The Detroit Pistons won just 29 games in 2013-14, but with major changes made throughout the organization they will be more competitive in the Eastern Conference than they were a year ago.
Last season went just about as badly as it possibly could for the Pistons—a team with serious playoff aspirations. Chauncey Billups, Will Bynum and Rodney Stuckey all missed games with injuries. Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe and Josh Smith couldn't find a way to fit together on the court.
All of that led the Pistons to a 15-37 record after Dec. 23, when they were just two games under .500 and among the top eight teams in the East. Team president Joe Dumars' contract was eventually not renewed, and an era of Pistons basketball came to an end.
Expectations were far too high for the Pistons in 2013-14, and the East is stronger than it looked a year ago, but this should be a deeper and better-run team in 2014-15. If the Pistons catch a few breaks, it's not inconceivable to see them competing for one of the final playoff spots in the conference.
The Pistons made several moves this offseason that will help improve their depth and balance their roster. But the most important change made didn't involve a single player.
When Stan Van Gundy was hired to be their head coach and president of basketball operations, it signaled the end of instability on the bench in Detroit. The Pistons had five different coaches between the firing of Flip Saunders in 2008 and Van Gundy's hiring. And at a price of $35 million over five seasons, Van Gundy is too expensive not to make it through his contract.
But more than stability, Van Gundy brings excellent, if not elite, coaching ability to Detroit. He has a career 371-208 record over eight seasons with the Miami Heat and Orlando Magic. His .641 winning percentage is fourth among active coaches (behind Gregg Popovich, Erik Spoelstra and Tom Thibodeau) and No. 10 all time. He also made the postseason seven times and won the East in 2009 with Orlando.
While Van Gundy was helped by coaching great players like Dwyane Wade, Shaquille O'Neal and Dwight Howard, there's no doubt that Van Gundy will be an improvement over Cheeks. A defined playing style and new players who fit that scheme will add value at the coaching position.
It's about us putting [Smith] 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.
As for the roster, Van Gundy used free agency to improve areas where it was weak last season.
After finishing No. 29 in three-point percentage in 2013-14 at 32.1 percent, he brought in four players who should improve Detroit's perimeter shooting: Jodie Meeks, Caron Butler, D.J. Augustin and Cartier Martin. Each shot above the league average—36 percent, per Basketball-Reference—on more than 2.5 attempts per game.
Even if the Pistons get no improvement from the perimeter from second-year players Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Luigi Datome, the four newcomers will help space the court for the big men to operate in the paint and will simply knock down more open looks than anybody on the roster did last season.
Also, the new players, particularly Meeks, Augustin and Butler, will benefit the Pistons by simply taking minutes away from lesser players. Whether or not Meeks starts at shooting guard, he'll be an improvement over Stuckey. Augustin is a clear upgrade over Billups and Bynum at the backup point guard spot. And even if Butler doesn't start, he makes it easier to push Smith to the post full time.
The Pistons didn't make the splashy roster moves they did in the summer of 2013, but Van Gundy alone makes this team better, and he made moves to add shooting and depth around the frontcourt.
Eastern Conference Outlook
Even in the best-case scenario, the Pistons won't be fighting for a top seed in the East, and the bottom half of the conference definitely appears tougher than it has in past years.
The Washington Wizards look like a lock for a playoff spot after winning 44 games and bringing in Paul Pierce (albeit at the expense of Trevor Ariza), and it's reasonable to expect progression from John Wall and Bradley Beal.
The Toronto Raptors can be penciled in after a 48-win campaign while retaining their core of young players. And the Charlotte Hornets should logically take a step forward after winning 43 games and adding Lance Stephenson.
That would leave three open playoff spots.
The Atlanta Hawks will be returning Al Horford to an already potent offense, but they won just 38 games last year. Perhaps a Phil Jackson/Carmelo Anthony pairing is enough to make the New York Knicks competitive again, but it's far from a sure thing.
With uncertainty throughout the conference, is there a scenario in which the Pistons reach the postseason?
How many games will the Pistons win in 2014-15?
The Pistons were clearly misjudged before the 2013-14 season, but there was enough talent to receive predictions of 42 or 44 wins (which was my prediction) and a playoff berth. Twenty-nine wins was a worse total than anyone could have imagined. And the team is undoubtedly better this season.
But the smart money is on the Pistons falling just outside of the top eight in the East. There is a new coach, a new system and a number of new players, so building on-court chemistry will likely take time. Throw in potential personality conflicts and the distraction of Monroe's future, and all may not be smooth sailing.
Drummond is a star in the making, and his supporting cast is better, but he's not good enough to carry a team to the playoffs without significant help. Van Gundy will bring locker room stability and keep the Pistons in the hunt until the final weeks of the season, but the Pistons are a year away from returning to the postseason.
Fourth in Central Division
10th in Eastern Conference
Jakub Rudnik covers the Detroit Pistons as a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.
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