Their playoff drought ended last season and after an offseason attempting to upgrade their bench, the Detroit Pistons have bigger plans for 2016-17.
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Stan Van Gundy got the Detroit Pistons back into the postseason in just his second season on the job, ending a six-year drought that matched the longest in franchise history. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports
The Detroit Pistons didn’t stick around long in the 2016 NBA Playoffs–four games and eight days to be exact.
But getting there was the battle for the 2015-16 Pistons after matching a franchise record by missing the postseason for six straight seasons.
Detroit was 44-38 last season, their first winning record since 2007-08 and made the playoffs for the first time since 2009 before going down in four competitive games to the eventual NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round.
The Pistons did it largely on the strength of their starting five. No bench unit played less than Detroit’s reserves (an average of 15.3 minutes per game, according to hoopsstats.com) and their 25.7 points per game average was also the league’s lowest output.
An offseason priority was to upgrade the second unit and the Pistons are hopeful to have done so with the additions of point guard Ish Smith, forward Jon Leuer and center Boban Marjanovic as free agents.
Detroit also kept center Andre Drummond, the NBA’s leading rebounder and the Pistons’ first All-Star since Allen Iverson was voted in by the fans in 2009, signing the big man to a big deal–five years and $130 million.
There is a buzz around Pistons basketball that has been absent since the franchise’s epic run of six straight Eastern Conference Finals appearances that ended in 2008.
And if the new additions meet expectations and young players such as Johnson and Caldwell-Pope are able to improve as anticipated, Detroit should be among the Eastern’s elite again this season.
Reggie Jackson relished being the No. 1 option in his first full season with the Detroit Pistons, leading the club with an average of almost 19 points per game. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports
Perhaps the most important addition to the Detroit Pistons’ roster came at last season’s trade deadline, when the Pistons got young combo forward Tobias Harris away from the Orlando Magic for Brandon Jennings‘ expiring contract and the remnants of Ersan Ilyasova.
One might have to go the Dutch acquiring Manhattan from the Native Americans for a package of trinkets worth an estimated $24 (a figure that is much debated in historical circles) to find a steal of similar magnitude.
Harris was the smooth-shooting big, similar to Rashard Lewis from Stan Van Gundy’s glory days with Orlando, that had been missing. He shot 37.5 percent from 3-point range and averaged 16.6 points per game after the trade and the Pistons were, not coincidentally, 17-11 over that span.
Also not a coincidence: Detroit’s three-point shooting mark of 35.9 percent after the deal compared to its 33.7 percent accuracy before the trade was made.
The addition of Jon Leuer to back up Harris shouldn’t hurt those figures. Leuer shot 38.2 percent from long range for the Phoenix Suns last season while pressed into service for a career-high 18.7 minutes per game.
Ish Smith, meanwhile, comes in from the Philadelphia 76ers to back up Reggie Jackson at the point guard spot and big Boban Marjanovic could be a wild card after the Pistons made the restricted free agent an offer the San Antonio Spurs felt they could not match.
There are still depth questions. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s backup at shooting guard is ostensibly going to be second-year man Darrun Hilliard, while Aron Baynes disappointed and Marjanovic is an unknown quantity behind Andre Drummond in the middle.
But the arrows are definitely pointing upward for the Pistons, even with some question marks.
Andre Drummond’s rise to stardom hit a new level in 2015-16. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports
Three Key Storylines: 1. Andre Drummond Now The Man
Andre Drummond intrigued us in 60 games as a rookie, putting up ridiculous per-36 minutes numbers of 13.2 rebounds, 2.8 blocks and 1.7 steals on 60.8 percent shooting.
Dude couldn’t make a free throw to save his life–Drummond was 59-for-159 (37.1 percent) as a rookie–but showed flashes of greatness before having to be shut down with a back injury.
He far exceeded the early expectations as the ninth overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft. He was considered a long-term project after his lone season at Connecticut.
Appointed the starter at center in 2013-14, Drummond responded with 13.5 points, 13.2 rebounds, 1.6 blocks and 1.2 steals in 32.3 minutes a game, shot 62.3 percent from the floor and led the NBA with a whopping 440 offensive rebounds in 81 games.
That’s getting into Moses Malone territory–that figure is actually tied for ninth-best in the NBA since the beginning of the three-point era in 1979-80, per Basketball-Reference.com.
He was again the league’s top offensive rebounder in 2014-15, even as he threatened Wilt Chamberlain‘s mark for free-throw line futility. Drummond shot 38.9 percent at the line, just better than Chamberlain’s 38.0 percent mark in 1967-68.
Drummond’s 14.8 rebounds per game led the NBA last season and his scoring increased to a career-high 16.2 points per game. But that 35.5 percent mark at the foul line led to him being benched in crunch time on multiple occasions, particularly when Detroit was trying to hold a lead.
He earned his first All-Star berth last season and was named third team All-NBA.
Drummond did refute reports from earlier this summer that he was considering a change to his free-throw routine by shooting them underhanded, something not seen in the NBA since the days of Rick Barry.
While attending a charity game in Connecticut last month, Drummond told the Hartford Courant he has no plans to change his shooting style.
“I’m just really just continuing to work on back-to-the-basket stuff and working on getting better from the foul line. I’m going to stick with the formula I have now.”
Drummond and other woeful foul shooters such as DeAndre Jordan and Dwight Howard may have gotten a reprieve from the NBA, which tweaked its rules in an attempt to reduce deliberate fouls away from the ball in late-game situations.
The Pistons committed to Drummond in a big way–a five-year max deal valued at $130 million.
“This is just a stepping stone for me. I just became an All-Star this past year, All-NBA, so there are a lot of individual goals that I’ve successfully done, but there’s a lot of work I need to do, too. … [After] a lot of years of hard work, it’s good to be rewarded. But it doesn’t stop there, there’s another level for me to keep working to get to.”
He’s shown signs of being an elite rim protector, averaging 1.9 blocks per game in 2014-15, but that figure dipped to a career-low 1.4 a game last season.
The scary part for the rest of the Eastern Conference is that Drummond is 6-foot-11, 279 pounds … and turned 23 on Aug. 10.
He’s a key building block for the Pistons, particularly if he can continue to develop his offensive game.
Stanley Johnson didn’t have a bad rookie season at all in 2015-16, although the youngster might have learned an important lesson about the dangers of bench players calling out superstars. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports
Three Key Storylines: 2. The Growth Of Stanley Johnson
Few rookies ever played to their scouting report the way Stanley Johnson did in 2015-16.
The eighth overall pick by the Detroit Pistons in the 2015 NBA Draft, it was projected that Johnson was an NBA-ready defender who would struggle with consistency at times on the offensive end.
As a rookie, Johnson recorded 1.9 defensive win shares and minus-1.3 offensive win shares, showing himself to be a more-than-capable on-ball defender on the wing and a less-than-capable shooter from there.
He aveaged 8.1 points and 4.2 rebounds in 23.1 minutes per game in his 73 appearances, shooting a less-than-optimal .375/.307/.784.
The struggles started as soon as he got away from the rim, where he finished 56.9 percent of his attempts.
But he shot just 30.8 percent from three to nine feet, 35.7 percent in the short mid-range area (10-15 feet) and 26.5 percent from 16 feet out to the arc. Considering those four zones accounted for more than 40 percent of Johnson’s shot attempts, the dismal percentage comes into focus.
Johnson was efficient in the playoffs, however, averaging 8.0 points on .522/6-for-10/2-for-2 shooting in 20.3 minutes per game. It was only four games–a very small sample size compared to 73 regular-season contests–but it was encouraging that he played more efficiently on the bigger stage.
Of course, Johnson also got his first taste of playoff media (per ESPN.com) when his post-Game 2 comments regarding his work defending LeBron James were widely circulated.
“I’m definitely in his head, that’s for sure. That’s for sure.”
Those were bold words for a 19-year-old rookie who helped “hold” James to 27 points on 12-of-18 shooting in the aforementioned Game 2.
It part of the love-hate nature of teenage players in the NBA; you love the confidence, but you can sometimes hate the judgment of making such statements when stats show the guy who’s head you are inside hit 7-of-9 shots against you, including 6-for-6 in the most recent game.
Johnson had a busy summer working on his game. There were games in the Drew League in his native Los Angeles, there was the Pistons’ Summer League schedule in Las Vegas and there was time spent with the USA Select Team helping to prepare the national team for the Olympics.
“Last year, I made the analogy that I was a kindergartener and then (after the season) I was a senior in high school with my license,” Johnson told the Detroit News last week. “Now, I feel like I’m a freshman or sophomore in college.”
Projected to back up Marcus Morris again this season at small forward, Johnson is hopeful things will slow down in his second season.
“As much as athleticism is involved in the NBA game, it’s more mental than anything. You’ll see with the rookies when you watch them play, they’re not behind but they’re making plays slower than everybody because they haven’t seen it yet.
“That’s where I was last year–except I was playing. I was in the fire, I was in front of everybody and they were watching me make my mistakes on a grand scale.”
Johnson performed well enough as a rookie (or because there was simply a lack of options) that coach Stan Van Gundy trusted him in the sixth man role, the first guy off the bench.
If he’s been able to clean up his jumper more and work on his dribble penetration–two offensive areas Johnson emphasized this summer–he may hold onto the role on merit.
Ish Smith, shown shooting, and Jon Leuer, defending the shot, are two key additions to the second unit for the Detroit Pistons. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Three Key Storylines: 3. Will The Bench Be Better?
The Detroit Pistons won 44 games last season despite having the least productive reserves in the NBA.
So coach Stan Van Gundy has to be pleased with the additions made by president of basketball operations Stan Van Gundy this offseason.
The Pistons signed point guard Ish Smith to back up Reggie Jackson and brought in Jon Leuer, who will play behind power forward Tobias Harris.
Throw in the addition of per-36 minute darling Boban Marjanovic and the second unit for the Pistons could be much, much better than it was in 2015-16.
The numbers for the reserves last season were dreadful: They were used for just 15.3 minutes per game, averaging 25.7 points and shooting 41.2 percent overall as a group.
Smith has to be considered a considerable upgrade over Steve Blake and Brandon Jennings, who were the primary backups at the point last season.
Blake appeared in 58 games and the veteran averaged just 4.4 points and 3.4 assists in 17.0 minutes a game, shooting .388/.344/.800.
Jennings was returning from an Achilles injury and made only 23 appearanes, shooting .371/.312/.711 before being traded to the Orlando Magic in the deal in which Harris was acquired.
Anthony Tolliver was the primary backup at the 4, averaging 5.3 points and 3.2 boards on .386/.360/.617 shooting.
Smith was perhaps miscast as a starter for the woeful Philadelphia 76ers last season, at times dazzling and at times a detriment with a penchant for turnovers (2.6 per game) and ill-advised crashes to the rim, where he converted just 53.2 percent of the time.
In smaller doses, Smith should thrive as a high-energy guy off the bench while affording Van Gundy the ability to rest Jackson more effectively.
Leuer had the best season of his career last season, becoming a legitimate stretch-4 threat while shooting 38.2 percent from three-point range for the Phoenix Suns. He turned that into a four-year, $42 million deal in free agency.
Throw in the fact he’s four years younger than Tolliver, is a better rebounder and stronger at the foul line and it’s almost a given Leuer is an upgrade.
The only question mark is whether Leuer can perform to that level when it’s expected; his breakout campaign with the Suns came out of the blue after four seasons of being a 10th or 11th man.
The wild card is whether 28-year-old Serbian import Boban Marjanovic turns out to be a major addition in the middle. Marjanovic became a fan favorite in San Antonio last season, appearing in 54 games and averaging 5.5 points and 3.6 rebounds in just 9.4 minutes a game.
And at 7-foot-3, 290 pounds, Marjanovic possessed the ability to put a scare into opponents just with his size, as Tyler Hansbrough–Psycho T himself–bore witness to.
On a per-36 minutes basis, Marjanovic’s numbers rise to 21.0 points and 13.7 rebounds, but there is almost always a dilution effect when more minutes are added to the mix.
Still, there is reason to believe Marjanovic has a chance to step ahead of Aron Baynes in the rotation backing up Andre Drummond in the middle.
Baynes was a perfectly bland backup last season, averaging 6.3 points and 4.7 rebounds in 15.2 minutes per game on 50.5 percent shooting.
It’s likely Van Gundy will score net gains with the additions of Smith and Leuer. If Marjanovic can effectively take on a larger role, that makes the offseason close to perfect.
Tobias Harris delivered after being acquired from the Orlando Magic before the February trade deadline. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
Best Case Scenario
The evolution of Reggie Jackson continues and the point guard throws himself into the discussion among the NBA’s elites at the position by improving on his efficiency after leading the Detroit Pistons in scoring and assists in his first full season with the club.
Andre Drummond’s development translates into a better shooting percentage and more rim protection, while Tobias Harris becomes a borderline All-Star candidate after getting a full offseason and training camp in coach Stan Van Gundy’s system.
The new reserves play a bigger role in helping the Pistons keep the starters better rested and Detroit responds with 50-plus wins and a top-three finish in the Eastern Conference.
Worst Case Scenario
Ish Smith can’t stop disrupting the offensive flow with his tendency to resort to hero ball and that penchant neutralizes what should have been an improved second unit.
Jon Leuer struggles to match last season’s numbers. No longer a surprise, Leuer discovers that scouting reports move around the NBA with some quickness.
The starters are still solid, but wear down as the season progresses because of continued extended use and Detroit falters down the stretch, struggling to stay around .500 and in the hunt for one of the final postseason berths in the East.
The Detroit Pistons can expect to see many celebratory moments in 2016-17. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports
Stan Van Gundy went into the offseason with a clear need to upgrade the Detroit Pistons’ bench and he appears to have filled that need well.
Improved play from the reserves is enough to push a talented team into the next echelon in the Eastern Conference and Detroit’s win total should be improved from the 44 it achieved a season ago.
Combine that with much of the teams that were in the middle of the East last season taking steps backward and the Pistons appear poised to win 48-50 games and jump into the top four in the conference.
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It should be an interesting battle between Detroit, the Boston Celtics and the Toronto Raptors to see who finishes second, third and fourth behind the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers.
Andre Drummond is already a top-three center in the NBA and isn’t close to his celiing and showed solid chemistry with Reggie Jackson last season. This could be the year that the fulcrum swings toward Drummond as the Pistons’ No. 1 option.
Tobias Harris, meanwhile, is the embodiment of a Van Gundy 4, a player who can shoot and bang on the glass. Throw in the fact he just turned 24 this summer and is under contract for three more years at an affordable price and the future is bright at the power forward spot, as well.
It’s definitely too soon to start planning parade routes around The Palace of Auburn Hills, but barring anything catastrophic, the Pistons should have a much longer stay in the playoffs in 2016-17 than four games and eight days.