Detroit Pistons Complete 2016-17 Season Preview

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistOctober 12, 2016

Apr 6, 2016; Orlando, FL, USA; Orlando Magic guard Brandon Jennings (55) guards against Detroit Pistons guard Reggie Jackson (1) during the second half of a basketball game at Amway Center. The Pistons won 108-104. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports
Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

"I don't think we could have written the story any better," Reggie Jackson told reporters after he helped the Detroit Pistons clinch their first playoff berth since 2009 with a 13-point victory over the Washington Wizards

However, that story and the one about to begin have far different ideal endings. 

In 2015-16, the Pistons wanted desperately to end their prolonged playoff drought. They did so, and it couldn't have been too disappointing that their brief postseason adventure ended in a first-round sweep at the hands of LeBron James and the eventual champions, the Cleveland Cavaliers

The 2016-17 campaign carries higher aspirations, even with Jackson beginning the season on the shelf with knee tendinitis. Though the star point guard is looking at a six-to-eight-week absence, per MLive.com's Aaron McMann, this Detroit iteration can do more—competing for home-court advantage in the Eastern Conference and even threatening to challenge the Cavs' postseason supremacyif everyone progresses expeditiously. 

"What Cleveland did last year is a really good thing for our guys," head coach Stan Van Gundy explained at media day. "The way I look at it is, here's the team that won the championship. On one hand, we were able to play competitively with them. There's hope there. We're not light-years away."


Biggest Offseason Move

BROOKLYN, NY - OCTOBER 6:  Ish Smith #14 of the Detroit Pistons dribbles the ball against the Brooklyn Nets on October 6, 2016 at Barclays Center in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downl
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

The Pistons entered the offseason with a dire need for depth, and they acquired it with resounding success. Whether we're talking about the draft (Henry Ellenson at No. 18 and Michael Gbinije at No. 49) or the free-agency haul of Ish Smith, Boban Marjanovic and Jon Leuer, every addition made perfect sense for a team that likes to surround Andre Drummond with shooters and playmakers. 

Marjanovic, the hulking 7'3" center who thrived in his limited role with the San Antonio Spurs last year, is literally the biggest addition. But especially in the wake of Jackson's season-shortening injury, Smith will have the biggest impact. 

The 28-year-old broke out running the show for the Philadelphia 76ers during the previous campaign, averaging 14.7 points, 4.3 rebounds and 7.0 assists in a Sixers uniform while still keeping his turnovers in check. It's no coincidence that the struggling offense scored an additional 3.4 points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor, constantly driving and probing. 

Nevertheless, he was signed to be the Detroit backup, but he's suddenly being thrust back into a starting role.

Assuming the timetable for Jackson's return is accurate, Smith will need to play next to the starters for somewhere between 15 and 20 games, and the lack of depth behind him makes his job even more important. Barring a late-offseason trade or free-agency signing, Ray McCallum and Lorenzo Brown—neither of whom would play big minutes in a competitive team's rotation—will serve as his primary backups. 

The Pistons struggled immensely with Brandon Jennings, Steve Blake and Spencer Dinwiddie sharing time as the respective second- and third-string 1s in 2015-16, to the point that any new talent was going to become the biggest addition. But for unfortunate reasons, Smith's arrival is now even more important than previously imagined. 


Rotation Breakdown

AUBURN HILLS, MI - OCTOBER 10: Marcus Morris #13 of the Detroit Pistons handles the ball against the San Antonio Spurs on October 10, 2016 at The Palace of Auburn Hills in Auburn Hills, Michigan. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that,
NBA Photos/Getty Images

Until Stanley Johnson asserts himself as a consistent two-way presence, Marcus Morris should continue to start at small forward. There's no reason to change anything by pushing Morris to the 4 and Tobias Harris to the bench, especially since, per B/R Insights, the Pistons were 16-9 with Harris as a starter in 2015-16.

Prorate that to a full season, and you're looking at nearly 53 wins. 

Once Jackson is healthy, Detroit should circle back to the same five-man squad it used down the stretch last year. After all, nbawowy.com showed that the quintet comprised of Jackson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Morris, Harris and Drummond produced an offensive rating (112.9) that would've trailed only the Golden State Warriors and Oklahoma City Thunder in the season-long standings

As Harris grows even more comfortable in his new digs, that lineup should only become stronger. Barring a Johnson breakout, it's the backups who offer the potential for shifting rotations:

Detroit Pistons' Projected 2016-17 Rotation*
Reggie JacksonKentavious Caldwell-PopeMarcus MorrisTobias HarrisAndre Drummond
Ish SmithDarrun HilliardStanley JohnsonJon LeuerBoban Marjanovic
Ray McCallumMichael GbinijeReggie BullockHenry EllensonAron Baynes
*When Jackson is healthy

No longer is the Detroit bench a glaring liability. 

According to hoopsstats.com, the Pistons handed fewer minutes to their second unit than any other team during 2015-16, and that led to a No. 30 finish in offensive efficiency and a No. 27 placement in its defensive counterpart.

But there are now legitimate backups at every position. Marjanovic looked like he could be a potential star during his limited run in San Antonio, Leuer has proved himself a convincing stretch 4 and Johnson is brimming over with upside as he enters his sophomore season.

Throw in Smith and Darrun Hilliard, who quietly shot 38 percent from downtown as a rookie and showed off a convincing ability to create his own looks, and you have a strong set of reinforcements. 


Reasons for Confidence

BROOKLYN, NY - OCTOBER 6:  Stanley Johnson #7 of the Detroit Pistons handles the ball against the Brooklyn Nets on October 6, 2016 at Barclays Center in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by d
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

Where to begin?

We could focus on the talent at the top, since a healthy Jackson and a continuously improving Drummond both serve as All-Star threats in the Eastern Conference. According to nbawowy.com, the Pistons outscored the opposition by 3.8 points per 100 possessions when both were on the floor last year, which stacks up against the season-long figures of the Boston Celtics (3.2 net rating) and Atlanta Hawks (3.7).

We could also highlight the team's roster continuity across the top, which always aids NBA units. Ditto for the aforementioned additions of depth and the fact that the Pistons are now preparing for their third season operating in Van Gundy's four-out, one-in schemes. 

But the biggest reasons for confidence are the team's prior success and the overwhelming prevalence of young players still trending toward their respective peaks:

Marjanovic and Smith are the elder statesmen in Detroit's rotation, and we don't even know the full extent of what they can do. The former is only in his second NBA season, and the latter hasn't received a chance to run a competitive team since gaining so much confidence in his own abilities.

Stagnation is the worst-case scenario here (barring more injuries), and the Pistons are already operating at a playoff level. What happens if Caldwell-Pope finally becomes the shooter he was projected to be while playing for the Georgia Bulldogs? What if Johnson learns how to play offense and becomes a bona fide two-way stud? What if Drummond learns how to score in the post? 

These questions are all positive ones, revolving around new elements of the game that these players could add. 


Reasons for Concern

AUBURN HILLS, MI - APRIL 24:  Reggie Jackson #1 of the Detroit Pistons handles the ball against Kyrie Irving #2 of the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game Four of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs on  April 24, 2016 at The Palace o
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

The Jackson injury is obviously one reason for concern, but he should still play the majority of the season. Even while he's out, Smith is capable of replicating his style as long as he starts shooting instead of passing on his drives to the hoop—easier in Detroit's schemes than Philadelphia's.

A bigger issue could be the inconsistency of shooters who surround Drummond. Van Gundy's strategies are predicated upon an ability to draw defenders out to the perimeter, subsequently leaving arguably the NBA's best offensive rebounder alone in a one-on-one battle for the ensuing boards. But if his shooters don't scare the defense, the effects are mitigated. 

Let's look at the expected rotation members again (excluding the towers in the middle), this time analyzing their downtown success rates:

For perspective, the league average on triples was 35.4 percent last year—a mark only three current Detroit rotation members were able to push past. Sixty different qualified players were able to convert at a 36 percent clip or better while taking at least two attempts per game, and Morris is the Pistons' lone representative. 

That doesn't bode well for a team that relies on its perimeter exploits, since a lack of improvement would make it easier for the opposition to compress Drummond and dare Detroit to beat it from beyond the arc. There's reason to believe young shooters such as Caldwell-Pope and Jackson will trend upward, but that's far from guaranteed.


Player to Watch

Apr 24, 2016; Auburn Hills, MI, USA; Detroit Pistons center Andre Drummond (0) takes a shot during the first quarter against the Cleveland Cavaliers in game four of the first round of the NBA Playoffs at The Palace of Auburn Hills. Mandatory Credit: Raj M
Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

There's little doubt Andre Drummond is already a fantastic basketball player, one capable of anchoring the middle and making Van Gundy's strategems operate as designed. 

Coming off an All-Star season in which he averaged 16.2 points and a league-best 14.8 rebounds while shooting 52.1 percent from the field, there's no telling how much further he could rise. He already enters the year ranked No. 29 in Sports Illustrated's top-100 countdown, with Ben Golliver writing the following:

After years of below-average and disorganized defenses, the Pistons have been much better under Stan Van Gundy, with Drummond deserving credit for holding down the boards and covering up for some fairly weak-defending power forwards alongside of him. By the time Detroit got around to inking Drummond to a $130 million rookie contract extension this summer, the deal was hardly news. There just wasn’t anything to debate or discuss: He earned it.

But what makes Drummond the player to watch isn't just his status as the team's best individual—Jackson (No. 54) and Harris (No. 77) were the only others to make Sports Illustrated's rankings. He also has so much room for further growth in three distinct areas. 

Just imagine if Drummond learned how to shoot free throws after knocking down only 35.5 percent of his attempts on 7.2 attempts per game.

Given Detroit's offensive rating (106.1), and assuming neither and-ones nor three-point fouls exist, he effectively cost his squad approximately 1.26 points per contest—a significant number for a team that outscored the opposition by a mere 0.6 points per night. Even an increase to a 50 percent clip would be huge for Detroit, though it would take 53.1 percent to break even.

But should the big man remain a glaring liability at the stripe, he can improve two other important aspects of his game.

According to NBA.com's SportVU data, Drummond allowed opponents to shoot 52.6 percent at the hoop, often chasing blocks or trying to jump passing lanes at the expense of contesting close-range shots in disciplined fashion. He was still a largely beneficial defender but was far removed from the Defensive Player of the Year race—a race he could suddenly enter with a better understanding of proper positioning. 

And NBA.com showed that while post-ups accounted for 27.5 percent of his offense, he converted those attempts so poorly that he produced a meager 0.73 points per possession, leaving him in the 26.9 percentile.

The Pistons offense is set up so that he can get off those back-to-the-basket attempts without help defenders crashing down to double-team him, but that could change if he becomes more effective. And if that happens, it opens up a world of possibilities for his perimeter-dwelling teammates. 

Drummond is already quite valuable, but he's worth watching because he's still only tapped into a scant amount of his lofty potential. 



Apr 5, 2016; Miami, FL, USA; Detroit Pistons guard Reggie Jackson (1) looks to get past Miami Heat guard Goran Tragic (center) during the first half of their Tuesday night game at American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Robert Duyos-USA TODAY Sports
Robert Duyos-USA TODAY Sports

It's hard to see this team getting any worse, which means its 44-38 record in 2015-16 should serve as the baseline. The loss of Jackson for the season's opening salvo could curtail positive momentum, but these Pistons should be second-half stalwarts who push higher up the Eastern Conference hierarchy. 

Even last year, Detroit outscored opponents by 0.6 points per 100 possessions. It was one of 15 teams throughout the league with a positive net rating, and one of just seven in the East.

Again, that should be the minimum expectation. 

The Pistons enjoyed a strong offseason filled with minor moves that should combine to provide a substantial boost. They no longer have to hold their collective breath as Steve Blake and a weak bench attempts to avoid squandering leads. They have a full season of Harris to look forward to. They have a convincing second unit that can help keep the starters fresh, rather than force them to play exorbitant minutes during the middle of the grueling NBA calendar. 

They aren't quite ready to jump into the tier of true contenders, but when Jackson comes back, they could be knocking on the door.


Final Record: 47-35
Division Standing: 2nd
Playoff Berth: Yes
B/R League-Wide Power Rankings Prediction: Ninth


Unless otherwise indicated, all stats are from Basketball-Reference.comNBA.com or NBA Math.

Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @fromal09