Players Who Must Step Up for the Detroit Pistons Next Season
The Detroit Pistons won just 29 games in 2012-13 and have spent four consecutive years in the lottery, but they have their sights set on making the playoffs this season.
GM Joe Dumars didn't stand pat this offseason. Instead, he made a splash in free agency by signing Josh Smith and Chauncey Billups, who have a combined 185 games of playoff experience between them.
Those two alone won't be enough to get the Pistons into the postseason—they'll need to see big improvements from their returning players. Their former lottery picks will be expected to play major minutes at a high level.
With the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks getting significantly worse this summer, there are definitely playoff spots to be had in the Eastern Conference. The Pistons will need several big-time performances in 2013-14 if they expect to earn one.
With very few playmakers in their backcourt, the Pistons desperately need Rodney Stuckey to bounce back from the worst season of his six-year career.
His per 36 minutes averages in points (14.5), assists (4.5) and steals (.8) were all career lows, as was his 13.0 PER. His shooting percentages all dropped from 2011-12, and he also attempted 2.2 fewer free throws per game.
Some of his struggles can be attributed to his near-permanent move to shooting guard, where he played 79.2 percent of his minutes in 2012-13, the most of his career according to 82games.com.
In the past he's been a much more efficient offensive player at point guard. He posted a PER of 22.5 in his limited time there in 2012-13, and his career-high 18.5 PER came in 2010-11, a season he played 92.6 percent of his minutes at the point.
With Brandon Knight, Chauncey Billups and Will Bynum also on the roster, Stuckey will need to find a way to succeed off the ball.
He can start by attacking the basket as much as possible. He's one of their only perimeter players with the ability to beat his man off the dribble to get into the lane, and he's at his best when he's drawing fouls.
If Stuckey can duplicate the success he had from 2010-2012, he's the most talented offensive guard the Pistons have. They'll need him to play at that level in order to contend for a playoff spot.
Dumars drafted Kentavious Caldwell-Pope from Georgia to help improve their athleticism and shooting on the wing, and it appears he'll get the chance to do so right away.
Knight and Stuckey shared most of the minutes at shooting guard last season, but both are combo guards. Kyle Singler can play some 2 as well, but his lack of quickness makes him a defensive liability. Caldwell-Pope is 6'5", 205 pounds and was one of the quickest players at the combine.
Most importantly, he'll help stretch the floor for an offense that attempted the seventh-fewest threes in the league last year. His presence on the court will help open up space on the block for Monroe and Smith, as well as driving lanes for Knight and Stuckey.
If he gets big minutes right away, the Pistons will need him to play like one of the top rookies in the league. They've been incredibly weak on the wings since Rip Hamilton left, but he has the chance to change that.
Monroe was the Pistons' best offensive player a season ago, but he has major work to do on the defensive end to become an excellent all-around player.
He's a below-average individual and team defender, and he's a center who fails to block one shot per game. Grantland's Zach Lowe broke down his shortcomings like this:
He's a turnstile trying to contain the pick-and-roll out on the floor — a mess of bad footwork, poor timing, lazy reaches, and bad choices. When Detroit has him hang back at the foul line, ball handlers can zip around him with an easy crossover or launch wide-open jumpers as Monroe, petrified at giving up a rim run, retreats a step farther than most bigs would dare — often with his arms down.
Detroit can hide him to an extent by pairing him with Smith or Andre Drummond and letting him defend the weaker opposing big man, like the Chicago Bulls do with Carlos Boozer. But smart teams can still take advantage by getting him away from the basket and attacking him in pick-and-rolls.
Monroe will never become an elite defender or likely even a very good one. But he should be able to become at least an average defensive big man. By studying film and quickly learning coach Maurice Cheeks' defensive schemes, he can become much less of a liability.
Regardless of Billups' leadership and experience, Knight will be the Pistons' best option to start at point guard if he shows even moderate improvement from last season.
Last season Billups was the more efficient offensive player, with a PER nearly three points higher than Knight. He turned the ball over less and was 20 percent better from the line (93.8 to 73.3 percent). But outside of those areas, Billups wasn't much better.
Billups was the slightly better scorer, averaging 15.8 points per 36 minutes, compared to Knight's 15.2. Knight shot half a percent better from the field (40.7 to 40.2), and both made 36.7 percent of their threes. He also averaged slightly more rebounds and assists per 36 minutes than Billups.
Knight is just 21 and will benefit from the best surrounding cast he's had in his three NBA seasons. Billups will be 37 at the start of the season and has suffered foot and Achilles injuries over the past two seasons.
The ceiling for Knight's 2013-14 season is substantially higher than Billups'.
Throw in Knight's superior defensive ability (he gave up a PER of 11.2 to opposing point guards, Billups gave up an 18.6, per 82games.com), and there's no doubt that he brings the most to the table at point guard for the Pistons. But given his lack of improvement from his first to second year, there's no guarantee he will maximize his talents.
Knight has a great deal of skill, but he's underperformed during his first two seasons. His ability to start living up to his potential and become an above-average NBA point guard will play a big role in how successful the Pistons are this season.
Smith is under pressure with the Pistons not only to play at an All-Star level but also to be a leader in the locker room.
Offensively, he immediately becomes one of the top two options along with Monroe. His 17.5 points per game would have led the Pistons in scoring a season ago, and his 4.2 assists would have been second only to the departed Jose Calderon.
Defensively, he will be asked to defend all three frontcourt positions and protect the rim from the weak side. A lot will fall on his shoulders to improve a defense that ranked 23rd in points per possession.
The core of the team is exceptionally young—Knight, Monroe, Drummond and Caldwell-Pope are all 23 or younger—and the players will have their share of struggles this season. Smith needs to be willing to show them what it takes to build a winning team.
Smith made the playoffs each of the past six seasons with the Hawks. He'll have to be committed to being a leader on and off the court in order to extend the streak to seven.