The Detroit Pistons ran roughshod over the Eastern Conference in the early to mid 2000s, but have been largely irrelevant in recent years. Detroit’s drama has ranged from poor free agency signings to constant head coach shuffling, which essentially throttled any forward momentum the franchise could occasionally muster.
But for the first time in nearly a decade, the Pistons will head into training camp under the pressure of heightened expectations. Detroit is coming off their lone winning season since the 2007-08 campaign, posting a 44-38 record and reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2009. While the team was ultimately swept in the first round of the playoffs at the hands of the eventual champion Cleveland Cavaliers, Detroit’s brass is hoping the taste of success is enough to inspire the team’s young core to push even harder.
Rather than rest on their laurels, president of basketball operations and head coach Stan Van Gundy was extremely aggressive in free agency by bringing in intriguing veterans Ish Smith, Boban Marjanovic and Jon Leuer. The Pistons also locked up All-Star center Andre Drummond to a five-year max deal, following guard Reggie Jackson’s lucrative deal last summer.
Pistons owner Tom Gores has continued to publicly speak about returning the franchise back to prominence. If the old adage “put your money where your mouth is” proves to be true, then he has been passing with flying colors as of late. This unit has the potential to flirt with 50 victories and there’s no question that Van Gundy’s squad is making progress in Motown.
Basketball Insiders previews the Detroit Pistons’ 2016-17 season.
FIVE GUYS THINK
It’s hard not to love where the Detroit Pistons are after another successful offseason that brought in even more talent to a team that was already one of the better young groups in the league. Boban Marjanovic and Ish Smith were two of the more underrated acquisitions of the summer, but what really matters is another year of watching Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson grow together and having Tobias Harris for a full offseason and training camp to find his way with this core. The Pistons are deep, well-coached and primed for a breakout campaign. I have them ranked fourth in the Central here, but they shouldn’t end the season too far behind Chicago and Indiana, if at all. Those three teams could easily be separated by a small handful of games, though Detroit admittedly has a much higher ceiling than at least Chicago – both this season and beyond.
4th Place – Central Division
– Joel Brigham
I’m a huge Stan Van Gundy fan and believe he’s one of the best coaches in the NBA. I’ve felt this way for quite some time and my stance isn’t changing anytime soon. He’s terrific with Xs and Os and in-game adjustments. He knows how to motivate his players and instill a winning culture (which is why it’s relatively common to hear Van Gundy’s former players reminisce about the good old days when they suited up for him). Also, he has a ridiculous wealth of knowledge when it comes to the game’s history (down to even the most random, obscure things). All of this is to say that Detroit’s future is in extremely good hands with their president of basketball operations and head coach. Andre Drummond, Reggie Jackson, Stanley Johnson, Tobias Harris, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Henry Ellenson is an amazing young core, and Van Gundy is just the guy to maximize their potential. Last year, we saw this group get their first taste of the playoffs. If all goes as expected, it’ll be the first of many appearances for this squad.
3rd Place – Central Division
– Alex Kennedy
The Pistons returned to the playoffs last season after a six-year drought, driven by president of basketball operations and head coach Stan Van Gundy’s aggressive roster reshuffling since taking control. The Pistons will be an intriguing club this season because it’s always entertaining to watch how young teams deal with any sort of success. Will Detroit sit back and admire their work from last season and struggle out of the gate? Or will the Pistons ride their momentum from this past season and use it to catapult themselves higher into the Eastern Conference’s hierarchy? The team was extremely active this summer, locking in All-Star center Andre Drummond to a long-term deal and reinforcing their overall depth in free agency. Let’s see how this young core handles success.
2nd Place – Central Division
– Lang Greene
It’s not every day that you see a team opt to pay a fringe All-Star talent to walk away. Stan Van Gundy did that and, since then, the results have been impossible to argue with. Since taking over in Detroit in May 2014, Van Gundy has outdone most of what Joe Dumars did in term of roster assembly. Josh Smith, Brandon Jennings and Greg Monroe were among those who were shown the door, and now, the team appears to be on the right path led by Reggie Jackson, Tobias Harris and Andre Drummond. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is a player I have fallen in love with as well, so I really like the pieces that the franchise is building around. My only concern is that sometimes, when we see a glimpse of potential, we begin to expect too much, too quickly. Look no further than the New Orleans Pelicans and Washington Wizards. In other words, just because the Pistons won 44 games last year doesn’t mean they’re going to win 50 this year. The conference around them has gotten tougher and I expect the Pacers to rise up as the second-best team in the Central. After the Cavaliers and Pacers, though, I think the Pistons will be right there. They’re a rising, middle-of-the-pack team in the East, and I am happy for Van Gundy and for the fans of the proud franchise.
3rd Place – Central Division
— Moke Hamilton
Stan Van Gundy has rebuilt the Pistons over the last few years, with an emphasis on young talent headed by Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond. How the Pistons do this upcoming season will largely depend on internal development since none of their offseason additions are necessarily game-changers. Jon Leuer, Boban Marjanovic, Ray McCallum and Ish Smith are all capable of filling a role and contributing, but this team’s success will be determined by players like Jackson, Drummond, Harris, Caldwell-Pope, Stanley Johnson and Marcus Morris. Van Gundy is a top-notch head coach, so I expect this team to be more comfortable playing his system as the season goes along. Assuming that happens, I think the Pistons take a significant step forward.
2nd Place – Central Division
– Jesse Blancarte
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Reggie Jackson
When Jackson was a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder, most balked at the notion that the former Boston College standout could be the primary offensive option on a playoff team. But Jackson had a strong belief in his skill set and became rather vocal in his desire to be a full-time starter. That wasn’t happening in Oklahoma City with All-Star guard Russell Westbrook in the mix, which is understandable, but he hasn’t disappointed since arriving to Detroit. Last season, the guard averaged 18.8 points, 3.2 rebounds and 6.2 assists in 79 appearances. Jackson has now improved his scoring every season he’s been in the league and the 2016-17 campaign may see him break the 20-points-per-game barrier for the first time.
Top Defensive Player: Andre Drummond
Drummond isn’t the strongest one-on-one defender and his shot blocking production isn’t elite, but the first-time All-Star led the Pistons in defensive rating and defensive box score plus-minus last season. Plus, Drummond led the league in rebounding (14.8 boards per game) this past season, which led to the Pistons allowing the least amount of offensive rebounds to opposing units in 2016.
Top Playmaker: Ish Smith
The natural instinct would be to deem starting point guard Reggie Jackson as the team’s top playmaker, but dig a bit deeper and you’ll find that newcomer Ish Smith may be the better dime dropper in a very tight decision. Smith finished sixth in assist percentage (37) among players who appeared in at least 50 games last season, showing a knack for keeping teammates involved (Jackson finished 11th, LeBron James 14th). Smith will be entrusted to keep the offense flowing for the team’s second unit and it wouldn’t shock if Van Gundy plays him beside Jackson at times in order to allow the team’s leading scorer to go to work.
Top Clutch Player: Reggie Jackson
While Drummond is the team’s best overall player, there were times last season when Van Gundy kept the big fella on the bench during pivotal situations late in games. When the game gets tight or the team needs a quality offensive possession, the ball will undoubtedly be in the hands of Jackson and he will be entrusted to get the job done.
The Unheralded Player: Marcus Morris
Morris served as one of Van Gundy’s workhorses last season, averaging a whopping 36 minutes per game, finishing fifth in the league in minutes played. The former University of Kansas standout averaged career-highs in points (14.1), rebounds (5.1) and assists (2.5). Morris proved to be one of the better glue guys in the league last season, but his minutes may be in for a decline with second-year forward Stanley Johnson looking to take on a bigger role and the further integration of swingman Tobias Harris.
Top New Addition: Boban Marjanovic
The Pistons signed Marjanovic to a three-year, $21 million deal early in free agency and the San Antonio Spurs opted not to match the offer for the restricted free agent. During Marjanovic’s lone season with the Spurs, the 7’3 center averaged 5.5 points and 3.6 rebounds on 60 percent shooting – quickly becoming a fan favorite in the process. Those numbers don’t immediately grab your attention, but his per-36-minute averages of 21 points and 13.7 rebounds should make everyone curious about what the big guy could potentially do with extended minutes.
– Lang Greene
WHO WE LIKE
- Stan Van Gundy
The arrival of Van Gundy signaled the dawn of a new era in Detroit and the executive/coach hasn’t disappointed, leading to the club back to the playoffs in year two of his reign. Van Gundy hired a strong staff of assistant coaches to implement his system and philosophy, and the talent he’s acquired during his short tenure has been impressive. The Pistons, at Van Gundy’s direction, are slowly building a team that will eventually compete for Eastern Conference supremacy. Key word: eventually.
- Tobias Harris
The Pistons acquired Harris at last season’s trade deadline from the Orlando Magic in exchange for veterans Ersan Ilyasova and Brandon Jennings. The Magic subsequently traded Ilyasova to Oklahoma City and allowed Jennings to walk in free agency to New York. But Harris will be a focal point of Detroit’s retooling project and he averaged 16.6 points on 48 percent shooting in 27 appearances with the Pistons last year. With a full training camp, Harris should be ready for an even larger role in Detroit’s talented rotation.
- Henry Ellenson
It remains to be seen if Ellenson can crack Detroit’s nightly rotation as a rookie, but the Pistons were able to get solid value with the No. 18 pick of the draft in the former Marquette University standout. During his lone collegiate season, Ellenson averaged 17 points and 9.7 rebounds on 45 percent shooting from the floor. At 6’11, Ellenson possesses the ability to put the ball on the floor and has range on his jumper out to the NBA three-point line, making him one of this year’s most intriguing rookies.
- Duo of Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson
Drummond emerged as an All-Star last season and was named to the All-NBA Third Team after playing at a very high level. The team locked Drummond into a new five-year deal this summer and the center’s free agency process was devoid of any real drama. Jackson’s growth in his first full season as a starting floor general was promising. Now, the question is can Jackson follow Drummond’s footsteps and enter the All-Star discussion? Either way, the Pistons are anchored by their talented duo and with both guys just scratching the surface of their potential, good times are ahead in Detroit.
– Lang Greene
SALARY CAP 101
The Pistons went under the NBA’s $94.1 million salary cap to sign players like Ish Smith, Jon Leuer and Boban Marjanovic before re-signing Andre Drummond to a five-year, $127.2 million deal. While the team still has its $2.9 million Room Exception, Detroit is well over the cap with 14 guaranteed players. Lorenzo Brown, Ray McCallum and Trey Freeman (reportedly) will fight for the one remaining roster spot.
Looking ahead, the Pistons do not project to have spending power next summer, under a projected $102 million cap. That assumes the team takes Stanley Johnson’s rookie-scale option before November. The team also has until the end of October to extend Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and/or Reggie Bullock.
– Eric Pincus
Led by Drummond, the Pistons ranked second in the league in rebounding last season, pulling down 46.3 boards per contest. The team features plenty of wing guys who are capable of pulling down five or more rebounds on any given night such as Harris, Johnson and Morris. The addition of Marjanovic and Leuer add even more guys cable of cleaning the glass next season.
– Lang Greene
Three-point shooting and ball distribution are two areas of weakness for the Pistons heading into the season. Detroit shot just 34.5 percent from long range last year, which put them in the bottom third of the league. The Pistons also ranked near the bottom of the league in assists (27th). The addition of Smith will help the team’s playmaking ability, but long-range marksmanship is still an area that needs to improve.
– Lang Greene
THE BURNING QUESTION
How will the Detroit Pistons handle success?
The Pistons experienced some success last season by securing a playoff berth, which has heightened expectations and put pressure on this unit. The franchise won’t have the cloak of anonymity this season, as opposing teams around the league will take the club a bit more seriously. But success isn’t guaranteed moving forward. Plenty of teams over the years have seemingly experienced a breakthrough season only to crash back to earth with a resounding thud the following campaign. Success has a way of corrupting and when teams start reading their own press clippings, disaster typically follows shortly thereafter. But the Pistons have assembled a mostly blue-collar bunch that takes pride in rolling up their sleeves to grind out victories. If the team is truly ready to take the next step in their development and avoid the trappings of success, there’s no reason why an Eastern Conference Semifinals trip shouldn’t be considered an achievable goal.
– Lang Greene
Make sure to follow Basketball Insiders on Twitter at @BBallInsiders.