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Pistons start season 'on the road again'

Detroit will play seven of its first 10 games away from The Palace, but will strive for a better beginning than the past three years.

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

The last time a Detroit Pistons’ season opened with seven road matches in their first 10, Lawrence Frank was the head coach. Optimism waxed high due to a .500 finish (21-21) the previous year and an exciting new rookie (Andre Drummond). But a loss in the home opener against the Houston Rockets (with their newly acquired shooting guard James Harden) was followed by a 0-6 West Coast road trip. A win in Philadelphia on Nov. 14 was the sole bright spot, as the 1-9 start was a harbinger of the woes to come.

The following year (2013-14), the first 10 games were evenly split between home and away, and Mo Cheeks’ charges went 4-6. That squad even reached a 10-10 record in early December before the wheels came off the Motor City bus on the way to a second straight 29-53 finish.

Last year, with their fourth head coach in three years, six of the first 10 games were on the road, and 3-7 was the result. Then, a long downward slide began, with the consecutive losses rising to 13 before the bleeding finally stopped in mid-December. Incredibly, in a season that would be the envy of most yo-yos, Detroit improved to 32-50.

Whether the Pistons can launch their 2015-16 schedule with greater success than the past few years will depend on whether a radically retooled roster can mesh quickly on the court. Half of their first 10 opponents reached the playoffs last year, though one (Portland) lost four starters this summer. Of those opponents that missed the cut, three (Indiana, Phoenix and Utah) have legitimate aspirations to play next May. As a group, the winning percentage for these teams was .548 last year.

So let’s look foe-by-foe at what awaits the men from Motown in their first 10 games:

Game 1 (Tues., Oct. 27): Pistons at Hawks

If this game feels like déjà vu, it’s because these two just faced off at The Palace on Friday night. Detroit enjoyed a rollicking 115-87 preseason victory, but Atlanta’s starters all sat out. While Reggie Jackson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Ersan Ilyasova also rested, Andre Drummond and Marcus Morris played major roles. Atlanta (60-22) led the East last year, but was skunked by Cleveland in the Conference Finals. DeMarre Carroll has moved on to Toronto, and will probably be replaced in the starting line-up by Thabo Sefolosha.  Two former Spurs’ big men, Aron Baynes and Tiago Splitter, will get to jostle in the post. After dropping the first three games last year, Detroit won 105-95 at home on March 31st behind Drummond’s 22 points and 13 boards.

Advantage: Hawks

Game 2 (Wed., Oct. 28): Jazz at Pistons

This match will be the first of 20 back-to-backs for Detroit, and the season opener for Utah (38-44 last year). Reserve power forward Trevor Booker has been suspended for this game due to a preseason fight, and second-year point guard Dante Exum is out due to a torn ACL. In his place, Michigan alum Trey Burke is expected to lead the Jazz attack. His basket clinched an 88-85 victory last March that sent the Pistons to a 10th straight defeat. His backcourt mate will be Alec Burks, so George Blaha should enjoy keeping those names straight. The Pistons will probably need a huge game from Reggie Jackson to reward the hometown fans with a win.

Advantage: Jazz

Game 3 (Fri., Oct. 30): Bulls at Pistons

The home stand continues as Chicago (50-32) visits The Palace, looking to avenge a 114-91 preseason loss at the United Center two weeks ago. Last season these teams split their four matches, with Detroit dropping the final one on the road, 88-82. Derrick Rose should be back on the court alongside Jimmy Butler for the Bulls, who feature a frontcourt loaded with talent – Pau Gasol, Taj Gibson, Nikola Mirotic, Joakim Noah and rookie Bobby Portis. If Rose stays healthy and gets his mojo back, this squad can compete with anyone.

Advantage: Bulls

Game 4 (Tues., Nov. 3): Pacers at Pistons

Detroit lost both of its preseason games to Indiana (38-44), as Paul George looked like the stretch four Stan Van Gundy wishes he had. Ersan Ilyasova is not an ideal defensive stopper, either, so Morris may get this difficult assignment. At center, Ian Mahinmi will be tasked with containing Drummond, so that’s a match-up the Pistons must exploit to their advantage. These teams split their games last year, with the Pacers winning the fourth one in April, 107-103.

Advantage: Pistons

Game 5 (Fri., Nov. 6): Pistons at Suns

A six-game road trip west commences with this game, which Morris probably highlighted the day the schedule came out – both as a reunion with his brother Markieff and a chance to show Phoenix (39-43) that they erred in trading him away. Brandon Knight may not recognize his old team, since the only holdover from the one he played on in 2012-13 is Drummond. A bigger challenge for Knight will be learning how to co-exist in the backcourt with Eric Bledsoe, since neither is a true point guard. Detroit lost at home in November, but won at the Talking Stick Resort Arena (no, I did not make that name up!), 105-103, last December.

Advantage: Pistons

Game 6 (Sun., Nov. 8): Pistons at Trail Blazers

Portland (51-31) decided the best path forward was to blow up their team when LaMarcus Aldridge chose to blaze a trail elsewhere. The only returning starter is Damian Lillard, who signed the big extension (5 years/$120 million) that Drummond chose to postpone to 2016. Lillard is a great talent, and C.J. McCollum looks like he’s ready to become an additional scoring machine. But the rest of the roster is still under construction. The Blazers won both matches last season, with the last one a mid-March 118-99 conquest at the Moda Center.

Advantage: Pistons

Game 7 (Mon., Nov. 9): Pistons at Warriors

What’s a trip to the coast without a back-to-back, and who better to face next than the NBA champs in Oakland? The Warriors return all the key pieces from last year’s 67-15 squad, which downed Detroit in November (104-93) and March (105-98). Seeing how Van Gundy counters when Golden State goes small and puts Draymond Green at center should be entertaining, as well as counting up all the three-point shots.

Advantage: Warriors

Game 8 (Wed., Nov. 11): Pistons at Kings

The matchups of DeMarcus Cousins with Drummond and Rajon Rondo with Jackson will get top billing, but how Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (pick No. 8 in 2013) fairs against Ben McLemore (pick No. 7 in 2013) could be a key factor in the outcome. Rookie Willie Cauley-Stein may start alongside Cousins. Detroit won both games with Sacramento (29-53) last year, both with and without Josh Smith.

Advantage: Pistons

Game 9 (Sat., Nov. 14): Pistons at Clippers

After a couple of days to enjoy the sights, Detroit will return to action in a matinee match against L.A.’s top team. No doubt the bookies will entertain bets on whether Drummond or DeAndre Jordan will clank the most free throws. Although the battle between these two behemoths should be exciting, and Jackson’s efforts versus Chris Paul will bear watching, the Stones will struggle to contain Blake Griffin. A special treat will be the opportunity to watch Smith play for another team. Detroit dropped both games last season against the 56-26 Clippers.

Advantage: Clippers

Game 10 (Sun., Nov. 15): Pistons at Lakers

Yay, another back-to-back! At least this contest is against L.A.’s weaker team, though recent history has seen no distinction in the win-loss column. The Lakers’ most recent victory (93-85) contributed to the 10-game skid that ended Detroit’s playoff aspirations last March. Kobe Bryant will be back, and the L.A. skyline now features Roy Hibbert. If the Pistons hope to reach the playoffs in 2015-16, beating up on a team that finished 21-61 last year would be a step in the right direction – as well as make the return trip to Michigan more pleasant.

Advantage: Pistons

When the starting gun sounds, will the Motown engines backfire, or race toward the finish line? Vote your opinion and share your thoughts about these first ten games  in the comments.