The Detroit Pistons are six days away from the opening tipoff of the 2013-14 season against the Washington Wizards. With plenty of buzz and high expectations, it's put up or shut up time this coming year for this reloaded franchise.
After shaking up the roster via trades, signing free agents and adding young talent through the draft, the Pistons aren't just developing like in recent years. This new age puts this team in a position to compete and succeed right now.
This team isn't a finished work of art yet, but they're certainly on the right track. Here are the most important questions regarding the progression of the Pistons this season.
1. How will Mo Cheeks handle the depth/rotation?
These past few seasons, Detroit has dealt with the issue of developing questionable talent as well as finding the right rotation. Players like forward Kyle Singler were forced to start at uncomfortable spots like shooting guard. Or former starting guard Brandon Knight, who struggled to break out and develop.
One year later, things are quite different for Detroit and new head coach Maurice Cheeks. This team already has a quality blend of established veterans and budding young talent. The task now is now figuring out a functional rotation for the Pistons.
Detroit currently has their roster full with 15 players, and a good majority of them are versatile enough to switch positions. Cheeks will have a plethora of options on how to rotate and match up against other teams this season.
2. Who's the most important piece to Detroit?
Pistons big man Andre Drummond has shown brilliant flashes since being selected last year in 2012. Pre-draft questions on his work ethic and lack of a polished pro game, all that has been put to rest. The young Piston center made tremendous strides as a rookie, and is now the focal point of Detroit's progression.
Drummond picked up right where he started with plenty of extra time put in the gym. He put on a clinic during the NBA Summer League showing off his athleticism, defense and improved all-around game. Things picked up during the preseason as he averaged 12.5 points, 12 rebounds and shot 58-percent from the floor.
Drummond will be the glue that keeps everything together and will elevate the play of everyone on the floor, especially on defense. The Pistons don't have many on-ball lockdown defenders, but with an anchor like Drummond in the middle this team defense can be a force in the NBA.
Detroit needs their big man in the lineup healthy however. Drummond missed 22 games last season with multiple injuries. The Pistons need him on the floor as that wall that protects the paint on defense. Drummond should present a strong case in 2013-14 for Defensive Player of the Year and an All-Star nod if he stays healthy.
3. How will rookies progress and contribute?
For the past few seasons, the Pistons have needed their top draft picks (Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe, Brandon Knight) to contribute right away while developing in the process. Given the roster shake up this offseason, the Pistons' 2013 rookies are in a position to be groomed and brought along with time.
Detroit selected Georgia shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope with their first round pick this summer. Dumars was also able to land two hidden gems in the second round in Louisville point guard Peyton Siva and North Texas forward Tony Mitchell.
Had the Pistons not traded for point guard Brandon Jennings or signed free agents like Chauncey Billups and forward Josh Smith, these rookies would have had bigger responsibilities on their shoulders. However, if the Pistons happen to deal with injuries or other circumstances, these rookies have shown enough this summer that they can contribute right away.
Siva could see the floor earlier than expected this season. The Pistons will be without their starting guard Jennings for the first three weeks of the regular season. Billups and high octane guard Will Bynum will shoulder the load of Jennings' absence, but Siva could see some time during that stretch.
Caldwell-Pope is in a similar situation as veteran guard Rodney Stuckey will be sidelined due to an injured thumb. The rookie wasn't set to start playing under a "veteran's coach" like Mo Cheeks, but Caldwell-Pope showed some great flashes as a defender, hustler and rebounder. The Georgia product also has a solid reputation as a shooter, which the Pistons desperately need.
Mitchell could steal some minutes throughout the season to provide some energy and spark off the bench. The athleticism and hustle of Mitchell is off the charts, but the rest of his game needs some tuning. There's also a logjam of forwards in front of the rookie which will more than likely keep him on the bench this season.
4. How will new franchise faces (Brandon Jennings, Josh Smith) transition?
Dumars made some gutsy acquisitions by trading for former Bucks guard Brandon Jennings and signing former Hawks forward Josh Smith. Detroit had spent years tinkering with lineups and slowly waiting for players to break through and it didn't work out. Now, it's time to start winning in Detroit.
Smith and Jennings are two unique talents that can certainly elevate the play of the Pistons. However, how they play carries a huge responsibility on how far this team can go. As talented as these two are, their games could be harmful to the franchise if not displayed properly.
Jennings acknowledged at his first press conference in Detroit his game needs some altering. That would imply smarter shots, more assists, better defense, overall just better decision making. Jennings gained a reputation in Milwaukee for playing out of control and not helping his teammates stay involved on the floor. One can argue the former Bucks guard had little help at his disposal and was forced to play the way he did. Nevertheless, it's time to see a smarter and more efficient point guard with the Pistons.
With weapons like Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe, Josh Smith and the addition of shooters to the roster, Jennings' assists should increase. If he becomes more disciplined on defense and becomes a pass-first point guard, Brandon Jennings can be a top-10 point guard in the NBA. If he plays faster in the full-court, and with more control in half court sets, the Pistons will become a force in the East.
Josh Smith will have the tougher transition moving from being a 4 in Atlanta to a 3 in Detroit. The 6'9" versatile forward has a smooth post game similar to another left-handed former Piston. Given the issue of spacing however, Smith will need to somewhat form a game around the perimeter defensively and offensively.
Smith became a bit of a headache in Atlanta for shooting (and missing) too many 3s. He shot 40-percent from behind the arc during the preseason shooting 13-32. Smith will likely continue to keep shooting from deep, especially if he's set up by the guards. He's not the greatest slasher and could take up too much space and shots from Greg Monroe by posting too much. However, he's a great passer for a big man and will help protect the paint with that frontcourt. With his talent and the addition of assistant coach Rasheed Wallace helping, Smith could become a reasonable fit for this team.
5. How will Pistons handle Monroe and other trade possibilities?
The chatter will go on all season, but don't expect much comment from big man Greg Monroe or the Pistons front office regarding his contract situation.
Moose hasn't signed an extension with Detroit yet meaning he's set to become a restricted free agent next offseason. He's relatively been a 16-point 9-rebound player in his four-year career, and that number might not change much with Andre Drummond and Josh Smith joining him full-time in the frontcourt.
If floor-spacing becomes an issue playing next to Smith and Drummond, the Pistons could explore other options with Monroe. With no 2014 first-round pick and other attractive tradable targets (Rodney Stuckey, Charlie Villanueva, Will Bynum), it's not crazy to think Monroe could be dealt in the near future.
Acquiring Jennings and Smith this offseason, the Pistons could look to become a faster, more-potent offense. Monroe is talented and fundamentally sound, but he's no burner up and down the floor. The Pistons could move Monroe and switch Smith to his better-suited position at power forward.
Prediction: There's a unique buzz surrounding this team, like there should be. Detroit might not go far, but the postseason in the Eastern Conference is a legitimate goal this team can accomplish. The Pistons haven't won more than 30 games in one season since 2008-09, but this season should see a significant improvement. Around 45 victories should land Detroit at either the 6th or 7th seed in the playoffs. They could face a first-round exit, but this is certainly a promising start in the right direction.