Kelly Dwyer’s Palatable Exercise
The idea that the Detroit Pistons will suddenly vault back into the playoffs merely because of the addition of competency at two new starter spots and an increase in minutes from Andre Drummond seems a bit hasty at first glance. The team hasn’t made the postseason since the ill-fated Allen Iverson Year in 2008-09, despite being handed a series of lottery picks and a spate of big free agent spending both in the 2009 and 2013 offseason. Longtime general manager Joe Dumars has somehow held on to his gig despite a litany of messy years being witnessed by fewer and fewer fans, asnd newish owner Tom Gores allowed Joe D to spend heavily last summer in anticipation of a hoped-for return to form.
Does the free agent addition of Josh Smith and the sign-and-trade acquisition of Brandon Jennings reek of good news for one and all? Smith and Jennings are two of the more polarizing players in the league, with games that lend themselves to debates about shot selection and efficiency measures. Both players are young, though, and both have the sustained caveat that allows them to point to stagnant offenses in both Atlanta and Milwaukee as the catalyst for their up and down ways. Though most former Hawks and Bucks teammates would probably not agree with Smith and Jennings’ assertions as to the root of that stagnation.
Jennings’ arrival intrigues, because even in his finest hours with the Bucks he was not a consistent nor particularly enthused playmaker. Brandon was asked to shoulder the offensive load for Milwaukee for most of his time with the team that drafted him, but that won’t be the case in Detroit as Smith and incumbent big forward Greg Monroe need their isolation sets. A mess is to be expected if each of the three continues with their usual ways in 2013-14, because this team could have major spacing issues.
It was the same sort of spacing issues that clogged up Maurice Cheeks’ big man approach in Portland, and in his time trying to make sense of the Allen Iverson/Chris Webber pairing in Philadelphia. On top of that, Cheeks was the lead assistant to Scott Brooks in Oklahoma City, and while the Thunder were tops in the NBA in offense last year, their sets seem to bog down after repeated viewings in the playoffs.
Cheeks is not a proven winner as a coach. He certainly was as a player, and seemed well groomed for the gig throughout his active career, but in two stops he’s managed a .498 winning percentage and his fair share of clashes with the team’s resident head cases. Though Jennings and Smith have had splotchy relationships with coaches in the past, both have managed to at least make it work with their bosses, so don’t expect many flare-ups in Detroit.
Can you expect a change in fortune? The seemingly inevitable ascension of Andre Drummond inspires such faith, as Drummond kept his wits about him while earning the tough love treatment from former coach Lawrence Frank in his rookie season, while delivering an All-Star level Player Efficiency Rating in limited minutes. If Cheeks and Drummond can find a way to top out at 33 or so minutes a game last year, up from last season’s 20.7 a contest, we could have something on our hands, as double-double machines in the pivot only come around every so often.
Nearly as compelling is the potential high/low action that could result with Josh Smith in the high post and Monroe down low, especially if Cheeks encourages a screen and roll partnership between the two forwards as we saw with Smith and Al Horford in Atlanta. This pairing leaves Jennings off to the weak side, uninvolved, and we worry about both his willingness to give the ball up, and prospects as a spot-up shooter. We’ve far fewer reservations about the swingman depth Dumars has cobbled together in the form of Chauncey Billups, rookies Luigi Datome and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Kyle Singler.
For once, the Pistons will entertain. This should a fascinating project team with significant upside in the form of a player in Drummond who has the ability to become a consistent All-Star. It could also be a muddled mess, but this sort of muddle is a significant upgrade from what we’ve seen in Michigan since 2009. The additions and subtractions from last year may not guarantee Detroit a spot in the playoffs, but at least we’ll enjoy watching them again.
Projected record: 43-39
Tune In, Turn Up with Dan Devine
Tune into the Pistons for … the attempted real-time completion of a complex puzzle.
Last week, I called the Brooklyn Nets “TV’s most interesting post-‘Breaking Bad’ serial chemistry experiment” due to all the adjusting, combining and (possibly) combusting ahead of first-time head coach Jason Kidd as he seeks the formula that will make the Nets the title contender their braintrust believes them to be. With the Pistons, the figuring-it-out process feels like it’ll be less scientific, but more fun.
The task facing new Pistons boss Maurice Cheeks isn’t the measured marriage of known elements using precise instruments. It’s more like dumping a bunch of disparate pieces on the coffee table, sliding them all over the place and trying to make his picture look like the one on the box. This is difficult enough when the picture on the box might be the Memphis Grizzlies, whose successful roster construction – dependent as it is on a harmonious relationship between big men with dovetailing talents -- may be tougher to mimic than even those of the world-champion Miami Heat. It is even more so if there is no picture on the box, no precise blueprint to follow, but rather only an all-important one-word question: “Playoffs?”
I’m not sure whether Cheeks’ job is made easier or harder by the fact that many of the pieces -- fascinating center Andre Drummond, offseason prizes Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings, electric rookie Tony Mitchell, dyna-mini-mite guard Will Bynum, maybe more -- seem capable of lighting up, playing music and expanding the puzzle from one dimension into three at any given time. (Also, if GIF puzzles do not yet exist, they probably will at some point in the very near future, right?) I’m pretty confident, though, that all the flashing, colorful, clattering parts will make watching Cheeks’ attempt to return Detroit to the postseason for the first time since 2009 awfully enjoyable. Drummond, in particular, ought to be tons of fun in Year 2.
He shook pre-draft concerns about his commitment to improving, his in-game motor and an underdeveloped offensive skill-set by overwhelming opponents with sheer athleticism and a “minimalist” game reminiscent of All-Star (and most important Knick) Tyson Chandler. He inhaled missed shots, grabbing offensive boards at a rate that would have been the league’s second-best had he played enough minutes to qualify; his defensive rebounding percentage would’ve tied for seventh in the NBA. He was one of only six players last season to block more than 6 percent of opponents’ field-goal attempts when he played, joining elite swatters Serge Ibaka, Tim Duncan, Larry Sanders, Roy Hibbert and JaVale McGee. He was a monster in the pick-and-roll, ranking 24th in points produced per play finished as the roll man, according to Synergy Sports Technology. More important for this segment, he tended to produce them stylishly and loudly. (See Nos. 10, 7 and 5. You should watch the rest, too.)
The addition of Jennings and the returning Chauncey Billups, two guards who know how to run a pick-and-roll, and the re-signing of frequent P&R partner Bynum, increase Drummond’s odds of sharing the floor with at least one capable screen-game facilitator nearly all the time, which could lead to a lot more loud style. Then again, the addition of Smith and the continued presence of Monroe – two players who can facilitate offense away from the block, but whose own offensive games work far better in the paint than out -- could let defenses sag off, pack the paint and prevent Drummond from finding much space to take flight, which would be a bummer for Pistons fans as well as those of us who want to see Drummond tear the basket down every time he gets off the floor.
The search for the right fits – balancing offense and defense, shooting and rebounding, space-creating and space-eliminating in five-man units with a bunch of pieces that don’t seem to line up quite right – will surely take up the lion’s share of Cheeks’ waking hours between now and the end of the season. (Jennings’ continuing absence with an impacted wisdom tooth probably isn’t helping matters much.) If he’s successful, Detroit could climb the East ladder, taking advantage of the weakness at the bottom of the conference to break a streak of five straight sub-.500 finishes.
If he can’t, though, Pistons fans could exit this season in an all-too-familiar position -- wondering which of their pieces fit, where to find the ones they’re missing, and just how long it’ll take to shake their Heinsbergen syndrome and see it all come together the right way.
Honorable mentions: Two-way Smooveness; any time Drummond or Smith get out with Jennings in transition; the few minutes each night (hopefully) that Mitchell runs amok; whether Datome’s game will translate from Italy well enough for us to get to speak glowingly of a guy named Gigi.
Eric Freeman’s Land of Confusion
Josh Smith entered the NBA as a tweener, but it has become very clear over the course of his career that he’s best suited to the power forward position. Put Smith anywhere far from the basket and he becomes an offensive liability, a player prone to questionable long-range shots and more bad decisions than usual. In the right spot, Smith is one of the league’s great all-court talents, a dynamic force at both ends with the ability to contribute in virtually any way possible. The problem is often putting him in that spot.
The Pistons obviously signed Smith hoping they’d get his best self, but several warning signs suggest that won’t be the case. The most glaring, by far, is that the Pistons already have Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond occupying the frontcourt. If the Pistons want to play this promising trio together, then Smith is going to have to play a position he shouldn’t. This dilemma was clear to everyone with a working knowledge of Smith’s weaknesses and Detroit’s roster.
There’s another issue, though, that hasn’t been discussed quite so much. Despite his inconstancy, Smith is the most established player on the roster. As a member of the Hawks, he more commonly played the role of the x-factor, with players like Joe Johnson and Al Horford proving more stable. Now, Smith is being asked to be a steadier hand as other Pistons come into their own. Even if he plays up to the level of his contract, it’s as yet unclear if Smith can be that player on a daily basis.
Read all of Ball Don't Lie's 2013-14 NBA Season Previews:
Atlanta Hawks • Boston Celtics • Brooklyn Nets • Charlotte Bobcats • Chicago Bulls • Cleveland Cavaliers • Detroit Pistons • Indiana Pacers • Miami Heat • Milwaukee Bucks • New York Knicks • Orlando Magic • Philadelphia 76ers • Toronto Raptors