It's October 2012. Will the Pistons make the playoffs this year?
To answer that, let's go back to October 2001. Anthrax letters and the Afghanistan operation were the grim headlines. Malaise and fear gripped the nation.
And Apple introduced a brand new device called an iPod.
The chances that October that the tiny music player would turn the struggling tech company’s fortunes around were about as likely as the 2001-2002 Pistons’ chances of making the playoffs.
The once-proud team was coming off a season where their winning percentage was .390. Their starting lineup was a ragtag crew of castoffs, aging veterans and unknowns. They were expected to be fighting for a lottery spot.
Lo and behold, that 2001-02 Pistons team defied expectations and predictions, won the Central Division and made the second round of the playoffs. After just a bit more roster tinkering and another couple of seasons, they won an NBA Championship.
Oh, and that thing called an iPod? It became Apple’s launching pad toward their current world domination.
Well, this year’s Pistons are coming off a season where their winning percentage was .380. Their starting lineup is composed of still-developing talent, aging veterans and unknowns. And they’re expected to be fighting for a lottery spot.
Can somebody say déjà vu?
I believe this Pistons team is poised to surprise a lot of people, just like that 2001-02 team did. Here are seven reasons why:
Reason No. 1: Brandon Knight Is Ready To Lead The Team
After only one year of college basketball, Knight was thrust into the NBA and acquitted himself very nicely, averaging over 12 points and almost four assists per game, and making himself a candidate for Rookie Of the Year, finishing eighth.
Knight showed flashes of leadership and spent the summer not only practicing relentlessly, but also volunteering in both Florida and Detroit. It’s clear he wants to be a leader on and off the court. The departure of Ben Gordon gives Knight the opportunity to grab control of this team.
With his year of NBA seasoning under his belt and his immense talent and resolve, I believe Brandon Knight will emerge as an elite point guard this season. For those who worry that Knight’s assist total is too paltry, I’ve got two words for you: Rajon Rondo.
In his rookie season, Rondo averaged exactly the same number of assists as Knight. Last year, Rondo was the league’s assist leader. Knight is poised for a breakout year.
Reason No. 2: Rodney Stuckey Will Finally Realize His Promise
Sure, Stuckey is capable of playing at an All-Star level and, though he seems like he’s been in Detroit forever, is just 26. But ask many fans and they’ll tell you he’s a disappointment. Well, not coach Lawrence Frank.
Frank said Stuckey had an “unbelievable summer...he was in here every day...you get out of it what you put into it. Rodney continues to put more and more into his game.”
Stuckey’s dedication to his offseason has netted him praise from GM Joe Dumars and Pistons beat writers too, who can’t help but notice a ramped-up work ethic. If Stuckey attacks the basket like he’s capable of doing, he can cause havoc on the court. This is finally Stuckey’s season to realize his promise and rewrite his Pistons legacy.
Reason No. 3: Greg Monroe Will Tear Up The League at Power Forward
Yes, by saying Monroe will start at power forward, I am saying Drummond will start at center. We’ll get to that in a moment. Does anyone question that Monroe, who averaged over 15 points and 10 boards as a center, has serious talent?
Well, move him to the four, and he could flat-out dominate at this position. He can get most of the post touches, and leave the rebounding pressure on the new center.
Monroe at power forward looks like the way the team is going, as Monroe himself said, “They basically said I need to be prepared to play power forward. They’re looking for at least one of those guys to be ready, so I’ve started to prepare myself to be ready to play the four.”
Will the Pistons make the playoffs in 2012?
Monroe will be ready, and the rest of the East will have little to counter this move with.
Reason No. 4: Andre Drummond Will Surprise At The Five
Almost every sports pundit says Drummond is a raw talent who needs to learn the game. All that may be true, but once again, the competition in the frontcourt has been thinned—no more Ben Wallace—so why not start Drummond and see how high his highly-touted ceiling really is?
I readily admit, Drummond is the X-Factor. But with his speed, strength and leaping ability, Drummond may be the legitimate rebounding center that lets Monroe move to the four and start tearing things up, as he has the skills to do. And the position is his to inherit, as Ben Wallace's place on the roster has been taken by Ukrainian center Slava Kravstov.
Bearing in mind that this is the time of year where unknowns generally reap praise, Kravstov is getting a lot of positive press, and that, plus the fact that the Pistons both signed him to a guaranteed two-year deal (thanks @Biff) and also told Monroe to get ready to play power forward, seems to be an indication that Kravstov, the Pistons' only other true center besides Monroe, will start at the five and keep the position warm while Drummond ramps up.
But I predict that Drummond will take over as starter at center while the season is still young and will pleasantly surprise a lot of folks.
Reason No. 5: The Team's Veteran Presences Will Positively Affect The Youngsters
Tayshaun Prince, the lone remaining link to the team’s last championship, is still arguably the team’s best defender, and is most capable when he’s not a featured part of the offense. This year, he’ll be able to do just that, because the Pistons will have more offensive threats.
Stuckey, Knight and Monroe will be the major focal points of the offense, and Maggette will draw coverage coming off the bench. So Prince will get to rekindle his snake-in-the-grass offensive approach. But more importantly, at 32, Prince is the senior spokesman for the starting five, and has instant cachet among the team because of his NBA title.
Like him or not, Prince was schooled in the Pistons’ glory years at playing the right way and in coach Lawrence Frank, the Pistons once again have a leader who values those fundamentals. Prince may not be the leader of this squad—most likely Knight will wear that mantle—but his experience means he will be able to calmly right the ship if it needs righting.
And if you thought Maggette was just a well-traveled expiring contract coming off an injury, think again: all signs point to Maggette being the latest in a long list of Pistons who come into Arnie Kander’s office hobbling and end up finding their groove again.
That list includes Dana Barros, Antonio McDyess, Chris Webber, Jon Barry, and Tracy McGrady. Grant Hill thought so highly of Kander that he tried to hire Kander to be his personal trainer following his departure from the Pistons.
Maggette sure sounds like he’s ready to be the latest miracle reclamation from this trainer-extraordinaire. Maggette told NBA.com, "The way I've been working with Arnie, I've been through a kind of rejuvenation.” Sound familiar?
When Maggette’s healthy, he’s a guy at both the two and three who can attack the basket and create his shot, like Stuckey and Knight are capable of doing. In keeping with our 2001 comparison, think of Maggette as a 2012 Corliss Williamson: a 6'7" sixth man who can create his own shot (Williamson was more back-to-the-basket than Maggette, but you get the idea).
But beyond what he brings to the team on the stat sheet, he brings something even more important to Rodney Stuckey. For the first time in Stuckey’s career, he has someone at the two whose game mirrors his own.
He’s got a veteran who's highly skilled at attacking the basket—Maggette has scored over 13,000 points in his career—to watch, lean on, learn from and emulate. And Maggette will push Stuckey for playing time, which can't help but fuel Stuckey's competitive fire.
Reason No. 6: The Bench Is Massively Improved
Maggette will be joined off the bench by Kyle Singler, a former Final Four MVP who engineered a championship at Duke. He got a year of experience in Spain last year, and he’ll be an instant fan favorite. He’s a hard worker with a nice outside shot, a high basketball IQ and athleticism.
So surprise, surprise: the Pistons are going to actually have some depth this year. After all, if someone told you that Charlie Villanueva and Austin Daye would be duking it out to be the 12th man off the bench—behind Maggette, Jerebko, Kravstov or Drummond, Singler, Bynum and Maxiell—wouldn’t you say the team is moving in the right direction? That's why Daye has a realistic shot at not even making the team.
And even the much-maligned (and deservedly so) Villanueva has a new resolve, evidenced by a boxing training regimen this offseason to improve his conditioning.
A pretty impressive starting lineup. A pretty solid group of backups. But can they get into the playoffs? Yep, because...
Reason No. 7: The East Has Improved, But There’s Room At The Bottom Of The Playoff Picture
Miami is a lock to make the playoffs. Up-and-coming Indiana should win the Central with Chicago’s Derrick Rose sidelined. The Knicks and Nets have the talent to get in. Boston is in the twilight of their run, but with some nice additions, they’ll almost certainly make it. Chicago, even without Rose, has enough firepower in Boozer, Noah, Deng and Hamilton to get to the dance.
So which teams will vie for the last three spots? Orlando without Dwight Howard is out of the picture. So that leaves Philadelphia and Milwaukee as the most likely candidates. If the Pistons are going to make the playoffs, they’ll have to beat out one of those two teams.
Since there’s no way to definitely compare the teams in terms of playoff potential, let’s compare each team’s Big Three to Brandon Knight, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond.
Milwaukee: Brandon Jennings, Monta Ellis, Samuel Dalembert
Would you take these three over the Pistons’ Big Three? Five years ago, I would have said yes to Dalembert. But now he’s headed toward the downside of his career, and former Piston Kwame Brown is not going to strike fear into opponents’ heart.
And Ekpe Udoh, while a good backup and possible eventual starter, will never dominate like Drummond has the potential to. Don’t get me wrong: Jennings and Ellis are a formidable backcourt duo. But I believe Knight and Stuckey will be every bit as imposing in year two of their partnership. Starting five to starting five, I’d like Knight, Stuckey, Prince, Monroe and Drummond over Jennings, Ellis, Mike Dunleavy, Ersan Ilyasova and Dalembert any day of the week.
Philadelphia: Andrew Bynum, Jason Richardson, Jrue Holiday
Bynum, if he stays healthy, will be an imposing presence. But Richardson is also on the downside of his career, and Holiday still seems to lack a true mastery of his position. To me, Philadelphia doesn’t really even have a Big Three. As GM, I’d choose the Pistons’ Big Three in a heartbeat. And without Iguadola, the 76ers’ starting five doesn’t stack up to the Pistons’ in talent.
Now, at the risk of being labelled an extreme optimist, humor me for three paragraphs as I dream: if you were an NBA general manager, who would you take right now: Greg Monroe, Kevin Garnett, or Chris Bosh?
Me, I’d take Monroe every time. Yes, Garnett had a whale of a season last year. But he’s 36 years old. And Bosh is a way-above-average player, but he’s got no more ceiling left. Monroe is just getting started.
What about Knight, Dwayne Wade, or Rajon Rondo? The phenomenal Wade was injured once again last year, after three relatively injury-free seasons. As a GM, I’d think his body wearing down would be too big a risk right now. I’ll admit, I’d probably take Rondo over Knight, because he’s a known quantity, but I say Knight is going to be a very similar player to Rondo. All we have to do now is watch.
Granted, the Pistons have no answer to LeBron James—the best Prince could hope for is to somewhat contain him—but the question is not whether the Pistons will win the East. The question is whether they’ll make the playoffs. And yet their Big Three stacks up well against two teams most predict will make the Finals.
The Pistons are young but their best players are still coming into their own. So I wouldn’t go loading up “We Are The Champions” on your iPod just yet (if you’re among the few who haven’t moved their songs to their smartphones). But just strictly on talent, I say the Pistons not only will challenge for the final Eastern Conference postseason spot—they will make it in the seventh position.
Oh, and if anyone has a tip on the latest tech gadget: send it my way.