In their second season under Stan Van Gundy, the Detroit Pistons improved from a 32-win also-ran to a respectable-as-heck 44-38 squad. They scrapped, and made opponents miserable with a steady diet of high pick-and-rolls run by smooth-scoring point guard Reggie Jackson and rim-rocking monster center Andre Drummond. They got better by prioritizing little fundamental things and repeatedly hammering them home, a brick-by-brick build-up in the image of their coach, who knows a thing or two about bleepin’ masonry.
With Jackson in his first full year at the controls, Detroit took care of the ball, posting the NBA’s eighth-lowest turnover rate and allowing its fifth fewest points off turnovers. With Drummond vacuuming up caroms at a league-best clip, they dominated the boards, posting the NBA’s second-highest rebounding percentage (tops on the defensive glass) and giving up the league’s fewest second-chance points. They booked it back in transition, allowing fewer fast-break points than any other team.
They tried really hard not to beat themselves, and forced opponents to prove they could do the job. As it turns out, you can win a few more games that way.
A few more, but not enough. The Pistons returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2009, but did so as a roughly average team — 15th out of 30 in points scored per possession, 13th in points allowed per possession — facing off against an elite opponent: the top-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers, led by a fully healthy Big Three of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. Undaunted by the Cavs’ superior star- and firepower — as evidenced by 19-year-old rookie swingman Stanley Johnson claiming he was in the King’s head — the Pistons fought hard, but fell quickly, getting swept out by a Cleveland side that would go on to win its first NBA championship.
Now, the Pistons face the hard part: getting better, and meaningfully so, without signing or trading for an A-list superstar.
With Drummond and Jackson bookending the attack, the Pistons have talent. With Johnson, starting forward Marcus Morris and the versatile Tobias Harris — added at February’s trade deadline, with whom Detroit closed the season on a 17-11 kick (a .607 winning percentage, a 52-win pace) — they’re tough and deep on the wing. With Van Gundy on the sideline, they’ll be well prepared every night. But they’ll have to grow from within, find more consistent outside shooting to unlock Stan’s offensive scheme, and continue to take strides defensively without many top-shelf stoppers.
What the Pistons already have is solid. Whether it can be special remains to be seen.
2015-16 season in 140 characters or less:
From 32 wins last season to 44 this season. Nice progress in Year 2 of the SVG regime. #Pistons
— Ryan Field (@RyanFieldABC) April 14, 2016
Tough loss, but this is how you grow. Pistons were competitive for 44 minutes. Encouraging game
— Omari Sankofa II (@omarisankofa) April 17, 2016
Did the summer help at all?
Maybe! Aside from a no-brainer five-year, $127 million maximum-salaried contract extension for Drummond, the main focus for Van Gundy and general manager Jeff Bower was improving Detroit’s depth, trying to add youth and talent to a second unit that too often submarined the work of the NBA’s most frequently featured core. Whether they did enough to weather the absence of a key member of that group, though, is unclear.
[The 2016-17 BDL 25: The key storylines to watch this NBA season]
No four-man unit played more minutes together last season than Drummond, Jackson, Morris and shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. (In fact, none came within 300 minutes.) Both versions of the starting lineup, the pre-trade-deadline edition with stretch four Ersan Ilyasova and the post-swap sort with Harris, ranked among the NBA’s 13 most-used five-man groups by year’s end.
In the nearly 1,400 minutes those two starting groups played, Detroit outscored its opposition by a little over three points per 100 possessions, a top-10 caliber differential. Overall, though, the Pistons finished with a negative net rating, getting outscored over the full season by 0.2 points-per-100. Nearly every reserve on the team profiled as a significant negative.
SVG and Bower set about reversing that bummerific trend by taking another whack at filling a hole they’d tried to plug with February’s agreed-upon but later-rescinded deal for Houston’s Donatas Motiejunas.
On draft night, they used 2016’s No. 18 overall pick on Henry Ellenson. The 6-foot-11, 245-pound big man earned All-Big East First Team and conference Freshman of the Year honors last season, averaging nearly 17 points, 10 rebounds, two assists and 1.5 blocks per game for Marquette. While he shot just 29 percent from the NCAA 3-point line for the Golden Eagles, the midrange touch, free-throw stroke, scoring ability, off-the-dribble skill and rebounding acumen he showed in college suggest he’s got the tools to become a quality floor-spacing forward and perhaps even stretch-five at the NBA level.
If he can hold up defensively — which wasn’t his strong suit at Marquette — Ellenson could wind up providing a similar brand of lineup flexibility and production to what Detroit had hoped to get from Motiejunas. To cover themselves while they wait for the 19-year-old to get there, the Pistons also looked to the frontcourt in free agency, giving a four-year, $42 million deal to Jon Leuer. The 27-year-old power forward has bounced to four teams in five NBA seasons, but he’s coming off the best season of his career, averaging 8.5 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.1 assists in 18.7 minutes per game for Phoenix while shooting 48.1 percent from the floor and 38.2 percent from 3-point land.
The Wisconsin product’s pretty far from a household name. But at 6-foot-10 with legit range, he’s a strong pick-and-pop option — he ranked 13th last season among players who finished at least 50 possessions as the “roll” man in the screen game, according to Synergy Sports Technology’s game-charting data. He’s also a capable marksman when the ball swings his way, drilling more than 39 percent of his catch-and-shoot triple tries last year.
Both Leuer and Ellenson give Van Gundy four-men to spell Morris who can punish a defense that sinks too far into the paint, helping maintain floor spacing around the bread-and-butter Drummond pick-and-roll. They could also slot in as small(ish)-ball centers in place of Drummond, allowing Van Gundy to roll with more five-out sets that stretch defenses past their breaking points and maximize driving lanes for Detroit’s ball-handlers. And if Stan wants to stay big with a rim protector who can bully smaller opponents, he can now turn to …
It’s hard to blame those who focused primarily on Marjanovic’s sheer size in his maiden NBA season, but SVG and company clearly recognized the savvy and game that the former Serbian League MVP displayed en route to averaging 21 points and 13.7 rebounds per 36 minutes of floor time. They prized it enough to extend a three-year, $21 million offer sheet in restricted free agency, which Boban — after some gentle cajoling from Gregg Popovich — grabbed with those gigantic mitts, giving Drummond, Morris, Leuer, Ellenson and fellow ex-Spur Aron Baynes a skilled (and friggin’ huge) new colleague.
The back-line bolstering could pay dividends, but it’s the backcourt that’s the bigger issue for Detroit right now.
After shipping out Brandon Jennings in the Harris deal and getting sub-replacement-level play last season from Steve Blake and Spencer Dinwiddie, the Pistons looked to upgrade the backup point guard spot by importing journeyman Ish Smith, last seen looking downright superheroic in elevating the Philadelphia 76ers from embarrassing to merely run-of-the-mill bad — on a three-year, $18 million deal. But with Jackson set to begin the season on the injured list as he works his way back from left knee tendinitis, Smith’s responsibilities increase exponentially.
Instead of being a change-of-pace, drive-to-score or drive-and-kick jitterbug for 18 minutes a game off the pine, Smith’s going to need to carry the load for a while, keeping Drummond fed and the offense afloat. That could be really difficult to do if he can’t knock down enough outside shots to keep defenses from clogging up the paint by ducking way under every screen set for him. Given Smith’s career marks of 40 percent from the floor and 30 percent from 3-point land, I’d suggest not holding your breath on that one.
Plus, bumping Ish to the top line means Detroit will need another ball-handler to spell him. With training-camp invitees Ray McCallum and Lorenzo Brown each failing to impress in preseason, it’s possible that the answer isn’t yet on the Pistons roster. Van Gundy and Bower might need to find one, and quick, to avoid watching their offense fall apart, and their hopes of making another leap in the East go up in smoke before Christmas.
Potential breakout stud:
Candidates abound on a roster whose oldest player (Baynes) isn’t yet 30 and whose most experienced player (Smith) has just six NBA seasons under his belt. The most meaningful leap would come from Drummond, who made his first All-Star and All-NBA appearances last year while leading the league in rebounding, but whose tendency toward chasing boards, blocks and steals often leaves him out of position in the paint, and who was more middling than menacing as a rim protector last season.
Opponents shot 52.6 percent at the rim when Drummond was defending, according to SportVU player tracking data, 48th among 60 rotation big men to defend at least five attempts per game. Despite his size, wingspan and athleticism, he actually finished in the negative in Nylon Calculus’ “points saved” statistic, which estimates how many points a player prevented through his presence at the rim. If he can stay steadier around the basket on defense, and make some meaningful improvement on a free-throw form that has seen him produce four of the worst foul-shooting seasons ever among players with at least 100 attempts, Drummond could become a flashing-lights superstar, raising Detroit’s ceiling as he ascends.
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If you prefer your picks-to-click to come from the ranks of dudes who haven’t already earned an All-Star nod, though, let’s go with Caldwell-Pope, who received mentions in the recently published NBA General Manager Survey when GMs were asked to identify both the league’s top perimeter defender and the player most likely to break out.
ESPN’s Real Plus Minus graded the 6-foot-5 Georgia product as a top-10 two-guard last year, an acknowledgement of his growing impact as both an offensive player (career-high 14.5 points per game last season, career-high free-throw rate and assist percentage) and a defensive stopper (few players save Game 7 End Boss Kevin Love gave Stephen Curry the kind of problems KCP caused last year). And yet, the 23-year-old swingman can remain an offensive liability by virtue of his struggle to reliably hit the long ball. He’s missed two-thirds of his 3-point tries through three NBA seasons, and regressed from a 34.5 percent clip two seasons ago to just 30.9 percent last year.
There’s reason to believe his stroke can improve. He shot a shade under 40 percent on attempts between 16 feet and the arc last season, according to Basketball-Reference.com’s shot charts, and made a career-best 81.1 percent of his free throws last season. And during his playoff debut last spring, Caldwell-Pope stepped with confidence into the open looks he received due to the Cavs’ devotion to stalling Drummond and Jackson, shooting 12-for-27 from deep (a 44.4 percent clip on 6.8 attempts per game). As dispiriting as the sweep might have been, that performance gave Pistons fans hope that Caldwell-Pope really can be the efficient 3-and-D running buddy who provides positive play on both ends of the floor — Detroit’s answer to, say, Danny Green.
On a Pistons team starved for shooting, and that desperately needs all the space it can muster to give its point guards room to cook and Drummond opportunities to devour, the wings have to deliver from downtown. The time is now for KCP to prove he can do that while serving as the sort of defensive ace who can handle multiple assignments on any given night. If he can, the Rich Paul client could find himself a sought-after commodity on a thin wing market in restricted free agency this coming summer. If he can’t, he could migrate from Detroit’s core to the fringes of its future plans.
Steady play from Smith, improved playmaking from the wings and a stingier defense allows Detroit to stay around .500 while Jackson recuperates. Drummond makes half his free throws, starting to change the to-hack-or-not-to-hack decision-making math for opponents and helping him stay on the court. Detroit hits the gas once its point guard returns, riding a supercharged Reggie-Andre pick-and-roll, improved spot-up shooting and another year of SVG drilling to top-10 finishes in offensive and defensive efficiency.
With their win total depressed by the early-season scuffling, the Pistons enter the postseason as a No. 6 or 7 seed. At full strength and in top gear, they upset a pair of Eastern powers to make the franchise’s first conference finals appearance since the Flip Saunders era, earning a rematch with LeBron’s Cavs and a chance to show just how much they’ve grown.
If everything falls apart:
The offense craters without Jackson at its controls. Even after his return, he never quite gets right either off the bounce or with his shot. The wing rotation of Harris, Johnson and Caldwell-Pope can’t pick up the shot-creation slack, as Detroit struggles to consistently produce enough points to win even slugfests.
Drummond stagnates, failing to make consistent improvements as a free-throw shooter and team defender. Van Gundy continues to show reluctance to ride him late in games, raising questions as to just how reliable a cornerstone the center really is. The generally rising tide in the East creates a rip current that pulls the Pistons under. They dip back below .500 and miss the playoffs, introducing doubt about whether Detroit’s bet on the right horses to return to contention.
Kelly Dwyer’s Best Guess at a Record:
44-38, good for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
Read all of Ball Don’t Lie’s 2016-17 NBA Season Previews:
Atlanta Hawks • Boston Celtics • Brooklyn Nets • Charlotte Hornets • Chicago Bulls • Cleveland Cavaliers • Detroit Pistons • Indiana Pacers • Miami Heat • Milwaukee Bucks • New York Knicks • Orlando Magic • Philadelphia 76ers • Toronto Raptors • Washington Wizards
Dallas Mavericks • Denver Nuggets • Golden State Warriors • Houston Rockets • Los Angeles Clippers • Los Angeles Lakers • Memphis Grizzlies • Minnesota Timberwolves • New Orleans Pelicans • Oklahoma City Thunder • Phoenix Suns • Portland Trail Blazers • Sacramento Kings • San Antonio Spurs • Utah Jazz
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