even now, with the Pistons going back to a bigger starting lineup and bringing Richard Hamilton off the bench, it's Johnson and not Maxiell who is returning to the starting lineup. Maxiell is playing only 17 minutes a game, down from last season's 21.6.

Additionally, Antonio McDyess had to sit out for 30 days after being traded and bought out in the Billups deal and has only appeared in 22 games.

If there's good news for the Pistons, it's that some of the answers appear to be available in-house. By benching Kwame, promoting Maxiell and reducing Johnson's role, the Pistons could start a very effective Wallace-Maxiell combo, bring McDyess in off the pine and then use Johnson in a bench energizer role where his high-wire act can thrive and the fouls aren't as big a problem.

That wouldn't make up for losing Billups or the off year by Hamilton, but it would be a start. And if some quick changes of that sort can get Detroit to the fourth position in the East and a second-round playoff spot, perhaps the Pistons' season won't seem as disappointing in hindsight as it looks at the moment.

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.