Everyone wants to be the Phoenix Suns. The Cinderella team that is high-flying, fun to watch and comes out of nowhere to win 48 games in the stacked Western Conference. I'm sure the Detroit Pistons would love to be the Phoenix Suns as well. But a better model for the course they are about to set for themselves is a less talked about team in the Eastern Conference -- the Charlotte Hornets.
Last year the Hornets, then called the Bobcats, went from a 21-61 doormat to win 43 games and secure a playoff spot. The team laid a foundation and has set itself up nicely to continue building for the future. The team had just two significant additions from 2012 to 2013 in center Al Jefferson and head coach Steve Clifford.
Jefferson was known as an offensive beast at his former stop in Utah, but left seen as a disappointment, with a defensive reputation so bad that even though he was nearly a 20-point, 10-rebound player he could only secure a three-year, $41 million deal from Charlotte.
Clifford, meanwhile, was a Van Gundy family disciple, first Jeff in New York and Houston and then Stan in Orlando, vaunted in each stop for his defensive acumen. But before that, he was a head coach bouncing around through the NCAA ranks at nondescript universities like Fairfield and Siena College.
Both Jefferson and Clifford were able to come in and bring focus to a team that was in endless disarray. Jefferson was a player to design an offense around and Clifford was able to put in an offensive and, more importantly, defensive system that played to his team's strengths.
The Bobcats started off slowly, taking a 21-27 record into Feb. But then they started winning. The team went 6-4 in Feb., 9-7 in March and 7-1 in April. Clifford took a team that finished dead last in defensive rating and vaulted them to fifth in the NBA. He also turned Jefferson into the focal point of the offense while building a defense that didn't ask him to do the kind of things he wasn't capable of executing. Coincidentally, Jefferson went on to have perhaps the best year of his career.
It's not hard to see the analogies to this year's version of the Detroit Pistons. Detroit won just 29 games a year ago under Maurice Cheeks and John Loyer. Now the franchise is in the hands of Stan Van Gundy, who worked with Clifford for several years in Orlando.
Van Gundy is taking charge of a team that finished 25th in defensive efficiency and, with no new additions known for their defensive acumen, will be charged with ratcheting up the execution into his typical top-10 defense. In fact, while most people fixate on Van Gundy's prolific three-point shooting offenses in Orlando, his defenses always outperformed his offenses. In Orlando, his defenses finished sixth, first, third, third and 12th, respectively.
And while there is no Al Jefferson to dominate the paint, the team was already well-stocked in big men with Greg Monroe to handle the back-to-the-basket scoring, Andre Drummond to be a shot-blocking defensive force, and Josh Smith to defend the post and facilitate on offense.
What the Pistons really lacked were the players that could offer spacing to allow those big men to go to work. Enter Jodie Meeks, DJ Augustin, Caron Butler and Cartier Martin. The Bobcats saw a big step forward from 23-year-old point guard Kemba Walker and the Pistons will hope to see a similar step forward from 25-year-old Brandon Jennings. The Hornets had defensive perimeter ace MKG (Michael Kidd-Gilchrist) while the Pistons will rely on possible defensive perimeter ace KCP (Kentavious Caldwell-Pope).
The Pistons, in truth, are in some ways in a better position to take an even greater leap than the Hornets did. They have better offensive weapons and an equally effective head coach. Last year's sad-sack Pistons were better on both ends of the floor than the sadder-sack 2012-13 Bobcats.
And while the Bobcats were easily swept out of the first round of the playoffs by the LeBron James-led Miami Heat, the team finally had a foundation to build on. They used that new-found respect and financial flexibility to convince Lance Stephenson to sign a multi-year deal. And the team is poised to continue building into the future.
While Jeff Hornacek and the hard-charging Suns get all the publicity, the real model for the Pistons is the Hornets. And it starts tonight in Denver.