The Detroit Pistons are currently one of the NBA’s sorriest franchises. They’ve won 29 games in each of the past two seasons and have had regular difficulty even before that with putting a competent product on both ends of the floor.
Turning perpetual struggle around is extremely difficult for an NBA franchise, but Detroit finally appears to be on the right track. In May, it hired former Orlando Magic and Miami Heat head coach Stan Van Gundy to oversee its entire operation. This was arguably the team’s smartest move since trading for Rasheed Wallace nearly a decade prior.
But how long will it take before Detroit is back to being a respectable organization, let alone a competitive basketball team? Can it make things right in a single summer?
When Van Gundy was hired as the Pistons head coach and principle decision-maker, the team’s roster looked like two separate puzzle boxes splattered together on the same coffee table. Key talent was missing in several important areas, and a few pieces overlapped in detrimental ways.
Fast forward several months, with the heart of Van Gundy’s first “real offseason” in the rearview mirror, and Detroit has enough talent to make the playoffs—even in the upgraded Eastern Conference—but several awkward, important questions are still unanswered.
Most notably: What’s the deal with Josh Smith and Greg Monroe? Smith, his contract and out-of-position-inspired penchant to launch long two-point jumpers are still with the team, while Monroe remains an unsigned restricted free agent.
It’s very difficult to imagine a scenario where both players are in Detroit’s starting lineup next season, but time to reshuffle the deck is running out.
Van Gundy needs to pick one of them to pair with franchise center Andre Drummond, moving forward with a suitable starting frontcourt. It honestly doesn’t matter which, though the 24-year-old Monroe’s probably the better selection thanks to his age.
According to Yahoo's Adrian Wojnarowski, the team could actually be leaning toward Smith:
Since his hiring in the spring, Van Gundy has had productive discussions with Smith and sources say that Smith has been enthusiastic about moving forward with Van Gundy as coach. Smith could return to a frontcourt that includes forward Greg Monroe, who is a restricted free agent this summer. The Pistons have been willing to engage teams in sign-and-trade scenarios for Monroe, but those talks have gained little traction, sources said.
Here's Van Gundy talking about Smith's ability:
It's about us putting him in spots that play to his strengths and don't maybe give him the opportunity to play to his weaknesses a little bit. And it's about him making better decisions and being more efficient than he was last year.
Until then, it’s impossible to picture this team qualifying for the playoffs. Still, several other moves Van Gundy made to fill the margins will help the team’s on-court performance.
Let’s start with the first “major” signing of Van Gundy's tenure: Jodie Meeks. The 6’4” shooting guard finished last season as the leading scorer of the Los Angeles Lakers, which is normally something worth bragging about. (Meeks scored 1,209 points, roughly 60 more than Nick Young.)
He did it efficiently, too, shooting over 40 percent from beyond the arc, 46 percent from the floor and 85 percent from the free-throw line. Detroit had many weaknesses last year, but perhaps its most disturbing was outside shooting.
It finished either last or very close to it in several categories related to the three-point shot, which is harmful for any offense, but especially one built around talented post players in the frontcourt.
Van Gundy knows how important spacing is in today’s league, so as soon as free agency began he gave Meeks a three-year, $18.8 million contract. It’s debatable whether that’s too much money for a player whose statistics might have inflated in Mike D’Antoni’s infamously up-and-down offense, but Meeks is inarguably a fantastic on-court fit. Detroit needed shooting, and he can shoot. Voila.
From there, we move on to a less costly contract from a player who was arguably more impressive than Meeks last season: D.J. Augustin. Detroit’s point guard situation was a mess last season. Brandon Jennings was weaker than a moth on defense, and he fired up enough nonsensical jump shots to make his teammate, Smith—the godfather of nonsensical jump shooting—blush.
The 24-year-old Jennings finished with a field-goal percentage (37.3 percent) unworthy of someone in a rotation, let alone contributing over 2,700 minutes of service.
Van Gundy responded by giving Augustin a two-year, $6 million contract. Augustin nearly fell out of the league last summer, but he eventually found his way to Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau’s bench, where he thrived as a punchy score-first option, helping save the team from plummeting out of the playoffs altogether.
With 5.3 three-point attempts per game, Augustin shot 41.1 percent from beyond the arc, a glorious number for Detroit’s claustrophobic offense. He can also run a pick-and-roll, get to the basket and make plays off the dribble.
Whether he’s backing up Jennings or eventually usurping his spot in the starting lineup, Augustin’s role on this team will be big.
Van Gundy also brought in veteran forward Caron Butler to hopefully space the floor a bit and bring leadership qualities to a young locker room. But the biggest questions still exist.
Will the Smith-Monroe disaster really last another year? It’s unfathomable and scary to even think about, and until a firm decision is made the Pistons can’t move on to bigger and better things. But by adding shooters and offensive weapons, they're on the right track.
In a best-case scenario, either Smith or Monroe departs and Detroit squeezes into the back end of the Eastern Conference playoff picture. This is still possible if both stay on board, but much less likely.
Michael Pina covers the NBA for Bleacher Report, Sports on Earth, Fox Sports, ESPN, Grantland and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelVPina.