Will the New-Look Detroit Pistons Make the Playoffs?

Stephen Babb@@StephenBabbFeatured ColumnistJuly 30, 2013

Mar 9, 2013; Oakland, CA, USA; Milwaukee Bucks guard Brandon Jennings (3) dribbles the ball next to Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) in the first quarter at ORACLE arena. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports
Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

The last time the Detroit Pistons had a summer this busy, they wound up with $90 million worth of Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva—which is another way of saying president of basketball operations Joe Dumars better have gotten it right this time.

Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski reports that the Pistons have acquired point guard Brandon Jennings from the Milwaukee Bucks in exchange for Brandon Knight, Khris Middleton and Slava Kravtsov. Though the deal isn't a world-changing move for Detroit, it seems to be a step in the right direction.

The question is whether it's a sufficient step, good enough to return the Pistons to the NBA playoffs—somewhere the franchise hasn't been since 2009.

Though the rebuilding isn't finished just yet, the Pistons should still be in store for a breakout season, at least relatively speaking. Don't expect an extended playoff run, but finding themselves there would be an accomplishment in its own right for the team. And a realistic one at that.


The Competition

Even if Detroit had elected to pursue a more gradual rebuild, the 2014 postseason wouldn't have been entirely beyond reach. That has a lot to do with the rest of the Eastern Conference.

The Pistons finished nine games out of the No. 8 seed last season. Nine games in the other direction, and they would have tied the Orlando Magic for the NBA's worst record. The Milwaukee Bucks beat Detroit to the playoff punch, with the Philadelphia 76ers and Toronto Raptors following in ninth and 10th places, respectively.

The Sixers are guaranteed to take a step back after trading Jrue Holiday, and there's no telling how good the Raptors are. The Boston Celtics and Atlanta Hawks could also find themselves slipping after losing talented stars of their own (including Josh Smith to Detroit).

If there were ever a window of opportunity for mediocre teams to sneak into the playoffs, the 2013-14 Eastern Conference is it. That doesn't guarantee these improved Pistons a postseason berth, but it does lower the bar.


Jumpstarting a Young Offense

The 2012-13 Pistons' offense wasn't as horrible as you might think. They were middle-of-the-pack when it came to shooting (45 percent) and only slightly below-average from three-point range. They ranked No. 19 in adjusted field-goal percentage, though, which gives you an inkling that something wasn't right. Besides the roster's raw shooters, the main culprit may have been systemically poor shot quality.

The Pistons suffered from a fundamental inability to move the ball.

Detroit ranked No. 22 in assists, tied for next-to-last in assist-to-turnover ratio. It got so bad that in January Detroit dealt longtime Piston Tayshaun Prince in a three-team deal for Jose Calderon. USA Today's Drew Sharp explained the logic at the time:

Calderon gives the Pistons a true point guard, taking some of the pressure off second-year man Brandon Knight, who at times looks more comfortable playing off the ball at the No. 2 spot. But Calderon's true value is another expiring contract. The Pistons will have $35 million coming off the books this summer, giving them sufficient salary-cap space to pursue at least one top drawer unrestricted free agent -- such as Dwight Howard, Chris Paul or Atlanta's Josh Smith -- or become a valuable trading accomplice for teams desperate for partners with sizable cap room.

Well, Calderon didn't exactly salvage last season's offense, but that expiring contract helped out after all.

For the record, Brandon Jennings isn't a Calderon replica by any means. Not yet, anyway. But the Pistons have certainly improved upon the ever-so-brief Brandon Knight Era. Though Knight described himself as a point guard, he ranked dead-last (No. 50) in assist-to-turnover ratio among qualifying point guards last season. 

Jennings will do better with his eyes closed—and potentially much better if his eyes are as open as they were in March when he averaged 8.9 assists per game. He began the month with a career-high 19 assists against the Raptors and followed that with 17 versus the Utah Jazz, highlighting vastly untapped playmaking ability.

If Jennings even begins to consistently approximate those performances, Detroit will have a much easier time finding quality looks. 


A Defensive Identity in the Works

While Jennings may remedy Detroit's offensive ills, Josh Smith is the key to Detroit's defensive renaissance. His partnership with Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond isn't exactly reminiscent of the Bad Boys days, but they're a defensively formidable front line all the same.

That's largely thanks to Smith's quickness, athleticism and nose for protecting the rim.

Meanwhile, Drummond's defensive potential is virtually limitless. He and Smith could easily combine to average more than four blocks a game this season. Detroit needed an above-the-rim presence to complement Monroe's less athletic repertoire. Smith certainly fits that profile nicely if Drummond didn't already have it covered.

Smith also gives Detroit flexibility. He can be assigned to a wide range of post and perimeter players and replace the length Prince provided for so many years.

One thing Smith and Jennings share in common is the willingness and ability to take risks defensively. Smith has averaged 1.3 steals for his career (to go along with 2.1 blocks), and Jennings is coming off two consecutive seasons averaging 1.6 steals. The new-look Pistons will be looking to turn defense into offense far more often this season.

Brandon Knight's defense was better than advertised, but he wasn't much of a ball-hawk despite quickness and wingspan that would suggest otherwise. 

It's too soon to crown Detroit's defense playoff-worthy, but there's one more reason for hope: new head coach Maurice Cheeks. Former NBA star Derrick Coleman knew Cheeks both as a teammate and assistant coach, and he makes a good point (via The Detroit News' Vincent Goodwill):

I think he’ll get those guys’ attention, he played at the highest level. He’s a great guy for a young team and you need that. It all starts on the defensive end. Mo Cheeks was a defensive specialist. He sacrificed his offense. He’ll get guys to buy in because he did it.

If the talent's there, Cheeks stands a good chance of soliciting the follow-through. More than any roster adjustment, that could be the real difference-maker in 2013-14.


Nobody Said It'd Be Easy

Brandon Jennings and Josh Smith don't come without baggage. Jennings is a streaky shooter and inconsistent distributor, leaving something to be desired in terms of disciplined, efficient floor leadership. Though he's quick enough to break his man down and breach the paint, his ability to finish is limited. He could use a go-to floater and other tricks of the trade employed by smaller scorers.

Smith has become one of the most productive non-All-Stars in memory, but he's often as frustrating as he is valuable. Beset by perplexing shot selection and uneven attitude, he probably isn't the best way to spend $54 million

Detroit's alternatives were few and far between, though. Given the available free agents, and the difficulty the organization would have had attracting other top-tier talent, coming away with Jennings and Smith isn't bad.

More than any infusion of talent, the return of veteran Chauncey Billups to the Pistons locker room may be this summer's savviest move of all. Jennings has a mentor, and the franchise has a familiar face quietly coaching a roster that badly needs it.

It won't be an easy road to the playoffs, but it's one these Pistons can traverse once again. Finally.