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NBA AM: Detroit Pistons 2017-18 Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the Detroit Pistons as they try to climb their way back to the postseason.

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Two seasons removed from a positive record and postseason berth, the Detroit Pistons are looking to take advantage of a weakened Eastern Conference to help propel themselves back into the playoffs.

With Avery Bradley and lottery pick Luke Kennard aboard, some of the offensive woes from last season have the potential to be addressed. But, more importantly, the team’s starting point guard, Reggie Jackson, looks healthy and primed to return to his form that helped lead the Pistons to their last postseason appearance.

Stan Van Gundy and Detroit have their work cut out for them this season in terms of making it a successful one, but the necessary pieces look to be in place for an improvement from last year.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

Just five games separated the Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers last season. That was all the difference between third place and last place in their division, and making and missing the playoffs.

Well, with Paul George out of Indiana, and Jimmy Butler moving on from Chicago, the Pistons look poised to jump a few spots not only in their division, but in the conference as well. After adding Avery Bradley this offseason, the Pistons have a perfect two-way guard complement to Reggie Jackson. Along with Bradley, rookie Luke Kennard impressed during Summer League and looks to be in the position to provide a decent punch off the bench.

The newcomers at guard, plus the likes of Tobias Harris and Andre Drummond, appear to make Detroit a threat for a bottom half seed come next postseason. Now it’s just a matter of if Stan Van Gundy can put it all together.

3rd place — Central Division

— Dennis Chambers

Stan Van Gundy shopped literally everybody on his roster this past offseason, so it’s okay if fans aren’t all that excited about this team. The head coach and front office isn’t all that excited about it either, apparently. The Reggie Jackson/Andre Drummond trade rumors aren’t going away, and with those guys gone there wouldn’t be a whole lot left to love about this roster outside of Avery Bradley and Tobias Harris. The Pistons should finish third in the Central, but only because the Pacers and Bulls traded away their clout. More likely than not, this is a team on the playoff bubble, which should speak volumes as to how weird the Eastern Conference is going to be this year.

3rd Place – Central Division

— Joel Brigham

I’m not really sure what to expect from the Pistons this season. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Marcus Morris were each a big part of what the team did the past two years, but after winning 44 games during the 2015-16 season, the progression that was expected of the bunch last season was a bit of a dud. After 37 wins and missing the playoffs, Caldwell-Pope found a new home and Reggie Jackson, who was openly shopped, will now be pushed by Avery Bradley. Bradley is one of the better combo guards in the league and I’ve also got a lot of love for Langston Galloway. Acquiring those players, though, means that Luke Kennard may not get the minutes he warrants to figure out just how good he is, but I do have confidence in Stan Van Gundy’s ability to figure it all out.

In the end, I suppose it all hinges on Andre Drummond and, to a lesser extent, Stanley Johnson. In the playing time he got last season, Johnson proved himself to be capable of making a difference on both ends of the floor. I like their rotation in Detroit and suppose that they will be battling for a lower playoff seed considering two of the teams in their division should be taking considerable steps back.

3rd Place — Central Division

— Moke Hamilton

The Pistons have been a team in search of a true identity the last couple years, and that looks to continue moving forward. Most of the pieces are the same, with the exception of Avery Bradley, who was acquired in exchange for Marcus Morris. Bradley will bring some nice defensive chops against quicker guards while allowing Tobias Harris and Stanley Johnson to likely man the forward positions – in this sense, the Pistons are a bit more versatile. But to succeed more than they have the last couple years, the improvements need to be internal. They need more from both Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond, the latter of whom has totally failed to prove his worth on a max deal signed in 2016. They need Johnson to be more consistent on both sides of the ball. There’s a lot of skepticism that all these things can happen, but a couple of them could see the Pistons crawl back into the playoffs. Expect them to finish squarely third in the Central division this year.

3rd place — Central Division

— Ben Dowsett

The Detroit Pistons were one of last season’s most disappointing team. Reggie jackson struggled with injuries early in the season and never rounded into form. Andre Drummond seemed stagnant and even regressed in some ways. The chemistry issues were real, evidence in the disappointing results in the court. This year, the team is largely the same, with a few significant changes, including the acquisition of Avery Bradley and the departure of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. While Bradley will certainly bring high-level perimeter defense and shooting, the Pistons’ biggest source of improvement will have to come from incumber players who fell short of expectations last season. Stanley Johnson needs to figure out how to stay out of Stan Van Gundy’s dog house. Drummond needs to focus on impacting the game in a multitude of ways, rather than focusing on being a primary scoring option. Jackson needs to earn the trust of his teammates, who seemed to wall him out at various points of last season. The Pistons have talent, but they have some internal hurdles they need to overcome as well.

3rd Place — Central Division

— Jesse Blancarte

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Tobias Harris

When it comes down to which player will be shouldering the offensive load for the Detroit Pistons this season, the answer is the same as last season: Tobias Harris.

The New York native was Detroit’s leading scorer last season, and with Marcus Morris and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope both gone from the Pistons roster, Harris returns as the leader in minutes per game from a year ago.

Granted, Reggie Jackson should be available from the jump this season, which wasn’t the case last year as Jackson battled left knee tendinitis. However, having Jackson in the fold completely, and from the beginning of the season, should provide Harris even more opportunity to find open looks and knock them down.

Harris led the Pistons in both Offensive Box Plus/Minus and Value Over Replacement Player last season. With Jackson back up to full speed and a few new weapons on the roster, Harris looks poised to build off of his strong season from a year ago.

Top Defensive Player:Avery Bradley

The newest Detroit Piston also happens to be the best defending Detroit Piston. After letting Caldwell-Pope walk to the Los Angeles Lakers, Detroit essentially replaced him with a more offensively capable version in Avery Bradley.

Spending last season sharing a backcourt with Isaiah Thomas, Bradley was usually responsible for checking the opposing team’s best offensive wing player. The 6-foot-2 shooting guard posted a 108 defensive rating, which was tied for second on the Boston Celtics last season.

Known for his defensive capabilities around the league, Bradley sometimes goes under the radar as a scorer. Last season, Bradley averaged 16.3 points per game and shot 39 percent from three-point land. Filling in for KCP alongside Jackson, Bradley will become Stan Van Gundy’s defensive wizard who is more than able to hit his open shots.

Top Playmaker: Reggie Jackson

After dealing with knee issues last season and managing to play in just 52 games, Reggie Jackson returns this season to the Pistons not a moment too soon.

Last year, the Pistons were one of the worst offensive teams in the entire league — 26th in points per game and 24th in offensive rating — in large part because their starting point guard couldn’t find the floor. Now that Jackson looks on track to play a full season, or to at least start the season healthy, Detroit gets back the guy that averaged 6.2 assists per game just two years ago.

Make no mistake about it: Jackson likes to score the basketball. During his last healthy season, 2015-16, Jackson led the Pistons in field goal attempts per game with 15.7. But his ability to keep defenders honest while checking him allows Jackson to draw attention and then kick it to the nearest open teammate.

Hopefully, with a full season ahead of him, Jackson can return to form and his playmaking abilities can help drag Detroit out of the league’s basement offensively.

Top Clutch Player: Avery Bradley

Yes, Bradley appears to be the team’s best defender, as well as their most clutch player. Of course, a little parity would be nice when it comes to a team preview, but when Bradley has hit the biggest shot out of any player’s respective career on the roster, it’s kind of hard to give the nod to anybody else.

With Game 3 in the Eastern Conference Finals tied at 108, Isaiah Thomas on the sidelines with a hip injury, and pride hanging in the balance for the Celtics, Bradley clanged home a deep three-pointer to take away Cleveland’s perfect postseason record.

After that, there’s no other player on Detroit’s roster better suited for a big time shot than Bradley.

The Unheralded Player: Ish Smith

While Jackson was nursing himself back to health, Ish Smith assumed the role as the team’s point guard, and he did a fantastic job in that role. But now that the big money point guard is back for his job, Smith will be relegated to a reserve role.

During his 32 games as a starter, Smith averaged 12.3 points and 6.3 assists per game. A career journeyman — 10 teams in seven seasons — Smith could easily get lost in the shuffle now that the focus is back on Jackson leading the Pistons’ charge on offense. But, should Jackson go back down with another injury, the unsung hero Smith is more than capable of propelling Detroit’s attack. If a spot doesn’t open up for Smith, however, he’ll just bide his time on the bench while providing a great asset for the second unit.

Best New Addition: Luke Kennard

Avery Bradley lays a strong claim to this title, but since he’s already occupying the position of “best defender,” this spot is reserved for Detroit’s brand new lottery pick.

Luke Kennard makes his way to the Motor City from Duke, and he brings along with him the remedy for Detroit’s most obvious ailment, scoring.

In his sophomore season as a Blue Devil, Kennard emerged as the best scoring threat on a team that was littered with McDonald’s All-Americans. Scoring 19.5 points per game, Kennard really set the tone for Duke as a long ball marksman, where we shot 43.8 percent from range.

Just to show that he is more than capable of hitting his shots from an extended three-point line, Kennard went on to hit 47.8 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc in the Orlando Summer League.

Detroit badly needs an improved offense this season, and with Kennard, they’re taking a step in that direction.

— Dennis Chambers

WHO WE LIKE

1. Henry Ellenson 

Entering his second season, Henry Ellenson can provide Detroit with much-needed spacing down on the block.

After a rookie campaign that saw Ellenson dominate for the Pistons’ G-League affiliate, and then a Summer League performance that followed with similar results, the former Marquette big man looks poised to serve as a full-time contributor in the big leagues this season.

What the Pistons know they have for certain in their front court is the behemoth in the middle, Andre Drummond. For the array of things that Drummond is, offensively gifted is not one of them.  Ellenson provides a running-mate that can stretch the floor against opponents and provide extra space on the block for Drummond to operate.

Detroit drafted Ellenson No. 18 overall just a year ago. With how devoid they are of offensive talent, plugging Ellenson in for some extended run this season seems to be an obvious idea.

2. Stanley Johnson

Stanley Johnson hasn’t gotten off to the hottest start in his career after being drafted eighth overall by Detroit in 2015, but next season looks to be a pivotal time for his turnaround.

Last season saw Johnson’s stats drop across the board. He shot at a lower percentage, scored fewer points and played fewer minutes. All in all, Johnson was the epitome of a “sophomore slump.” But in year three, Johnson will be able to provide at the very least a more than capable wing defender for Van Gundy and the Pistons. When Johnson was on the court for Detroit last season, the opposing team’s offensive rating was a full two points lower.

With the third year of a rookie’s career being most pivotal from a contract renegotiating standpoint, Johnson will need to make a statement. It would be a wise bet that the former top-10 draft pick can ramp up his impact this season.

3. Avery Bradley

As noted above, Bradley steps into Detroit as their best — and most important — defender next season. But that’s not all he can do.

Over the course of the last few seasons, Bradley has transformed himself into one of the premier two-way players in the NBA. While playing in Boston, Bradley was responsible for picking up Isaiah Thomas’ defensive slack — of which there was plenty.

By knowing what that responsibility feels like, Bradley should have no problem assuming the same role for Detroit.

However, what the Pistons lack heavily on their roster is scoring and winning experience. Bradley can provide both. A near 40 percent three-point shooter, Bradley knows what it takes to win big games against the league’s best. If you remember, he’s the only reason the Cleveland Cavaliers didn’t meet the Golden State Warriors in the Finals with a perfect record

Bradley has the juice of a big time player, on both ends of the court. His presence and leadership are huge scores for Detroit heading into this season as they try to make it back to the playoffs.

Stan Van Gundy

Heading into his fourth season at the helm of the Detroit Pistons, Stan Van Gundy could very well take his team to the postseason for the second time despite having an average offense at best.

It’s clear that the weight of Detroit’s problems come from scoring the ball, but their ability to lock down opponents puts them in a position to win games should they just hit the shots they need to when they need to hit them. Having a guy like Van Gundy — who has led teams the playoffs eight times in his 11 season head coaching career — gives the Pistons an advantage in that on most nights they won’t be outmatched completely when it comes to game planning or preparation.

With his starting point guard healthy, an upgrade at shooting guard in Bradley and capable shooters like Harris and Kennard, Van Gundy should have more firepower this season to couple with his patented stifling defense. Mix those two things together, and with a few things breaking the right way for him, Van Gundy could be making his ninth appearance in the postseason as a head coach.

— Dennis Chambers

SALARY CAP 101

The Pistons entered the summer over the salary cap, using their Mid-Level Exception on Langston Galloway and Eric Moreland. Detroit also spent their Bi-Annual Exception on Anthony Tolliver, using up their spending tools locking in a hard cap at $125.3 million. Outside of a $874,636 trade exception, the Pistons have almost nothing left to offer outside of minimum contracts (or trades).

Next summer, the Pistons are not likely to have any cap space with a $102 million salary cap projection. Before November, the team needs to decide on the 2018-19 options for Stanley Johnson and Henry Ellenson. The team currently has 13 guaranteed players, a $500,000 investment in Moreland as their 14th and a couple of camp invites in Landry Nnoko and Derek Willis.

— Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

When opposing teams step on the court with the Detroit Pistons, they understand two things. One, scoring won’t come easy; Detroit ranked as a top-10 defense last season. And two, they won’t get very many loose balls off the glass. The Pistons were the fourth-best rebounding team in the whole league last year.

While the NBA game as a whole seems to be shifting towards who can outscore the other guy the quickest, basketball in the Motor City is still very much of the smashmouth variety. It always has been.

With Stan Van Gundy captaining this tough guy squad, the Pistons will enter this season as one of the tougher matchups for opponents. Nothing will come easy against the team up in Detroit.

— Dennis Chambers

WEAKNESSES

For everything awesome that Detroit does on the defensive end of the court, their offensive ineptitude tries its best to negate that.

Across the board, the Pistons ranked as one of the worst teams offensively in the entire league last season. Their scoring was poor, their shot selection was poor, their ball movement was poor and their foul shooting was poor. Watching the Pistons operate a half court offense was at times nauseating. With a few more capable bodies on the team this season, this should improve slightly at the very least. But if not, the Pistons are on the fast track for another sub par season.

— Dennis Chambers

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can the Detroit Pistons hit the necessary shots to put themselves back in postseason play?

We’ve been over this: The Detroit Pistons are bad on offense. But there’s reason to believe they can hit the shots they need to, to eek out a playoff berth.

With Avery Bradley and Luke Kennard aboard, a full season from Reggie Jackson and Tobias Harris coming back, the Pistons have four guys at the very least that can hit a jump shot. Stan Van Gundy will put his team in the position defensively to compete, so when it comes down to crunch time Detroit should be in most games. Having a guy like Bradley who’s been in that position will serve as a big time band aid for the rest of the offensive woes.

Come April, Detroit will be right there in the thick of things, and if they want to play on until May instead of hitting the golf course, they just need to hit their jump shots.

— Dennis Chambers

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