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Pistons may start slow, but will finish strong

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Stan Van Gundy's crew will surprise a lot of people this year, but they may be a bit slow out of the gate.

Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

I’m very excited to hold a ticket for the season opener in Atlanta. During my last visit to Philips Arena (right near the end of that glorious 12-3 PSE run), I met Swag’s mom. The Pistons couldn’t buy a bucket all night, and ultimately fell to a more cohesive Hawks team. While I expect the Pistons to be much improved this year, I’m not expecting a win on opening night.

The start of this season will probably not look like a drag race to Pistons fans.

Now, hold on. That’s not to say I’m giving up on the Kool-Aid, just that I’ll be sipping instead of chugging during the next couple months. In fact, last weekend in Vegas, I put my money where my mouth is and made my first-ever NBA wager -- taking the over on season wins (which was at 36.5 when I arrived, and was up to 37 the very next day).

I also made a very, very small "why not?" bet on the Pistons to win the (gasp!) Eastern Conference at 65-1 odds. You know… if LeBron, Love and Kyrie all get injured and Reggie Jackson makes the All-Star team and Andre Drummond is the DPOY and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is the MIP and Stanley Johnson is the ROY and Brandon Jennings comes back 100% Swag and they swing a midseason trade for an All-Star PF and, well… it could happen.

Back to reality.

Based on what we saw in the preseason, it’s going to take some time before this team is humming along like a finely tuned muscle car. But it does look like they will find their groove before long.

Not surprisingly, the Pistons played (and shot) very well when they moved the ball and played unselfishly, and not very well at all when they didn’t. That lack of ball movement could in part be related to the team having so many new faces (two in the starting lineup and several more on the bench). Even last year’s Cavs - whose new additions were proven and experienced veterans - struggled throughout much of the season while learning how to play together.

Then consider how young many of the Pistons’ key rotation players are this year (six players are 26 and under; three are 22 and under) and it’s natural to expect some growing pains. However, as the season progresses and players establish their roles and get more comfortable with each other, both team defense and ball movement should improve noticeably.

Stan Van Gundy has the task of working out a rotation that makes sense. While it’s now widely established that "the pieces fit better" on this team, figuring out exactly which pieces fit best (and where) is still a work in progress.

The starting lineup - featuring Jackson, KCP, Marcus Morris, Ersan Ilyasova and Drummond on opening night - is by no means set in stone. While Morris and Ilyasova both had a couple impressive games in the preseason, the Nos. 3 & 4 spots could both look different by the end of the season, or even within a couple months. Many people seem to like the idea of Stanley starting at SF and Morris at PF. With Reggie Bullock looking like a legitimate backup wing, that could turn Ilyasova into the backup PF and Anthony Tolliver into a spot-minute guy.

And while the Pistons certainly sputtered at times during the preseason, the performance of Steve Blake in the final game (against the Hawks’ scrubs, mind you) is very encouraging. You have to wonder how those other seven games would have turned out had Blake played the bulk of the second-unit minutes. Should the veteran PG provide that kind of ball movement consistently on the second unit, the Pistons should avoid falling too far behind while Reggie catches his breath.

They appear to have some very good long-distance threats on the bench, especially with the unexpected emergence of Reggie Bullock. Between Bullock (52% 3PT), Blake, Jodie Meeks (35%), Tolliver (33%) and Stanley Johnson (36%), you’re looking at five guys that defenders will have to pay attention to outside the arc. If Tolliver and Meeks continue to struggle from distance (doubtful as ball movement improves), Bullock, Johnson and Morris could gobble up some of their minutes. In fact, since all players go through shooting slumps, SVG has the option of riding the hot hand(s) based on game-to-game performance.

When you step back and look at the big picture, the Pistons have six players who’ve demonstrated an ability to shoot the three with some consistency, and three (Stanimal, Bullock, RJ) who’ve shown long-distance potential during not-insignificant stretches of play.

Yet due to the unavoidable reality that this team is composed of mostly very young players who have yet to reach their prime, and will give heavy burn to 7-8 guys (!) who weren’t on last season’s opening night roster, it’s going to be a work in progress. (I haven’t checked to see if any other NBA teams have had more roster turnover during the past year, but I doubt it.)

Unfortunately, that’s going to be evident at times… especially when facing teams who boast more more experienced players and have more roster continuity. That includes the Atlanta Hawks and most Western Conference playoff teams from last year.

I’ve looked over the schedule through the end of 2015, and they have 15 games against lottery teams along with 18 games against playoff teams from last year. Without looking at home/away or back-to-backs, I see about 14 games that will be extremely tough to win - teams that were very good last year and could host a playoff series in 2016. That leaves 19 games that are very winnable.

Since I’ve watched the Pistons long enough to know they’ll drop a few unexpected stinkers every once in a while, I think they go 12-7 in those games, and win maybe 4-10 in the tough ones. That puts them at 16-17 entering the new year. They could even be a few games below .500 at times early on, when I’m quite certain the naysayers will be saying "I told you so" about our beloved Pistons. There may even be rhino poop sightings in the GameThreads, or that comic where Lucy fools Charlie Brown with the football… again.

But even during those long and frustrating early-winter nights, don’t lose hope, Pistons fans.

Their last three games of 2015 are against the Celtics, Knicks and T-Wolves. Their first four games of 2016 are against the Pacers, Magic, Celtics and Nets. With a fresh injection of Swag, I think they go on a nice little streak and start gaining some momentum. They’ll need it, since the next six games are against the Spurs, Grizzlies, Warriors, Bulls, Rockets and Pelicans.

I’m very excited about the Return of Swag. He doesn’t even need to be PSE Jennings, who was playing career-best ball. He just needs to be a good backup PG.

Look at the bench this team could run with in the new year:

Jennings, Blake, Meeks, Bullock, Stanimal, Tolliver, Baynes

You don’t need to freebase Kool-Aid to get excited about that depth.

If Jennings isn’t on, you go to Blake. If Meeks is shooting blanks, you go to Bullock. You get the picture. These are ALL guys who can contribute on the court. John Lucas III, Quincy Miller, Shawne Williams and The Ghost of Tayshaun Prince will not be invited to the party.

There’s also the not-entirely-unlikely possibility that SVG uses Brandon Jennings in a trade for a player who will be a long-term fit with the Pistons’ young core. Given what the GM/coach has accomplished via trade already (who exactly did they give up to acquire Tolliver, Ilyasova, Morris and Bullock?), it’s intriguing to consider what he might be able to do with a productive Brandon Jennings and one or more of KCP/Morris/Ilyasova/Meeks/etc. He could have some valuable trade chips to work with around the trade deadline.

The Pistons will play 49 regular season games after January 1st, and this is where I see them breaking through. If they merely manage to break even during the first two months of the season, they’ll be in excellent position. They’ll be learning to play together and getting comfortable in SVG’s system while boasting a deep and dangerous roster.

I think they play .600 ball the rest of the way (maybe 30-19) and wind up 46-36 for the year. To reach 50-win territory, they’ll need to play extremely well right out of the gate, which isn’t impossible, but I’d say it's unlikely.

Here’s the thing: once this team learns SVG’s system, learns how to play together and begins humming along, they’re going to be very fun to watch. In fact, even before they bring it all together, they’ll still be fun to watch on many nights.

Just keep that in mind early on. When the turnovers are piling up and the contested bricks are flying during that west coast trip in November, remember that it takes time for young teams to gel.

It’s going to be a bumpy ride, my friends. But there’s one thought that brings a huge smile to my face - there’s not one player on this team who will single-handedly bring this team crashing to the ground like last year. There's also no one who'll make everyone cringe when he checks into the game. That's a big relief.

There will be no 5-23 start.

No matter how rough things may be early on, it won’t be as bad as what we’ve already seen. He Who Will Not Be Named is not coming back, and that is very good news.

Now let’s just sit back and see what Stan’s crew can do. We're about to see if Detroit Basketball is really on its way back.