Stan Van Gundy was brought into put out a dumpster fire and, well, his work with the firemop ain’t over yet.
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SVG enters his second full year in Detroit having failed to fully extricate his team out of the clutches of his president predecessor: Piston legend Joe Dumars. Dumars brought Detroit a title in 2004 and several years of championship contention in the years after, but by and large his work toward the end of his administration was disastrous. Disastrous in terms of his personnel choices, but also his freedom in steering the ship while past ownership decided to move on, and when new ownership was still getting its feet wet.
To borrow another image, Dumars salted the soil badly with his last all-in attempts at building a winner – adding lefties Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings in 2013 to a team already featuring Andre Drummond alongside a litany of uninspiring draft picks. Smith never fit in, and he lasted all of two months with Van Gundy before the team paid him to go away – he’ll be paid over $5 million over the next few years (provided he doesn’t earn anything more than a minimum-salaried deal with a new team) by the Pistons as a result of the team’s decision to use the stretch provision on him.
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Because sports are filled with obvious storylines and annoying hero/villain credits (Smith did work his tail off in Detroit, he just did not fit in with the roster that both Dumars and Van Gundy built), the Pistons went on a 9-1 run with Smith off the team. By midseason it seemed as if a playoff berth in Van Gundy’s first season was a fait accompli, but the group finished a full six games out of the (quite miserable) Eastern playoff bracket.
That late-season swoon was ushered in by the midseason loss of Jennings to an Achilles tear. The lead guard was playing the best basketball of his career in his sixth season (and second with Detroit) before the setback, and though he’ll be back by the time 2015 is through the Pistons still felt a need to find a starting-level point man.
That led to the acquisition and eventual re-signing (at a “for him?”-style rate of five years and $80 million) of former Thunder reserve Reggie Jackson. Jackson was immediately given the starting reins and matched Jennings’ per-minute work almost to the number (with a few extra assists thrown in there), and in spite of the team’s lacking record the group did score quite well with Jackson on the floor. Jennings (who has been supportive of Jackson throughout), meanwhile, has just one season left on his contract and sadly might only provide an approximation of his previous production for 50-odd games.
Jackson will have the ball in his hands, but this has clearly become Andre Drummond’s team. The big center is due for a massive extension, and he’ll be asked to play the part of a franchise player in his fourth season.
This was always Van Gundy’s intent, but the setup was made all the more clear when scoring big man Greg Monroe was allowed to leave via free agency for no return. Even with Monroe’s move to Milwaukee the Bucks remained over the cap, and though Van Gundy (and general manager Jeff Bower) have had two full offseasons to try and emerge from the remains of the Dumars Administration, this team still feels a step or two short of turning the corner. Even in the East.
Van Gundy has his big man, he’s brought in some floor-stretching forwards and he’ll have an intriguing tandem in Jennings and Jackson to work with eventually.
What he doesn’t have is a playoff promise. And for Pistons fans that have waited six (and counting) years for the Pistons to crack the bracket in the terrible East, patience should be running out.
2014-15 in 140 characters or less:
We’re running … we’re running out of Js to blame.
Did the summer help at all?
Not as much as you’d like, especially with the seeming mandate to remove all traces to the Joe Dumars Era.
The Pistons more or less signed off on Greg Monroe leaving the squad in 2014 when they failed to come up with a contract to his liking. Though Van Gundy persistently told the media that he would love to have the scoring forward back, Monroe just didn’t play well alongside Drummond, and his ability to pass and score failed help in Drummond’s rather worrying year in the low post in 2014-15.
The move didn’t net the Pistons any cap space, but they did save room under the tax for Jackson’s extension and Drummond’s eventual max contract.
Prior to the draft the Pistons sent Caron Butler back (yet again) to the Milwaukee Bucks for Ersan Ilyasova, and they also dealt a future conditional second round pick (that is to say, “nothing”) to Phoenix for Marcus Morris. Morris struggled while starting at small forward with the Suns last season, but he’ll be relied upon at the wing as rookie lottery pick Stanley Johnson will need some time to sort the pro game out.
Aron Baynes remains an underrated all-around player, and he’ll get his chances to crash the boards with Drummond’s continuing foul woes.
The team added a litany of one-year contracts in Steve Blake, Danny Granger, Joel Anthony (technically a two-year with a team option) and Anthony Tolliver with an eye toward keeping the books clean in 2016.
Go-to offseason acquisition:
Ersan Ilyasova is the key here. He was introduced by Van Gundy as the team’s starting power forward even before Monroe officially split, and his stretch four game seems perfectly tailed for his new coach’s plans.
The question here surrounds the guesswork as to what form of Ersan Ilyasova we’re going to get, here.
Ilyasova was just above average from behind the line (at just under 39 percent) last season in Milwaukee, thankfully, but he’s peppered as many sub-30 percent seasons from long range into his career arc as he has plus-40 percent seasons. Ilyasova was trusted to fire away far more often from long range under Jason Kidd last season, so perhaps that expectation allowed for a more consistent turn in his shooting stylings.
The Pistons of 2014-15 weren’t truly terrible. They didn’t foul teams all that much, and were decidedly average in just about every category save for free throw makes and percentage (hampered by Andre Drummond missing over 60 percent of his gimmies, and Josh Smith’s two months of 48 percent).
What stands out, however, is just the obvious fact that this isn’t a very good team at this point.
There’s nothing horrifically wrong with employing types like Jodie Meeks, Steve Blake and Anthony Tolliver in your rotation, it’s just that you’d like to see them a little farther down the bench than they’ll be sitting in 2015-16. There’s nothing wrong with employing either Ilyasova or Marcus Morris as starters, even together, but you would hope they would be surrounded by stars.
That, frankly, just isn’t the case in Detroit right now. And even if Stanley Johnson proves he was the right pick ahead of Justise Winslow (he did turn in a fantastic Summer League, after all), it will still take a little while to prove his worth as the eighth overall pick.
Contributor with something to prove:
Andre Drummond didn’t get all the looks he could handle in 2014-15, there still was Greg Monroe and the team’s pair of shoot-first point guards to account for, but his shot attempts did bump up in Van Gundy’s first year as coach. The center wasn’t a revelation, his post-up numbers were lacking as were his numbers on rangier hooks, but if his various social media feeds are to be trusted he’s been hounding the paint (and perimeter) all summer in workouts with the expectation that he’ll turn into a scorer that can be trusted upon.
He needs to be, because the Pistons don’t have the horses to compete (even in the East) without at least one player coming up with All-Star-typical production. Drummond only just turned 22, and Van Gundy famously acted as the head coach in Orlando when Dwight Howard took the final step toward acting as a franchise player, but Drummond is an altogether tougher sort to round off.
Van Gundy knows how to run a low post-obsessed offense in the modern, seemingly low post-averse, era. It’s easy to understand why he’s pinning his future on Andre Drummond’s development, but it’s tougher to guess as to how it will all pan out for both parties.
Potential breakout stud:
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has mostly dulled the home crowd with his performances during his initial two seasons, and his starting turn under Van Gundy in 2014-15 was hardly inspiring.
KCP was awarded the green light on all the three-pointers he could handle, but failed to connect at a league average rate. He was a solid enough defender, but rarely got to the free throw line, he hardly rebounded, and didn’t do much with the ball in his hands. That includes rarely turning it over, which is nice, but it just adds to the anonymity.
Caldwell-Pope will be giving another starting nod, minutes and opportunity, and it’s possible that he could bust out without Monroe, Smith or Jennings taking heaps of shots. Surrounded by low-usage, space-intent guys like Marcus Morris and Ersan Ilyasova, Caldwell-Pope could cash in on some of the promise that he came with as the eighth pick in the 2013 NBA draft.
The Pistons had excuses last season, as they wormed their way out of Dumars’ rotation, and with expectations hitting that could send both Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson into the stratosphere. Both could respond well to big minutes and big responsibility, which would give Detroit two near-All-Star cornerstones and a host of capable role players to work with night in and night out
That enough, in a league that tends to sometimes sleepwalk its way through nights in Detroit, could be what punches the Pistons back into the postseason.
If everything falls apart:
There’s always the chance that players could press.
Detroit was technically in the playoff hunt until the final five weeks of the season, but from the top down most considered 2014-15 to be a year to burn – especially after the club lost Brandon Jennings for the season.
Players like Drummond, Jackson and Caldwell-Pope haven’t just been preparing for a 2015-16 playoff run since the offseason hit, they’ve been looking forward to it since last winter. If the cornerstones put too much on their plate and crack under the pressure, then the helpers will have no solution to stand on in relief.
That kind of responsibility is tough on any player, much less two 22-year olds (Drummond and KCP) and a 25-year old (Jackson).
Kelly Dwyer's notoriously unreliable crystal ball:
37-45, ninth in the East.
Read all of Ball Don't Lie's 2015-16 NBA Season Previews:
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