The Detroit Pistons hit the reset button on their culture this offseason without making significant roster changes. The Stan Van Gundy era officially ended after the 2017-18 season. With new head coach Dwane Casey at the helm, the Pistons hope to achieve more success in the form of playoff wins; the Pistons did not win a single playoff game – let alone series – in Van Gundy’s four years as coach and general manager.
But Van Gundy didn’t leave the cupboard entirely bare. While the Pistons are unlikely to compete for championships in the near future, the team has enough talent on the roster to surprise people this season. And the team hasn’t even been together long enough to appropriately set expectations.
The trade that redefined the Pistons just prior to last season’s trade deadline netted it Blake Griffin, who represents a clear upgrade in talent. Yes, the team’s lost 2018 first-round pick stings, as does Griffin’s contract, which stretches until 2021-22; however, the team’s roster is better positioned for success in 2018-19 than it was entering last season.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
The Detroit Pistons were relatively quiet this summer but have reason to be optimistic heading into the 2018-19 season. The Pistons named Dwane Casey as the team’s new head coach with the hope that he can provide the same kind of internal improvement he generated in his tenure with the Toronto Raptors. Casey has talent to work with, including Reggie Jackson, Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond. It’s unclear how far Casey can take this team as constructed but outside of the Celtics, 76ers and Raptors, the Eastern Conference is essentially wide open. Detroit has the opportunity to jump into the second tier of Eastern Conference contenders and make some noise in the postseason. However, that will require Casey to generate significant chemistry between his core players and instill a culture that allows him to maximize the talent he has available on the roster.
3rd Place – Central Division
– Jesse Blancarte
The Stan Van Gundy era may be over in Detroit, but his aura still lingers all over the roster. This is a capped-out roster paying nearly $75 million to Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson alone, and that’s a scary thought when you consider that the Pistons went just 11-14 with Griffin in the lineup following their acquisition of the big-name power forward from Los Angeles. Does a culture change in the form of Dwane Casey do enough to overhaul things and turn this group into a legitimate contender in the East? The Pistons had very few options to improve the roster over the summer, mostly tinkering around the margins on the personnel side. They’ll be counting on renewed continuity from the core plus some ingenuity from Casey to propel them a lot further than last season’s disappointing 39-win showing.
3rd Place – Central Division
– Ben Dowsett
Could we be underestimating the Pistons? They will have their roster back fully healthy, Blake Griffin should be fully acclimated, and Dwane Casey is the reigning Coach of the Year. Even if it’s not a contender, that roster still has good talent to work with. Andre Drummond’s notable growth as a player fell under the radar thanks to the Pistons’ struggles last season. Should Detroit improve from last season, he could make the All-Star team without having to be a replacement. Also, outside of Griffin and Drummond, the Pistons have plenty of trade-able contracts at the helm. Expect the front office to be on the lookout if someone good becomes available.
3rd Place – Central Division
– Matt John
Might a change in philosophy and leadership be the answer in the Motor City? We’ll find out. Dwane Casey has decided to take on the task of being the head coach of a Pistons team that always seems to stay where it’s at in the middle of the pack. Health is going to be what defines their season. Between Reggie Jackson and Blake Griffin, the two missed 61 total games combined. Detroit will need these guys in order to progress towards the goal of the playoffs. Though he’s a double-double machine and two-time All-Star, it’s not like Andre Drummond can do it by himself. Still, bringing in Casey will benefit all parties involved for the long haul. Can they put it together?
4th Place – Central Division
– Spencer Davies
$123 million; that’s what the Pistons have in guaranteed contracts going into the 2018-19 season. That’s seems like an awful lot for a team that may not win 45 games. The Pistons are trapped in a lot of really bad decisions, and unfortunately as good a coach as Dwane Casey, this roster just seems like a look of square pegs and not many square holes. There is a good possibility that Blake Griffin emerges as an elite All-Star in the East, he has that kind of potential, but its hard to envision that this Pistons team isn’t going to be much more than .500 and that means playoffs at best, but an early exit in May.
5th Place – Central Division
– Steve Kyler
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Blake Griffin
This one is a no-brainer. Griffin is the only career 20 point per game scorer on the roster. He is entering his ninth season, and his game is still incredibly effective despite relying on his athleticism. Only he no longer relies exclusively on athleticism.
Griffin has slowly but surely morphed into a true point forward: initiating fast breaks, throwing lobs and shooting from distance. When healthy he can score the ball effectively, create for others, shoot the ball and finish around the rim better than almost anyone not named Russell Westbrook. If he can produce like he has in years past, the Pistons will present problems for many Eastern Conference foes.
Top Defensive Player: Stanley Johnson
Johnson has not developed exactly as the Pistons had hoped, but his upside remains – especially on the defensive side of the ball. NBADraft.net favorably compared Johnson to Kawhi Leonard and/or Ron Artest in its 2015 NBA Draft scouting report.
This prognosis has obviously not come to fruition, but Johnson remains a long, smart defender who can still lock down good wings. In fact, Coach Casey suggested at his own introductory press conference that Johnson is the best defensive matchup for the league’s best player, LeBron James.
Look for Johnson to play a bigger role in 2018-19. If he’s successful, Johnson’s career trajectory could take a positive turn. And much of Johnson’s overall success, as well as the team’s, will be tied to his defense and motor.
Top Playmaker: Reggie Jackson
Griffin received serious consideration given his ability to create and lead fast breaks relative to his peers, but Jackson is the right answer. Jackson is a creative and confident lead guard. In his only professional season playing more than 60 games (79 games played in 2015-16), Jackson posted 18.8 points and 6.2 assists per game en route to 44 wins and the team’s only playoff berth since 2009.
So while Griffin is the team’s best player and first option, Jackson’s influence is potentially as great in that he changes the pace of the game and creates scoring opportunities for himself and his teammates. This is exemplified perfectly by the following statistic: when Jackson injured his left ankle on December 26, 2017 – which sidelined him for 37 games – the Pistons were five games above .500. The team went 20-29 following his injury.
Top Clutch Player: Reggie Jackson
It’s difficult to refer to any of the Detroit Pistons as clutch. Some are more so than others, though, and Reggie Jackson is the most clutch of the bunch.
Jackson is viewed as injury-prone more so than clutch. And to be fair, he has missed a combined 126 games in his seven seasons in the league. But Jackson is also a confident shooter who is not afraid of big moments. His swagger is infectious to teammates and fans. If Jackson stays healthy and can lead the Pistons to playoff victories, he can begin to change his narrative from fragile to clutch.
The Unheralded Player(s): Ish Smith and Glen Robinson III
The Pistons have two players who could easily overachieve this season. The first is Ish Smith, a journeyman guard who has played for 10 teams in his eight NBA seasons. But don’t let Smith’s transient nature mislead you into thinking he doesn’t get results. Smith is a crafty six-foot tall guard with a motor that more than makes up for his lack of size. He is a good finisher who can get buckets in a hurry. He averaged 10.9 points and 4.4 assists per game while posting a 15.4 PER in a full 82 games last season, 35 of which he started. Smith is reliable and dynamic in ways that a lot of backup players are not. His contract isn’t ideal at $6 million in 2018-19, but it’s far from the worst deal on the roster.
Glen Robinson III is the Pistons’ other sleeper. He was a second round pick and has mostly flown under the radar throughout his career. He was beginning to find a role in Indiana two seasons ago, where he logged career highs in minutes per game (20.7), points per game (6.1) and rebounds per game (3.6), but a poorly timed ankle injury prohibited him from continuing to improve. Robinson is an above-average three-point shooter who can still slash and finish around the rim. He is not a big time difference maker, but if the Robinson reaches his potential in the near future, consider him a steal at $4 million.
Best New Addition: Dwane Casey
The 2018 NBA Coach of the Year joined the Pistons shortly after being fired from his job in Toronto, but not before he led the Raptors to a franchise-best 59-win season in 2017-18. He possesses a calming influence few coaches have and is widely viewed as a player-friendly coach, unlike his predecessor, Stan Van Gundy. Coach Casey must now go about developing trust with the Pistons’ roster. If Casey can maximize the potential in the Griffin-Drummond-Jackson big three, then the team should have a relatively successful season.
Looking beyond next season, challenges remain in the form of the Pistons’ 2019-20 cap situation. Casey must focus on developing camaraderie and getting the most out of each player this season so his roster can hopefully continue overachieving the following season. After all, the Pistons are cash-strapped through 2020 and have limited resources to improve the roster via free agency next year.
– Drew Maresca
WHO WE LIKE
1. Andre Drummond
The six-year veteran has been mostly effective throughout his career thus far save for free throw shooting. But who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks? Drummond shot a much-improved .605 from the free throw line last season after shooting a dismal .386 the year prior. In fact, prior to last season, he had never shot above .418. Will he continue shooting free throws at the same rate as last season? Might he improve? The Pistons hope so, because while he is an obvious target for intentional fouls, Drummond is also a difference maker. He posted a PER of 22.9 in 2017-18, which is just slightly higher than his career average (21.8). He is an above average athlete who is constantly among the league leaders in rebounds. He is also a strong finisher and an above-average shot blocker.
2. Jose Calderon and Zaza Pachulia
Simply because of their veteran know-how and grit, Calderon and Pachulia are assumed to be one addition for this piece. Neither is likely to log heavy minutes, but the Pistons roster lacked a veteran presence. In Calderon, the team added a high IQ player and a patient leader. Similarly, the team added savviness and fortitude in Pachulia. The Pistons need both to influence the rest of the roster as much as possible so the team develops poise.
3. Luke Kenard
Kenard performed as expected for a late-lottery pick – inconsistently. The 2017 first-round pick showed flashes, though, especially down the stretch. In the final three games of the season, Kenard scored 18, 20 and 23 points, respectively. Further, when given the opportunity to play 30-plus minutes, Kenard averaged 16.5 points per game. He is a strong three-point shooter, but needs to be put in the position to shoot more regularly. He should benefit from the leadership of Coach Casey and veterans like those outlined above. Thankfully for the Pistons, he remains relatively cheap for as long as the next three years given his rookie deal.
4. Bruce Brown Jr.
It remains a long shot that Brown develops into a serviceable player for the 2018-19 season. Brown dropped to the second round due in part to a foot injury that cost him much of his sophomore season. But the 6-foot-5 point guard impressed the Pistons front office as well as others around the league with his summer league performance. In four games, Brown averaged 12.0 points, 7.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.3 steals per game. Brown must work on shooting more consistently, but he is a tenacious defender whose ceiling is a poor man’s Russell Westbrook. But Brown must ignore those comparisons and focus on becoming the best version of himself. If he develops properly, he could be the Pistons’ next starting point guard.
– Drew Maresca
The Pistons possess two of the better big men in the league: Blake Griffin and Andrew Drummond. Griffin enters his first full season as a member of the Pistons with ample experience playing alongside an athletic, albeit limited, center. Drummond is similar in many ways to Griffin’s former frontcourt mate, DeAndre Jordan. And the two complement each other equally nicely. Griffin is an excellent passer and Drummond is a strong, agile finisher.
But the Pistons must exploit mismatches as much as possible prior to the final minutes of close games. While the team is hoping that Drummond’s free throw shooting continues to improve like it did last season, he is still a liability, shooting .605 from the line. Further, as teams continue to play with smaller, more versatile lineups, how can Drummond stay on the court when opponents attack him in pick-and-rolls? Unfortunately, that means the team will likely need to limit late game minutes in which Griffin and Drummond are on the court together.
– Drew Maresca
Unfortunately for the Pistons, they play in the NBA and not the Big3. The team has a solid core centered around Drummond, Jackson and Griffin that can score points, block shots and clean the glass. But the team’s effectiveness will likely be compromised as games wear on.
The Pistons are especially thin at the wing positions, with Reggie Bullock and Stanley Johnson as projected starters. Neither has been a consistent contributor, and it only gets worse from there. Luke Kennard, Langston Galloway and Glenn Robinson III are likely to be the back-up wings. And while all have strengths and upside, the Pistons need proven players, not assets.
Additionally, the Pistons’ roster lacks a reliable backup center. Yes, the team signed Zaza Pachulia, but he is as much a locker room voice as he is a contributor at this stage of his career. Lucky for the Pistons, the league has deemphasized the need for meaty bigs. But if the Pistons fail to address any of its depth issues, the team’s core will be run ragged from the strains of the 82-game schedule.
– Drew Maresca
The Burning Question:
Can the Pistons’ stars stay healthy?
Yes, the team has talent. No, it’s not likely to be enough to propel them deep into playoffs. But for most teams in the NBA, making noise in the playoffs constitutes a successful season. While the playoffs should be as near a sure thing as exists in the NBA, all of the team’s success is contingent on health.
And the Pistons are headlined by two oft-injured stars: Jackson and Griffin. In fact, they have missed 67 and 107 games over the last two seasons, respectively. But the other side of that argument is when all three of the Jackson-Drummond-Griffin triumvirate played together – only 44 minutes in 2017-18 – they outscored opponents by 13.7 per 100 possessions.
Jackson and Griffin must remain on the court alongside Drummond as much as possible for Detroit to reach its potential. They are all impactful separately, but the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts. The Pistons’ front office recently identified injury issues as a point of emphasis. The team attempted to combat them by bringing back former strength and conditioning coach, Arnie Kander, this offseason as an injury consultant. Kander has historically emphasized stretching and range of motion exercises. While this alone does not guarantee any player’s health, it shows that the team is taking its players’ health seriously.
Further, Van Gundy’s preference for long, grueling practices can lead to fatigue, which can easily cause injuries. Conversely, Casey’s philosophy on practice is to wrap them up more quickly in at attempt to preserve his players’ bodies. If the Pistons can remain healthy, they could see themselves back in the playoffs in a less top heavy Eastern Conference.
– Drew Maresca
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