The NBA offseason has brought many changes to rosters, coaching staffs, and the list of championship contenders. As we draw closer to opening night, it’s time to move our focus from the potential impact of each offseason event and onto the broader issues that figure to define this season. The BDL 25 takes stock of, uh, 25 key storylines to get you up to speed on where the most fascinating teams, players, and people stand on the brink of 2016-17.
In 2007, Stan Van Gundy took over an Orlando Magic team featuring a ready-made star in Dwight Howard. If we’re to get pedantic, Howard was already a star, having earned an All-Star nod the previous season after just missing the team in 2005-06, but it was the task of turning Howard into a championship contender’s top player that SVG was charged with.
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And, if we’re to stay pedantic, Stan Van Gundy wasn’t Orlando’s top choice. It wasn’t just that they were rumored to be after former Florida and current-Oklahoma City Thunder coach Billy Donovan, the Magic actually agreed to a deal with Donovan before the Gators coach (then riding high after two consecutive NCAA national championships) decided he was going to stick with the college game.
With that in place, 19 months after being reassigned in Miami, Stan Van Gundy was at the top of everyone’s list as the NBA’s Next Great Available Unemployed Head Coach. As was the case in 2014, when Van Gundy was brought into Detroit two years after his relationships with Howard and the Magic franchise both ran their course.
Two years on, the Pistons have improved. They made the postseason in 2016 after a seven-year drought, and the team cracked the .500 mark for the first time since Rasheed Wallace, Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince and Chauncey Billups were dotting the starting lineup. The team secured center Andre Drummond to a long-term deal over the offseason, and 2015’s big nearly-offseason pickup (don’t be so pedantic) Reggie Jackson proved he was hardly a flash in the pan as a starter and go-to guy during 2015-16.
Even in the still-limited East, though, what gives? We know these Pistons will be well-versed in their opponents’ etiquette, as is SVG’s custom, but is the potential for internal development great enough to see this team actually compete with the great(s?) of the East?
The East in itself remains a mess. The Cavaliers are the defending champions; and outside of LeBron James the young rotation doesn’t seem bound for a batch of senioritis, a malaise that would give away wins until February or so. The Plexiglas Principle could (once again) derail the Hornets, Miami will clearly miss Dwyane Wade, Indiana might not be ready to jump and Chicago might not be suited to dive back into the playoff picture with Wade. Toronto and Boston, meanwhile, rank as tough outs that still would have an even tougher time dethroning the champs.
Detroit needed until the final week of the season to assure its playoff status, a bit of an oddity for a 44-win team in this forever-lacking conference. With no significant offseason moves to bank on, a significant uptick can’t solely be squared either “Andre Drummond just turned 23” or, with the general hope that “the East still mostly stinks.” Something’s going to have to take flight.
Who has the wings, though, in this realm?
Van Gundy, to his credit, isn’t on board with the “stinks” theory. From a talk with Keith Langlois at the Pistons’ website:
“You could move up in the East without winning very many more games. If you look at the bottom of the East, those teams have all gotten better. I think that’s the part people miss.”
Van Gundy sees a stronger East, top to bottom. That means not as many “gimme” wins against the bottom-tier teams. The Pistons went 14-4 against the bottom five teams in the East – Orlando, Milwaukee, New York, Brooklyn and Philadelphia – a season ago, 13-2 against the four others besides the Knicks.
“Philly is not going to win 10 games this year. They’re going to win more games – significantly more games,” Van Gundy said. “So that’s taking wins from everybody. If you look at what Brooklyn has done lately in their moves, they’re going to be able to win more games. A lot of those teams that were out of the playoffs – Milwaukee will be better, Orlando will be better, New York will be better. It’ll be harder to put up big victory numbers.
“I could be wrong. I don’t think 44 wins will be the eighth spot. I think we’ll get back closer to where the East has been because the bottom will come up.”
That’s exceedingly likely, because for all jokes you want to make about Orlando’s head-scratching offseason, Milwaukee’s obsession with length, New York’s hope to emulate the Chicago Bulls of a half-decade ago and Philly in general, the random Tuesday night wins the feisty Pistons feasted on last season won’t be as easy to come by in 2016-17. You can give Orlando’s Serge Ibaka trade a D- or cringe as Joakim Noah struggles to finish around the basket all you want, but you’re still going to have to contend with Serge Ibaka and Joakim Noah eight times this season.
The Pistons can battle. Drummond at the very least scares away shots, if not blocking them, he manages the boards well and provides a threat offensively that opponents won’t soon forget even if Andre touches the ball just twice in a quarter. Tobias Harris is a do-everything semi-star that turns the ball over once a fortnight, already boasting significant veteran chops despite just turning 24 over the offseason.
Jackson can push and lead, and in Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Stanley Johnson and Marcus Morris the team boasts an enviable triptych to fill in holes from five-to-two in the lineup. The team can go big or weirdly small, with some desperate play during the playoffs against Cleveland acting as proof of the latter.
In the offseason, the Pistons picked up a badly-needed go-to reserve point guard in Ish Smith, the sort of plugger the team needs for a second unit that will struggle to score, and a legitimate power forward-only in Jon Leuer. Boban Marjanovic will rank as one of the league’s top reserve pivotmen, and the team nabbed an intriguing prospect in Henry Ellenson that dropped far out of the lottery projections many had him crouched in heading into mid-June.
Ellenson is very young, though. Smith can be inconsistent, Leuer isn’t lights-out from long range, and Marcus Morris can be limited. KCP still has issues shooting even without a hand in his face, Stanley Johnson had a frustrating rookie year that saw his best work as a fill-in starter eventually marred by late-season shoulder woes, and Reggie Jackson is still a full step behind the league’s elite at point guard.
Tobias Harris has a skill-set that doesn’t appear as if has laid the foundation for an All-Star turn, and though Drummond was an All-Star in his fourth season last year, there’s no assurance that he will turn into anything even approximating the sort of screen and roll or even low post monster that Dwight Howard was in his Orlando prime.
Which would be fine, if Drummond had a supporting cast that outranked Howard’s in Orlando’s. He doesn’t, and the 2017 offseason (with, presumably, Caldwell-Pope’s contract extension on the books) will feature no wiggle room under the cap.
To this end, Orlando comparisons aren’t fair. Stan Van Gundy made the NBA Finals in his second season with the Magic, but the salted crops he inherited in Detroit in no way resemble the ready-made winner that awaited him in Florida back in 2007.
Still … third season. And even Stan admits that Philly isn’t an easy out anymore.
The Golden State Warriors are only entering their third season of all out-dominant ball, and yet the entire NBA (or, at least, the teams we respect) seems hell-bent on emulating the franchise’s versatile tone. As a result, whereas as one team per NBA division used to boast the “if everything falls into place, look out”-warning during the offseason, just about the whole damn league is filled with these sorts of teams in 2016-17. Even those who were endlessly criticized during the offseason for possibly mistaking activity for achievement: Orlando, New York, Chicago.
The tripping points come in the shape of awareness, health, and good coaching. These Pistons will be committed to the cause, we’ve little reason to assume that this young squad (every rotation member save for Aron Baynes was born after George H.W. Bush was sworn in) has any nagging injuries to fear, and Van Gundy ranks amongst the league’s biggest brains.
As such, perhaps it shouldn’t be Detroit worrying about the 76ers, Bucks, Knicks and Magic stealing wins; maybe those also-rans should be fearful of a sweep at the hands of the Pistons. Perhaps there should be a whole series of Eastern would-be contenders, and visiting Western adversaries that played in Chicago the night before, that will be on the wrong end of what was considered a coin-flip game.
That’s the hope, at least. Stan Van Gundy chose a Detroit team that wasn’t awful enough to blow up, but certainly wasn’t lusted after in the same way the Orlando Magic gig was nearly a decade ago. He’s mainly stayed the course, as he enters year three, but as a result creating upside out of an underwhelming-if-appreciated lot will rank as an unenviable task.
Previously, on BDL 25:
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