It's been more than five years since the Detroit Pistons were last seen in the NBA playoffs, six since they've won at least half their games. As pointed out by Grantland's Zach Lowe, the Pistons are the only team in that time to finish below league average in both points scored and allowed per 100 possessions.
Which must be a depressing thought for many Michiganders, considering the heights their home team previously occupied.
Once upon a time, the Pistons were a picture of stability in pro basketball. They'd been to a record six straight Eastern Conference Finals, with a squad comprised not of superstars and has-beens, but rather of really good players (i.e. Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Ben Wallace, Tayshaun Prince, Rasheed Wallace) who'd collectively aspired to a team aesthetic held together by defense, rebounding and toughness—like the great Pistons squads that came before.
Detroit has only seen disappointment since former general manager Joe Dumars began dismantling the roster in 2008. Dumars handed out regrettable contract (Ben Gordon, Charlie Villanueva) after regrettable contract (Brandon Jennings, Josh Smith) and too often dug his team deeper into the holes he created while trying to engineer an escape.
For all his failures, though, Dumars didn't leave Detroit's cupboard completely bare for new head coach/team president Stan Van Gundy. There's plenty of talent on hand already, with recent draftees Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond among the gems, and Van Gundy's done a solid job of filling in gaps across the roster this summer.
But are the Pistons ready to step off the treadmill of mediocrity under their new leadership in the wide-open East? Or will they be stuck running in place until the debris from the Joe D. era has finally blown away?
The "Big" Problem
If Van Gundy plays his cards right, Detroit shouldn't have to wait long to see winning NBA basketball again. The Pistons have a formidable frontcourt—between Josh Smith, Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe—around which to organize their constructive efforts.
Monroe, though, is in limbo at the moment. His foray into restricted free agency has yet to yield an offer sheet, and according to Basketball Insiders' Steve Kyler, talks between the Pistons and Monroe's camp have stalled on account of dollars and sense:
Sources close to the process say there continues to be ongoing dialogue with the Pistons and that they do want to ink Monroe to a new deal.
The problem for the Pistons is that Monroe and his camp are not overly thrilled with the idea of signing a long-term deal at what they perceive to be less than market valuation.
Still, it looks as though Monroe's going to be a Piston this season. Van Gundy has made it clear from the start that he wants Monroe to stay.
"I know I would love to have Greg long-term, that's what I want," Van Gundy told The Detroit Free Press' Vince Ellis. "But you can only control what you can control. I'm fairly relaxed about it."
Moreover, the Philadelphia 76ers and Phoenix Suns are the only organizations with the requisite cap space left to so much as sniff Monroe's preferred salary territory. The Suns have registered some interest but seem hesitant to tie up their finances in a guy who's probably not leaving the Motor City this summer anyway.
Of course, the status quo that would be maintained by Monroe's return isn't exactly one worth preserving—certainly not in the form that Mo Cheeks and John Loyer attempted last season. Having three big bruisers like Monroe, Smith and Drummond on the same front line might've made more sense during the heyday of the "Bad Boy" Pistons, but in today's more free-flowing NBA, size matters, but often in the opposite way.
Not surprisingly, then, Detroit suffered with that trio in tow. According to NBA.com, the Pistons were outscored by eight points per 100 possessions and shot just 44.8 percent from the floor (34.7 percent from three) when Smith, Monroe and Drummond shared the floor last season. Compare those numbers to the ones the Pistons compiled when one of them sat:
|Pistons' Performance Based on Frontcourt, 2013-14|
|Total Mins||Off Eff||Def Eff||Diff||FG%||3P%|
|Monroe-Drummond (No Smith)||309||112.5||109.8||+2.7||48.5%||39.1%|
|Monroe-Smith (No Drummond)||722||109.4||105.4||+4.0||44.6%||35.5%|
|Smith-Drummond (No Monroe)||510||109.1||108.8||+0.3||46.5%||26.7%|
|NBA.com and NBAwowy.com|
It's reasonable to suggest, then, that the Pistons would be better off with only two of the three on the court at all times. If Van Gundy could find a way to stagger their minutes, Detroit would be in great shape.
Except, that's easier said than done. Would one of the three be relegated to the bench? And, if so, which one?
Would it be Smith, the most veteran of the three, arguably the best defender therein and the only one who's so much as sniffed the playoffs? Would it be Monroe, the most offensively skilled of the triumvirate, who's likely to earn eight figures going forward? Or would it be Drummond, who might turn out to be the best of them all and who, at the tender age of 20, needs all the minutes he can get to grow into what he can become?
Shoot to Win
Van Gundy's getting paid the big bucks to sort this one out, so it's not like he should be a sympathetic figure. His solution was to trade Smith, whom Dumars signed to a four-year, $54 million deal last summer. According to Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski, Van Gundy's attempt to do so fell through. Thus, Smith, 28, was told to expect to be in training camp with the Pistons in the fall.
That doesn't mean Smith can't or won't move before then. But if he doesn't, Van Gundy will have to find ways to keep him off the wing.
At this point, it's clear that Smith is better suited to playing power forward than he is to manning a wing position. He's a great help defender and can be a ball hawk against opposing 4s. However, Smith isn't quite quick enough to keep up with 3s, and his attempts to do so draw him away from the basket, where he can't step in to protect the rim.
A similar story played out on the offensive end for Smith. He's an effective scorer inside, particularly in the low post, but can scarcely find room to operate therein when Monroe and Drummond are on the floor. As such, Smith was too often relegated to perimeter duty, which, in turn, further enabled his tendency toward flagrant jump shooting. As noted by NBA.com's John Schuhmann, Smith's career three-point percentage (.279) is the second-worst in league history among those who've launched at least 1,000 treys.
It's no wonder, then, that power forward was the only position at which Smith positively impacted the Pistons' performance last season, per 82games.com. He's an interior player whose (limited) shooting range and effectiveness have been miscast on the wing. Figure out Smith's situation, and Van Gundy may solve the Pistons' puzzle.
Then again, he might've already found his solution: more long-range shooting. Van Gundy began his tenure in Motown by signing Jodie Meeks, D.J. Augustin, Caron Butler and Cartier Martin—all of whom rank among the top 20 three-point shooters by percentage in this year's free-agent class, per NBA.com's John Schuhmann—to contracts that, in total, will pay them approximately $15 million this coming season.
|The Pistons' New Shooters|
|3P% in 2013-14||Rank Among Free Agents||Contract|
|Jodie Meeks||.401||11th||three years, $18.8 million|
|D.J. Augustin||.401||12th||two years, $6 million|
|Caron Butler||.394||15th||two years, $9 million|
|NBA.com and ShamSports|
Those four will join a corps of shooters that already includes Luigi Datome, the 2013 Italian League MVP who hardly played in Detroit last season, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, a sophomore-to-be who was named the MVP of the Orlando Summer League after averaging 24 points per game there in early July.
And let's not forget, either, about Kyle Singler and Jonas Jerebko, who were two of Detroit's top marksmen from deep in 2013-14 at 38.2 percent and 41.9 percent, respectively.
On paper, then, there should be no shortage of shooting in Detroit come 2014-15. Surely, Van Gundy can devise ways of creating space in the middle for his bigs by using the magnetism of his shooters, just as he did in surrounding Dwight Howard pick-and-rolls with long-range specialists during his time as head coach of the Orlando Magic.
That, in itself, might be enough to boost the Pistons' offense out of the bottom half of the league. After all, in today's NBA, it's tough to cook up a top-10 offense when your team ranks 26th in three-point attempt frequency (22.2 percent) and second-to-last in three-point field-goal percentage (32.1 percent).
Putting the "D" Back in Detroit
The more pressing problem for the Pistons, though, may well be on the defensive end. As Grantland's Zach Lowe wrote, the reasons behind Detroit finishing 26th in defensive efficiency were fairly wide-ranging:
The Pistons did not appear to have much of a scheme. They changed the way they defended the pick-and-roll almost on a game-to-game basis, sometimes asking Monroe to jump way out to corral ball handlers — something he’s just not equipped to do. There was no five-man coordination among players. Nobody helped the helper, and defenders on the weak side had no clue what to do against a pick-and-roll or in response to a double-team on the block. The Pistons were the opposite of “on a string.” They just lit the string on fire.
None of this figures to be the case with Van Gundy. Chances are, he'll lay down many of the same ground rules that guided his Magic to elite defensive status: protect the paint, contest threes, coax mid-range jumpers, attack the defensive boards and don't gamble on steals.
The personnel issues are still of considerable concern. Monroe is slow afoot, Drummond can be a great rim protector once he nails down the fundamentals, Smith struggles against smaller wings and Brandon Jennings (6'1", 169 pounds) is too easily bullied by bigger, stronger point guards.
But those problems can be mitigated if Van Gundy constructs a system based on strict, sound principles and can convince his players to buy in. His impact on Drummond, after turning Howard into a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, could be particularly potent in this regard.
Also working in the Pistons' favor: Detroit's storied history of defensive excellence. Defense has long been the team's calling card, especially at its peaks. The "Bad Boy" Pistons of the 1980s were known for playing smashmouth basketball, doing anything and everything within their power to slow down (if not outright intimidate) their opponents. It was those Pistons who devised their own set of rules for disrupting Michael Jordan—and had plenty of success in doing so as a result.
The Pistons of the 2000s weren't quite as physically imposing as their predecessors. But those newer teams were tough nonetheless and operated beautifully in concert.
Strong defense, then, could be said to be a part of the Pistons' DNA, albeit now buried beneath a half-decade's worth of junk coding. But if Van Gundy can appeal to the organization's basketball genetics while putting his own stamp on the team's clogged-up offense, the Pistons should find themselves a spot among the top eight in an Eastern Conference that looks as winnable as it has in years.
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