There are really only two words that can accurately describe my excitement at the return of NBA basketball: "OHHHHH YEAAAAH!" Whether uttered by large, sentient pitchers of sugar water whilst committing blatant property damage, an iconic professional wrestler who won't stop pulling out containers of creamer to illustrate an already painfully obvious metaphor, or even by me when I eventually finish whatever this extended ramble ends up as before I finally get some damn sleep, it is an interjection of pure delight. In this case, though, it's all about that Kool-Aid.
Being a fan is not a rational occupation and as such the start of the season allows us to make it whatever we want it to be -- and I want it to be a season where the Detroit Pistons make the playoffs. Given the malaise that has trapped the Pistons these past four seasons, a postseason appearance still seems like an unlikely proposition, but there is a legitimate argument to be made that the Pistons could sneak in as the 8th seed this year, for a number of reasons:
1. The Eastern Conference's Soft Underbelly
The east should have fairly defined upper and mid-tier teams this season, but it's all a big muddle after that. Miami and Boston should be locks to make the playoffs, and Atlanta, Indiana and Brooklyn should make it barring key injuries, but things get very sketchy after that.
Chicago is a question mark at this point, depending on when Derrick Rose returns and what version of him we see, and whether they can get by with the low cost, low value bench players they replaced the majority of a good unit with. The Knicks are relying on Ray Felton and an aged Jason Kidd to run the point, are already missing Amar'e Stoudemire, and will almost certainly see their playoff hopes go up in smoke if Tyson Chandler or Carmelo Anthony go down with an injury. Philadelphia are relying on the health of Andrew Bynum -- which is already looking like a shaky proposition -- and replaced one of the best combo guards and 2nd unit killers in the league (Lou Williams) with Nick Young. It's entirely possible that a surprise playoff team emerges given the circumstances.
2. Waste Disposal
The Pistons gave nearly 2000 combined minutes in a shortened season to the trio of Austin Daye, Walker Russell, and Damien Wilkins -- players sporting true shooting percentages of .394, .401, and .445, respectively. Russell and Wilkins are no longer with the team, and given the Pistons' depth at small forward it seems unlikely that Daye will see any significant time on the court this season, so this seems like a textbook case of addition by subtraction. It's very unlikely the bench this season replicates performance that repugnant.
3. The Development of Brandon Knight
Similarly, it's unlikely that Brandon Knight will play as poorly as he did last season, given the usual arc of improvement for NBA players with added experience, and some encouraging numbers this preseason. Knight's key limitation as a rookie (even more than his occasional butter fingers) was his complete inability to get to the free throw line. While he provided volume and efficiency from behind the three point line, Knight's abysmal 2.3 free throw attempts per 36 minutes on the court prevented him from scoring efficiently.
I would be a fool to say that preseason is always an effective indicator of expected performance (*cough* Austin Daye *cough*), but Knight's numbers have been encouraging. In an admittedly small sample size of eight games (am I throwing enough qualifiers in here?) Knight averaged 5.4 free throw attempts per 36 and seems to have a better idea of how to draw contact and fouls. Adding 15 pounds to his frame in the offseason is probably key to this and should help him make more of a home at the stripe given his freakish speed and quickness.
Like with Knight, it's important to throw out the preseason qualifier here. Drummond put up impressive numbers in eight games and looked not only liked he belonged, but dominant for stretches. The free throw shooting is still an issue, but Drummond did a lot to assuage the fears of Pistons fans with his touch around the basket, rebounding, shot-blocking, quick hands, and freakish athleticism.
Drummond is easily the best pure athlete the Pistons have had since Ben Wallace was in his prime and he pairs that with a frame that can only be described as that of a GROWN. ASS. MAN. The guy is legitimately bigger than Dwight Howard and runs the floor like a guard. That should terrify opposing teams. There will obviously be growing pains like we saw against Miami, and the free throw shooting really can't be mentioned enough, but Drummond seems like the prototypical big man to pair with Greg Monroe.
5. The Rookies: Non-Drummond Division
Drummond is the most obvious impact rookie the Pistons brought in this offseason, but the arrival of Kyle Singler, Kim English, and Slava Kravtsov will do a lot to improve the team's depth. Singler performed very well at the highest level in Europe last season and showed an impressive all-around game and three point shot in preseason. English can easily fill Ben Gordon's role of "guy who shoots over 40% from three" for $10+ million less a season and is a considerably better defender. Kravtsov is still adjusting and it's showed. We saw plenty of turnovers and fouls from him in preseason, but also flashes of his ability to get to the line and rebounding acumen. Plus, the guy can dunk, for whatever that's worth.
Stuckey was a productive player on the whole last season, but his late season tear (slowed in April by injury) is especially intriguing. The "HEY!"-man (ECW! ECW!) played like one of the best shooting guards in the NBA in February and March, putting up 18.4 points at a 48/36/83.5 clip, aided by averaging an impressive seven free throw attempts per game. It's unrealistic to expect Stuckey to post these numbers for an entire season, but the strides he made last year -- particularly the addition of a three point shot, which he'd always been lacking -- are significant and should be very beneficial to the Pistons.
7. Greg Monroe
Look at this man. Do you really think he'll stand for anything less than playoff basketball from his peers? Like Black Dynamite, Greg Monroe is not to be trifled with and he will send his teammates back to Crenshaw Pete if they step out of line. Oh, and I guess he's pretty good at basketball, too.
Look, chances are I'm off-base on this. By year's end the pick-and-roll combination of Kyle Lowry and Jonas Valanciunas could be the talk of the league and the Pistons could be looking at another late lottery pick -- but with some luck, key development, and contributions from young players, the Pistons could see their rebuild go much more quickly than we initially thought. It's really a testament to how far the Pistons have come since 2010 that I'm even discussing the playoffs as an option. Still, just in case, I'll leave a preemptive "fire Joe Dumars."