This exercise will look at the young, building and very entertaining NBA teams that are looking to gain contender status. Some of these teams appear to be on the fast track while others are grasping to build around a cornerstone player. We’ll look at the savvy and the haphazard, while enjoying an optimist’s view into the looking glass. It’s summer, real NBA games won’t start for another 3 months and so what better time to paint a rosy picture of what could be for the NBA’s mid-tier teams? Today’s team – the Detroit Pistons.
Who are they? After a miserable half-decade, the Pistons are Stan Van Gundy’s baby. SVG is rebuilding this team as both the coach and GM, quickly jettisoning Josh Smith, letting Greg Monroe walk in free agency and betting big on Andre Drummond. They play in a tough division and will probably finish 4th behind Cleveland, Chicago and Milwaukee this season. But after many seasons of cascading downhill as a result of terrible Joe Dumars moves the arrow is finally pointing back up. Last season’s questionable old school strategy of starting three bigs (Monroe, Smith and Drummond) that can’t space the floor resulted in a 32-50 record and a ranking of 26th in attendance. SVG is remaking them in the mold of his successful Magic teams – will this strategy work? It has to be better than the recent past.
How were they built? By trades and the Draft. The lottery has yielded Andre Drummond, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Stanley Johnson in the last four years. Brandon Jennings was acquired in a trade with Milwaukee for Brandon Knight and Khris Middleton (yikes), Reggie Jackson came over in a trade last season from OKC and Marcus Morris and Ersan Ilyasova were acquired in trades this summer. The only real notable free agent signings are Jodie Meeks in 2014 and Aron Baynes in 2015. Players aren’t exactly itching to spend winters in the Motor City playing for a loser.
Core group – Andre Drummond, Reggie Jackson, Ersan Ilyasova, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Drummond posted an impressive 14 points, 14 rebounds, 2 blocks season and should have more room to maneuver in the paint with Monroe gone. Detroit is making a big bet on Drummond becoming a true cornerstone player. I’ve never been a huge Reggie Jackson guy, especially at the big money Detroit threw at him. He did average 18 and 9 in 27 games with the Pistons last season, which these days gets you $80 million I guess. Small sample size be damned. KCP scores a little bit and does little else, but has a chance to be a more impactful player this year. Ilyasova is a nice acquisition, fitting SVG’s vision for a more versatile roster – he’s the stretch four Monroe and Smith weren’t.
Role guys – Jodie Meeks, Spencer Dinwiddie, Marcus Morris, Anthony Tolliver, Aron Baynes. Baynes was an overpay, but is a serviceable backup to Drummond. Marcus Morris is scorned and will either play with a chip on his shoulder or assault somebody. The rest aren’t very exciting, though provide decent depth.
Boom or bust potential – Stanley Johnson, Brandon Jennings. Johnson can defend shooting guards and small forwards, which makes him attractive to Van Gundy. He will eventually overtake Morris in the starting SF position in a perfect world, but will have growing pains as a 19-year old rookie. Jennings can fill it up when healthy, the question is will he ever be 100% this season after a nasty Achilles tear?
Optimist view – Ideally the Pistons starting five that establishes itself going forward will be Jackson, KCP, Morris, Ilyasova and Drummond, a fairly versatile unit that can score and defend enough to hover around .500, with the rookie Johnson playing meaningful minutes off the bench. A 4th place finish in the Central is probably the ceiling this year, with a serious playoff run another year away. That may not seem like much of a rise, but for a team that was 5-23 at one point last season, it’s relative. And SVG is the real deal.