The Detroit Pistons have one of the most talented frontcourts in the NBA, but how will they fit together?
After a rash of offseason moves by GM Joe Dumars, the Detroit Pistons have real playoff expectations for the first time in half a decade.
Dumars brought in a new head coach, Maurice Cheeks, and a total of eight new players—a mix of veterans and young players. As many as three of the newcomers could find themselves in the starting lineup.
The combination of an influx of talent and the uncertainty of so many new pieces makes the Pistons one of the league's most intriguing teams this season. Even after an 11th-place finish in the Eastern Conference last season, anything less than a playoff appearance would be considered a failure for the 2013-14 Pistons.
*All stats were obtained from NBA.com unless otherwise noted. Salary information obtained from HoopsHype.com
Pistons 2012-13 Results
- 29-53 record
- 4th in the Central
- 11th in the Eastern Conference
The Pistons used the 2012-13 season to continue the rebuilding process, clearing cap space and developing its young players.
Before the season began, Dumars traded Ben Gordon and a conditional first-round pick to the Charlotte Bobcats for Corey Maggette. The small forward played just 18 games for the Pistons, but the deal allowed them to save $13.2 million this season.
They made moves mid-season as well, trading fan-favorite Tayshaun Prince and Austin Daye to the Memphis Grizzlies in a three-team deal that netted them Jose Calderon. While Calderon was a useful player, it was his expiring contract that Dumars sought.
At the same time, the Pistons' most recent lottery picks were getting the chance to play heavy minutes as the team struggled. Greg Monroe and Brandon Knight each started at least 75 games, and Andre Drummond averaged 20.7 minutes per contest on his way to a second-team All-Rookie selection.
After winning just 29 games, the season could hardly be considered a success. But it did show Dumars a lot about his young players, and it gave him the cap space to big-time moves in the offseason.
Dumars wasn't about to let that cap space go to waste this offseason.
He kicked off free agency by signing forward Josh Smith, the third-best player available behind Chris Paul and Dwight Howard. How well he fits in Detroit remains to be seen, but there is no doubt Smith significantly raises the team's talent level.
Dumars' next move was to bring back Chauncey Billups, who won the NBA Finals MVP with the Pistons in 2004. For many fans, trading Billups for Allen Iverson in 2008 was Dumars' biggest mistake as a GM.
The final big move of the offseason was the sign-and-trade acquisition of point guard Brandon Jennings. The Pistons did have to give up Knight, a former lottery pick, but there had been concern about what his true position was.
The Pistons lost Jason Maxiell to free agency after he signed with the Orlando Magic. Maxiell played his first eight NBA seasons in Detroit, starting 175 games.
Key Additions: Josh Smith, F (four years, $54 million); Brandon Jennings, PG (three years, $24 million); Chauncey Billups, G (two years, $5 million, second year is a team option)
Ever since Smith was acquired, the biggest criticism of the team is that they will not be able to run an effective half-court offense with the three big men on the court.
Smith, Monroe and Drummond are all very good players, but they're all most effective near the basket. In theory, opposing defenses will be able to clog the paint because they aren't worried about any of the three as a threat to score from the outside.
Dumars did a good job of adding perimeter players this summer capable of knocking down shots: Jennings, Billups, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Luigi Datome can all shoot. But if only two can play at a time, it won't necessarily solve their problems.
Ideally, one (or more) of the three big men will show an improved outside jumper that will free up space down low. Even the ability to consistently hit a 12-footer would help dramatically.
If not, it will be up to Cheeks to design an offense that makes the spacing issues a non-factor. Getting the players to push the ball in transition can generate shots before opposing defenses get set. Running a high-motion offense can keep help defenders from setting up in the paint.
While many other teams are getting smaller and growing more perimeter-oriented, the Pistons will look to play from the inside-out, taking advantage of their superior size. It has worked for the Indiana Pacers, Memphis Grizzlies and Chicago Bulls; the Pistons hope they will be able to say the same.
Who starts at the 2?
The three frontcourt positions are set and Jennings is expected to start at the point, but the status of the off guard position is less clear.
Billups was a point guard for most of his career, but he moved off the ball after joining Chris Paul and the Los Angeles Clippers in 2011. He would prefer to play the point, but his ability to defend bigger guards and hit open threes makes him a strong candidate to play the 2.
Rodney Stuckey is also a former point guard, but he played nearly all his minutes on the wing last season. He is athletic, Cheeks likes his defense and he can get to the paint and draw fouls, but his poor shooting range—he has a career 28.8 percent mark from beyond the arc—makes him a poor fit to start.
Caldwell-Pope was drafted to be the future starter, an athletic three-and-d wing with plenty of potential. He's shown that he can already defend and rebound, averaging over five boards per game in preseason, but he has been unable to find his touch offensively. He's shot just 32.5 percent (26-of-80) from the field and 25 percent (8-of-32) from three in eight preseason games.
Kyle Singler could also get a shot at the position after seeing time there in 2012-13, but he's a better fit at small forward and struggles to defend quick 2-guards.
Billups looks like the favorite to start at the beginning of the season, but if preseason is any indication, the Pistons hope KCP can play a major role sooner rather than later.
Greg Monroe's Future
Heading into last season, the Pistons looked prepared to build around Monroe, their 22-year-old big man who was coming off a season where he averaged over 15 points and nine rebounds. But with the signing of Smith and Drummond's quick development, there is good reason to wonder how he fits into their future plans.
Monroe is entering the final year of his rookie contract and is not expected to sign an extension before the Oct. 31 deadline. That's not to say he won't be back, but it does add to the uncertainty.
The Pistons will be looking closely this season at how their three big men play together. If the team starts out quickly and the trio meshes, then they'd be happy to keep one of the better offensive big men in the league. But if it doesn't appear to be a good fit, the trade rumors will heat up.
The Pistons won't trade Monroe just to move him—he's too young and too good not to bring back a quality player in return. But if one of the three big men were to get moved, he looks like the odd man out.
Depth Chart Breakdown and Grades
|PG||Brandon Jennings||Will Bynum||Peyton Siva|
|SG||Chauncey Billups||Rodney Stuckey||Kentavious Caldwell Pope|
|SF||Josh Smith||Kyle Singler||Luigi Datome|
|PF||Greg Monroe||Jonas Jerebko||Charlie Villanueva||Tony Mitchell|
|C||Andre Drummond||Josh Harrelson|
(Note: The depth chart is a combination of the projections by Yahoo! and RotoWorld. With the preseason injuries and the number of players competing for playing time, the depth chart will change as the season progresses. Also, players were only listed once, so players that may play multiple positions are only listed in one spot.)
Jennings is a definite upgrade at point guard for the Pistons, and he's the best they've have had since Billups was traded. But the position is perhaps the most talented in the league, and at this point he's just an average starting lead guard.
He is one of the quickest players in the league, can beat opponents off the dribble and shoots threes fairly well when defenders go under screens in the pick-and-roll. He has a low turnover rate for a point guard and will average over one steal per game.
Jennings can also get overpowered at just 169 pounds, and his size gives him trouble finishing in the paint. His shot selection can be far too liberal at times and he lacks consistent focus defensively.
The Pistons have plenty of depth behind Jennings, which may come into play as he recovers from a jaw injury.
Billups will see time at the 1, although he is a defensive liability. Will Bynum can score in bunches off the bench, but he, too, will give up his fair share of points. Rookie Peyton Siva is on the roster as well, although he will likely spend at least part of the season in Fort Wayne playing D-League ball.
As previously mentioned, the 2-guard position is one of the big unknowns for the Pistons. Billups is a great leader and a solid shooter, but his on-court value has diminished in recent years. The position is weak across the league, but he would still be a below-average starter.
Stuckey is a better overall player, but his lack of a jump shot really hurts his value with the way the team is constructed. He will be most effective when one of the three bigs is on the bench.
Caldwell-Pope is the wildcard here. He was a very good shooter at Georgia, and he does enough other things well to have a big impact on the court. The rate in which he adapts to the NBA game will play a big role in how successful the Pistons are this year.
The Pistons get points for depth and having players with varying skill sets, but this is the weakest spot in the lineup.
Smith spent most of his time at power forward with the Atlanta Hawks, but he'll slide to the 3 more often with the Pistons.
Defensively, it shouldn't be much of an issue. He's an elite athlete and was considered the league's top perimeter defender by ESPN Insider's (subscription required) Bradford Doolittle in January. When he's focused, Smith can defend at as high of a level as nearly anybody.
It's on the other end where there should be concerns.
As long as he's on the perimeter, Smith is just not a very effective player. He shot just 30.2 percent from beyond 10 feet last season, a stark contrast to the 70.3 percent he shot from within five feet, good for eighth in the league.
Smith is a solid passer and ball-handler, so there's potential for Cheeks to use him in a point-forward role that could play to his strengths. But if he is used as a catch-and-shoot player, Smith just won't be effective.
Behind him, Singler will be the primary backup. He shot 35 percent from beyond the arc last season and will help to open up the floor for the big men. He is a decent rebounder, but rarely creates for others and can be a defensive liability against quicker wings.
Datome is the player to keep an eye on here. He did not play in preseason due to a hamstring injury, but the former Italian League MVP can flat out shoot the ball. He also has enough athleticism to get out in transition and finish at the rim, and should be able to contribute, at least offensively, whenever he gets healthy.
The Pistons have a good amount of skill and depth at the position, but Smith's perimeter offense brings down the rating just a bit.
The frontcourt spots are all positions of strength for Detroit.
Monroe will play at the four when he's on the court with Drummond, creating for his teammates from the high post and scoring on the low block. He struggles in help defense due to slow rotations and an inability to block shots, but his scoring, facilitating and rebounding more than make up for his shortcomings.
Smith will play some minutes at the 4, which will bring him closer to the basket. He'll struggle defensively against some bigger power forwards, but his athleticism allows him to compensate enough in most matchups.
Off the bench, the Pistons have three very different players fighting for frontcourt minutes.
Jonas Jerebko is a high-energy player who does a little bit of everything, but doesn't have one skill that really stands out. He's been a career 30.6 percent shooter from the arc, but if that improves he could see more time.
Charlie Villanueva does one thing well: shoot the ball. He's a poor rebounder for a 6'11" player and he's a defensive liability, but his biggest skill is one that the Pistons are in need of.
The No. 37 pick in June's draft was Tony Mitchell from North Texas. He's a raw player with loads of athleticism, and he showed glimpses of his potential in preseason. Against the Brooklyn Nets he had 10 points and 10 rebounds in 26 minutes, and against the Wizards he scored eight points in 16 minutes.
Not only do the Pistons have two players who could start at power forward, but they also have some versatility off the bench.
While many teams struggle to find one effective center, the Pistons have two guys who can really play the position, and they're both 23 or younger.
Whenever Drummond is on the court he will be manning the middle. He averaged just over 20 minutes per game in 2012-13, but his workload will increase this year; he played at least 25 minutes in seven of eight preseason games.
While he was considered a project player one year ago, Drummond is now looked at as one of the league's most promising big men. His PER (21.69) was 17th in the league, and among rookies he only trailed Anthony Davis.
Drummond is an elite rebounder and shot blocker, and on offense he is a great finisher at the rim and rarely tries to do to much. This offseason he worked on his conditioning and his free throw shooting, and even played with Team USA.
He's far from a finished project—he has no jump shot and is not a great individual defender—but he is ready to be a very good player right now.
When Drummond is off the floor, Monroe will move back to the spot he played for his first three seasons. Again, he has defensive issues, but he would start at center for the majority of NBA teams.
Center is one of the weakest positions in the NBA, and the Pistons have two guys who can play it well. Cheeks should be able to create a rotation where either Drummond or Monroe are in the middle at all times, barring foul trouble. Few teams can match their 48-minute production at center.
What to Watch For
Breakout Player: Andre Drummond
It's almost too obvious, but the big man in the middle will be the most improved player for the Pistons.
Not only will Drummond be increasing his workload significantly this season, he also looks like he'll play a bigger role on the court.
He's averaged 12.5 points, 12 rebounds and 1.6 blocks in the eight preseason games; over the last three games he grabbed a total of 49 rebounds.
If that continues into the regular season, those numbers will put him among the top handful of centers in the league. He still has plenty of room to improve, but he's made an enormous jump since the end of last season.
Team MVP: Josh Smith
While Drummond could take this title as well, it's more likely that it goes to the newcomer Smith.
He's a more complete player than Drummond; not only can Smith defend and block shots, but he can also create for himself or teammates on the other end. He passes and dribbles well for a big man, two things that are not part of Drummond's game.
Smith will also play a major leadership role for the team. He has the second-most NBAf experience on the team behind Billups, and he'll be essential in helping Drummond and Monroe to develop.
Smith's rebounding and block numbers will likely drop as he plays more small forward for the Pistons, but he'll be responsible for carrying more weight than anyone else on the team.
Most Disappointing Player: Kyle Singler
Singler started 74 games for the Pistons last season, but he's little more than a spot-up shooter, and his flaws will be more noticeable this season with better teammates around him.
He's a pretty poor defender, particularly against quick wing players. His feet are too slow to stay in front of opponents and he's prone to fouling; he had 27 fouls in the eight preseason games, or one every 6.5 minutes. He fouled out twice, in 17 and 25 minutes.
He is also unable to create shots for others. He averaged less than an assist per game last season in 28 minutes. In preseason he's averaged exactly one, and his assist-to-turnover ratio is .67.
The Pistons need shooting, and Singler has shot 40 percent from three in preseason. But they have other players who can shoot now, and those guys bring other things to the court. Singler is too one-dimensional to be a very productive player.
Player Most Likely to Be Traded: Rodney Stuckey
While Monroe could be the odd man out, the Pistons don't have pressure to trade him yet, and they will only make a move if they get equal value in return.
Stuckey is a likely trade candidate because he has an expiring contract and has the talent to help out a contender.
Expiring contracts aren't as valuable as they were with the previous collective bargaining agreement, but they can still help facilitate a trade. If the Pistons are playing well come January or February, a team that is out of contention could take Stuckey to free up cap space for next season.
For example, if the Toronto Raptors and new GM Masai Ujiri want to completely rebuild, they could look to trade DeMar DeRozan and the $38 million he's owed over the next four years (the fourth being a player option). In a very, very hypothetical situation, Stuckey, Mitchell and a draft pick would work financially.
If the Pistons were not playing well near the deadline, Stuckey would be talented enough for a contender to be interested in his services for four or five months.
He wouldn't be worth a first-round pick to anybody, but a team could be willing to give up a young player or a second-rounder for him.
A Stuckey trade would almost certainly not be as exciting as one involving Monroe, but it's more likely. He plays at a log-jammed position and could be traded regardless of how the Pistons are playing.
Biggest Rivalry: Detroit Pistons vs. Chicago Bulls
The Pistons and Bulls were big-time rivals more than two decades ago and, while their games this season will not be nearly as intense, it's easy to see how they could rekindle the rivalry this season.
Under coach Tom Thibodeau, the Bulls play a physical brand of defense that often frustrates opponents. Joakim Noah always seems to be rubbing someone the wrong way and Carlos Boozer has history with Smith.
Both teams have big, physical frontcourts, which can always lead to some pushing and shoving. And on top of it all, Detroit fans and Chicago fans simply don't like each other.
Expect some intensity in their four matchups this season.
Best-Case, Worst-Case Scenarios and Projected Win-Loss Record
All of the spacing issues are overblown, and Detroit's big men cause opponents problems on both ends of the court. Jennings shows an improved ability to run an offense and becomes a top-10 point guard. KCP's shot falls down and he provides energy on both ends of the court.
The Pistons use their depth and youth to wear down teams by pressuring defensively and running the floor on offense. They beat up on the bottom of the East and play competitive, physical games with the conference's elite teams. The Pistons pull out the No. 5 seed and make it to the second round.
With Jennings and Stuckey out, the Pistons struggle to get consistent play from their backcourt in the beginning of the season. The Drummond/Monroe/Smith trio bogs down offensively and is too slow to stop smaller teams on the defensive end.
How many games will the Pistons win in 2013-14?
The front office panics as the team has a losing record entering 2014 and trades Monroe for a less-talented wing player. Cheeks struggles to find a consistent rotation all year and the Pistons miss the playoffs for the fifth-consecutive season.
W-L Projection: 44-38
The Pistons have enough talent to be the NBA's most improved team in 2013-14. They may get off to a bit of a slow start as the players develop chemistry and recover from preseason injuries, but they will be good enough to make the Eastern Conference playoffs.
*Jakub Rudnik covers the Detroit Pistons for B/R. Follow him on Twitter.