As the NBA season fast approaches, the Detroit Pistons and their fans are in unfamiliar territory. For the first time since the beginning of this decade, the Pistons are not considered to be serious contenders for a championship.
Here is a look at some of the issues facing this team.
What is the Biggest Challenge Facing this Pistons Team this Season?
Far and away the biggest weakness on this team is their front court defense. In the past, it was easy to forget about the interior because Detroit typically had one of the strongest post defenses in the game.
This just is not the case anymore. For all the headaches he provided, Rasheed Wallace always supplied an underrated ability to disrupt opposing offenses in the post. Wallace is a cerebral player on defense, and he had an uncanny knack for playing angles and using his length and wingspan to close passing lanes.
Additionally, the loss of Antonio McDyess will surely be felt. McDyess was sneaky strong and knew how to put himself in a great spot to grab rebounds. Certain players just have a nose for the ball, and McDyess definitely fits that bill.
With both players gone, you are losing a tremendous amount of defensive intelligence and leadership.
The players that will take over their roles will be a collection of veterans that have not lived up to expectations or are past their prime. Furthermore, none of them have been vocal leaders. This is not a good combination.
Chris Wilcox is a physical specimen, but his basketball IQ leaves a lot to be desired. He will flash glimpses of promise, but is not much more than a William Bedford clone. Look for him to find his way into Kuester's doghouse with lackadaisical play.
Kwame Brown, for all of his weaknesses on offense, is a solid, on-the-ball defender and should benefit from Ben Wallace's expertise. Look for him to take a major step forward defensively. However, he has shown a lack of concentration throughout his career, and that likely will continue at points.
Wallace has little left in the tank, and is capable of not much more than 10-15 minutes of position defense. His athleticism was his biggest strength, and he just does not have that anymore.
Jason Maxiell is as strong as an ox, but his lack of height will really hurt him against taller players. Maxiell is a throwback to the days when undersized power forwards like Charles Barkley could find a niche in the game. Today's NBA is geared towards long and lean, leaving Maxiell as a round peg in a square hole.
The real wildcard of this bunch is rookie Jonas Jerebko from Sweden. So far during the preseason he has shown an ability to play at a high energy level for long stretches of time, and does not appear to back down from contact. If he can develop into a David Lee type of player, his energy could be infectious.
However, he is incredibly raw, so expectations may have to be somewhat tempered.
Realistically, you are looking at a Detroit front court that has a lot of holes and will look bad on some nights. Initially, the help-side defense will be nonexistent, and that will result in some early season shootouts. The key will be whether or not they buy into first-year coach John Kuester's system and gel together as a unit.
Additionally, the effectiveness of this unit could hinge on whether or not the back court is able to keep opposing players out of the paint and ease the pressure on the front court.
What About Charlie Villanueva?
What about him? Villanueva should supply some fireworks on offense, but defensively he will provide little more than a warm body.
Athletically, there is no reason to believe he can not become a solid defender. However, thus far in his career, he has treated the defensive end of the court as a breather before he was able to get back on offense.
Great defensive teams are not necessarily a collection of great individual defensive players. Rather, they are a cohesive unit that has bought into playing great defense. Before coming to Detroit, Chauncey Billups and Rip Hamilton were not considered great defenders, but they developed into tremendous team defenders.
Can Villanueva become a great defender? Probably not. But lightning could strike, and he could become a strong team defender.
What Should Piston Fans Expect from Austin Daye?
So far during the preseason, rookie Austin Daye has looked good. He has shown glimpses of why he was drafted so high in the draft. He has serious range on his jumper, which coupled with his tremendous length, should make his shot nearly un-blockable.
Additionally, his ball-handling ability looks a lot better than what I was expecting, meaning he could begin his career as more of a shooting guard than a frontcourt player.
Defensively, he could be a pest, much like Tayshaun Prince was in his first few years. Remember when Prince came into the series against Orlando and disrupted nearly every shot that Tracy McGrady took? Imagine adding a few inches to that wingspan and the havoc that that would have created.
However, Daye is incredibly weak and is likely at least a year away from being a solid contributor. At the NBA combine, he was one of only two players unable to do one bench press of 225 lbs.
A more likely scenario would involve rookie DaJuan Summers playing himself into the rotation before Daye. Summers has a more NBA-ready body and could provide a nice backup to Prince, provided Prince returns (more on that later).
Is Rodney Stuckey Ready to Take the Next Step?
He better be.
Last year, there were few aspects of the season more disappointing than the regression of Rodney Stuckey. After showing flashes of brilliance in the playoffs the previous year, most people assumed Stuckey was primed for a breakout year.
I know team president Joe Dumars thought so. As a result, he shipped starting point guard Billups to Denver in exchange for Allen Iverson.
There are a lot of theories out there as to why Stuckey regressed. Some believe he was just a flash in the pan and is really a shooting guard that can't shoot. Others think he stepped into an un-winnable situation and did not help things with his inconsistent play.
Put me into the latter category. Stuckey may actually be ill-equipped for point guard duties, but I am going to give Dumars credit for knowing talent. Dumars has likely forgotten more about what it takes to be a point guard than most people will ever know.
Granted, Dumars was not a point guard, but he was a combo guard that was capable of playing the point, and I think that is what Stuckey will develop into. Point guard is the most difficult position for a young player to learn. The best example of this just left town.
Billups began his career as a combo guard that just could not figure out how to become a point guard. But over time and with the help of Larry Brown, he eventually figured it out and became one of the game's best.
Kuester was an assistant coach under Brown the year that Brown helped transform Billups into a star, and I am sure he will bring some of the lessons he learned during that season into this situation.
My guess is that Stuckey will take a major step forward this year, provided he can consistently make a 15-20 foot jump shot to keep defenders honest. That, more than anything, will help determine his effectiveness.
What Do You Think Could Be the Biggest Strength of this Team?
The bench. This Pistons bench, if used effectively, could really be the difference between the playoffs and the lottery.
Offensively, they could provide a huge lift to this team. I could envision shooting guard Ben Gordon and point guard Will Bynum coming in late in the first or early in the second quarter and just torching defenders.
Add to the mix energy guys like Jerebko and Maxiell and this could be a very exciting bunch.
There are two keys to this. First, Gordon's ball handling. When Gordon was first signed, one of the biggest complaints I heard from Chicago Bulls fans was that he was terrible with the ball.
So far during this preseason he has looked good with the ball in his hands. If he is able to protect the ball and create offense, he will really open up possibilities for Kuester to use him throughout the game.
The second key to this unit will be defense. With the type of athleticism at his disposal, Kuester would do well to remember the full court trap defense that Brown used down the stretch in their year together in Detroit en route to the title.
Furthermore, a trapping defense will help make up for a lack of size on the bench and will capitalize on their high motor guys.
Essentially, energy could become the trump card of this team.
How Do You See this Offense Taking Shape?
The real key to this offense will be Villanueva. If he can stay healthy and play with his back to the hoop, he could really open up this offense. If he stays on the perimeter like Wallace used to do, this will be a long season.
By establishing a strong interior offense, it will allow Stuckey room to penetrate and create offense for perimeter players like Rip Hamilton and Prince, as well as easy hoops for limited front court players like Wallace and Brown.
However, something just does not feel complete about this team from an offensive standpoint, which could set up...
Is this Roster Complete?
In all honesty, I really don't think so. As the season approaches, the Pistons are hardly satisfied with the roster in front of them. Personally, I think Dumars is waiting for other teams to come to this same conclusion.
There are a few possibilities out there. Utah could decide that their front court is too full, and they want to boost their back court. Toronto could decide that they are not going to re-sign Bosh, and therefore they may begin to dangle him as trade bait.
There are a number of different possibilities out there, and probably quite a few that are not visible right now.
The bottom line is that in order for Detroit's offense to work, they need a three-point threat in their starting lineup. Gordon is that threat. However, with all that happened last year, Hamilton can not be put on the bench again. Since neither player is capable of playing the point, one of them has to ride the pine, and that has to be Gordon.
However, Hamilton is not really a three-point threat. Therefore, in order for him to be effective, he needs to be paired with either a small forward or a point guard that can hit the three. Neither Stuckey nor Prince really fit that bill. So somebody has to go.
Stuckey likely will not bring back the type of player that Detroit needs, namely a post presence.
Many people around the league are beginning to think that Prince may be overrated, so he likely will not bring back a strong player, either.
Therefore, Hamilton is the most likely possibility.
The rumor that will not die is that Utah could trade Carlos Boozer to Detroit for Hamilton. Some people believe that this move would help both teams.
I see how Hamilton helps Utah. Plug him in next to Deron Williams and all of a sudden the Jazz look like world-beaters.
But where would Boozer fit in Detroit? Obviously, you can not start Boozer and Villanueva together. Defensively, it would be a nightmare, as neither would be able to guard an opposing center and neither would be able to guard an opposing small forward.
So Villanueva would come off the bench, which would provide the offensive punch that they would lose by Gordon moving into the starting lineup.
But then what? Boozer would become a free agent after the year, and he likely will not want to re-sign in Detroit when he could go anywhere. Also, you just committed major cash to Villanueva, so does it make sense to relegate him to the bench for his entire contract?
Then again, a Boozer deal would free up cash for next summer, giving Dumars contract flexibility that he craves.
Who knows? But the smart money suggests that a deal will be completed in the near future to unclog this back court logjam.
Based on what the rest of the East looks like right now, and what the Pistons roster currently consists of, the playoffs are definitely a possibility for this team, but not by much. The margin for error is incredibly thin for this bunch.
Best case scenario: Stuckey takes a major step forward, the defense gels, and the bench provides a boost, leading the Pistons to the sixth seed in the playoffs.
Worst case scenario: The players reject Kuester's defensive plans, the offense sputters with too many redundant parts, and the Pistons finish 11th in the East, firmly in the lottery.
Most likely scenario: A little bit of both. Stuckey progresses, but the defense looks shaky. The bench impresses, but the Pistons are too perimeter-oriented on offense and they find themselves in a dogfight for the 8th and final playoff spot, which they win.
So You're Saying There's a Chance!
Of the playoffs, absolutely! The thing to remember here is that Detroit is rebuilding on the fly. To completely re-shape your roster and avoid missing the playoffs in the process would be a major coup for Dumars and this franchise.
We are witnessing a new team being formed, and my suggestion to you as fans is to temper your expectations and enjoy the ride.