I have to admit, during these late-summer doldrums, I’m trying real hard not to get annoyed with the
dismal unenthusiastic projections for our beloved Pistons. I keep reminding myself that none of these experts watched roughly 95% of the Pistons 2014-15 season, which means those of us who courageously rode through its ups and downs (and dissected its various "eras" in fan posts, articles and comments) have special insight that’s clearly lacking in those mere mortals.
Like many of you (and Jason Brunskowski, I see), I've been reading the ESPN Summer Forecast articles, searching for good news about our team.
For those who are curious, the "ESPN Forecast panel" is made up of more than 200 members "who collectively possess vast NBA experience, knowledge and perspective."
The Summer Forecast featuring projected Eastern Conference standings is the worst offender. It projects the Pistons to finish 11th in the East, behind such powerhouses as Boston and Charlotte, and a whole three games better than last year (when they started 5-23 and endured a 10-game losing streak after the Reggie Jackson trade). No idea why the Pistons are listed "behind" Charlotte, while sporting the same record.
- Cleveland (59-23)
- Chicago (50-32)
- Atlanta (50-32)
- Miami (47-35)
- Washington (46-36)
- Toronto (44-38)
- Milwaukee (44-38)
- Boston (40-42)
- Indiana (39-43)
- Charlotte (35-47)
- Detroit (35-47)
I’ve already written extensively about why I’m so optimistic about the Pistons, but I wanted to take a look at some of these other teams to find out why the "experts" project them to finish higher than the Pistons in the standings.
I will agree that the Cavs, Bulls and Hawks, aside from suffering a major injury (I’m looking at you, Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah), are very likely to be looking down on the Pistons in the standings. After that, I see a lot of question marks and uncertainty. So let’s take a look at the remaining teams that ESPN’s experts believe will finish ahead of Detroit.
At first glance, they do look solid (#namerecognition). They even have a decent looking second unit - again, at first glance. But how much of their success depends on the Fountain of Youth? A hell of a lot. Wade will miss some games. Bosh is hoping for a healthy comeback after the blood clot scare. Deng has more miles on him than a '92 Honda Civic. Josh McRoberts is a big man recovering from a knee injury. How much do Haslem, Anderson and Stoudemire have left in the tank?
I can see a best-case scenario for the Heat in which they stay healthy enough to win a playoff series or two, and I can also see many scenarios in which Wade and Bosh miss significant time and their older players regress. I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if they were fighting for that 6th-7th playoff spot.
Aside from John Wall, what’s all the excitement about?
Bradley Beal and Otto Porter played well in the playoffs, but they'll need to sustain that and do even more to replace Paul Pierce's contribution over a full season. Beal didn't look much better in his third season than he did in his second. Nene has played an average of roughly 55 games per season since joining the Wiz four years ago, he's 32 and on the decline for five years now. Gortat is solid, but he's no Penguin. Wall may be great, but his numbers last season very closely mirror Reggie Jackson’s numbers with the Pistons.
While Reggie still has to prove he can put up those kind of numbers for an entire season, this #5 spot is where I’d wager the Pistons will wind up at season’s end if he does.
I’ll admit that I have no love for the Raptors. I don’t like Kyle Lowry, I don’t like their grammatically-incorrect "We The North" slogan, and I don’t like the way they dropped like Peter McNeeley in the playoffs. Right off the bat, I see a weak-minded team with character issues. Carroll is good, but is also now highly overpaid. They basically swapped Amir for Biyombo (downgrade). Patterson is average.
Their bench looks decent, but their core is essentially the same one that went 24-24 in 2015 after a hot start during the first two months of the season.
Oh, and Swag made Lowry look like a punk with that last-second steal and spike.
I actually really like the Bucks’ young core, but they should have kept Brandon Knight. They began a nose dive after plugging MCW in as PG, and the Bucks finished the season 10-18 following that trade. Greg Monroe will provide easy buckets inside, but who the hell is going to shoot the ball? How many threes can Khris Middleton make?
Before the All-Star break (and trade), the Bucks shot .378 from 3PT as a team. After the break, they shot .333 as a team. Take out Ersan Ilyasova's 43% on 4.3 attempts per game, and it drops into Josh Smith territory.
MCW can’t shoot (14.3% 3PT). Giannis can’t shoot (15.9%). Parker can’t shoot (25%)... at least not yet. The only other guys who can hit a three will come off the bench (OJ Mayo and Greivis Vazquez), and they'll probably need to jack up plenty of threes due to the deficit they inherit from the starting unit.
As for the rest of the Bucks' bench, ESPN’s depth chart shows some guy named Chris Copeland as the backup SF, and someone named Johnny O’Bryant III as the backup PF. Those guys could get stopped by security trying to enter the arena.
Unless Jason Kidd has a magical offensive system up his sleeve that results in a layup line for his group of lengthy and athletic slashers, they’re going to have a hard time keeping up with better offensive teams.
The Bucks have a bright future, but I think they're going to stagnate a bit this year.
Don’t even get me started.
When I look at their depth chart, I see two very evenly-matched second units. The problem is that one of them has to start.
Who’s their best player supposed to be? Tyler Zeller is a 10-6 guy who played 21 mpg. Evan Turner had a 48.2 TS% and was horrible from behind the arc (27.7%).
Ask yourself, would you trade any single one of the Pistons' projected starters for any single one of the Celtics' projected starters at the same position?
Isaiah Thomas is a great player, but averaged 4.2 assists and is best used as a backup. Marcus Smart has already been the subject of trade rumors, and likely needs more time to cook. Avery Bradley shoots like KCP, but he’s three inches shorter and three years older (#peaked). Their starting PF is decent, but also a guy who rode the pine last year in Golden State.
They not only don’t have any current stars, they don’t appear to have any future stars. They have a solid core of guys who will play hard for a great coach. But until Ainge converts those building blocks into solid starters, they have a very low ceiling.
Myles Turner weighs 243 lbs. Stanley Johnson weighs 245 lbs. Turner is also 4" taller and will get knocked around in the paint. Does Jordan Hill scare you? How about Ian Mahinmi? You can see why they’re trying to play Paul George at PF.
They lost David West and Roy Hibbert, and in spite of Hibbert’s flaws, they’re going to miss him. West is also a good locker room guy, and Monta Ellis is not. At all.
George Hill and Ellis can light it up, but this team is going to get killed in the paint. If Paul George isn't his 2013-14 self (and maybe even if he is), this team is going nowhere. Small ball may be a hot new trend in the NBA, but even the Warriors relied heavily on Andrew Bogut until game 5 of the Finals.
They return only two starters, will be playing a drastically different style of basketball and their best player will be playing a new position most of the time.
Their shooting and offense are highly suspect. Kemba Walker shot 30% on threes last year. MKG didn’t even attempt a single one (I know he’s a good defender, but I just can’t comprehend an NBA starting SF who attempts fewer threes than the team mascot). They were the third worst offensive team in the league, and they lost their best interior defender in Biyombo.
They added Batum (good), Kaminsky (maybe good), Jeremy Lin (good backup) and Spencer Hawes (meh). So they’re a bit deeper in "meh." Other than a starting PG with 48.6% TS and 6.0 A/40 (which doesn’t inspire great confidence), what do they have on the Pistons?
I'd take Ilyasova over either Kaminsky or Cody Zeller - at least this season. Batum is a step above KCP, but how much and for how long? Al Jefferson will probably score on Dre again, but aside from that, I don't see many reasons to fear this team.
WHY THE PISTONS HAVE A HIGHER CEILING
Advanced stat-loving ESPN writer Bradford Doolittle projects the Pistons as one of four teams to finish "more than three wins above their summer forecast." So he thinks they'll be at least in the 39-40 win range.
"RPM likes Detroit better than the forecast, but not as much as my system. Defensive improvement is the real key, and Stan Van Gundy's track record points to that happening now that he's had a year to shape the roster to his liking."
Doolittle pens another article grouping East teams by roster construction. Under this model, "a player is assigned to a tier according to his projected individual winning percentage for next season -- the per-possession component of Wins Above Replacement (WARP). The tiers were determined by player scarcity, in which the handful of elite players rank at the top and are disproportionately valuable."
The driving factor behind this model is how many "Elite," "Superstar" and "Upper-Tier Starter" players each team features. The Pistons rate 4th, behind only Cleveland, Indiana and Toronto (which actually has the same overall "score" as the Pistons, but is ranked ahead of them), and two spots ahead of Miami. The Pistons fare well here mainly due to Drummond being projected as a Superstar - and one of only two Superstars in the entire Eastern Conference (Paul George being the other; LeBron is appropriately rated as the sole Elite player in the East).
"The Pistons have some holes, but in Andre Drummond they carry a superstar forecast. Ersan Ilyasova gives Detroit another solid starter, with Reggie Jackson perhaps developing into another. If Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and rookie Stanley Johnson take off, so will the Pistons."
So why are the very shaky-looking Pacers projected 2nd in the East under this model? Doolittle explains "(Paul) George projects as a superstar, and there are only three such players in the conference. Indiana has another upper-tier starter in George Hill. Beyond that, the Pacers' depth chart is entirely filled out by players who rate as second-unit performers." So it's Paul, Hill and the Island of Misfit Toys.
Under this model, only the Cavs are head and shoulders above Detroit. So what about Atlanta and Chicago? Well, the Hawks (ranked 5th) have only one Upper-Tier Starter to go along with five Starters and a few second-unit guys. I interpret this to mean they're deep and solid, but they'll have to continue to play extremely well as a unit in order to hang with the big boys.
Doolittle describes the Bulls (7th) as "a pretty old team that still is pinning a lot of hope on Derrick Rose returning to MVP form. Maybe Joakim Noah is healthier, maybe Pau Gasol continues to defy the aging process, maybe Jimmy Butler gets even better -- or maybe none of these things happen."
Ahh... so it's not only the Pistons' success that depends on so many "ifs." Good to know.
Aside from rare deviations like last year's Hawks and the 2004 Pistons, the NBA is a superstar league. Based on what we saw toward the end of last season, it appears the Pistons have 1-2 players who, though they certainly have a lot to prove, just might turn into superstars.
In fact, in yet another of ESPN's Summer Forecast pieces (that Mr. Brunskowski also referenced in his piece), Andre Drummond ranks third on the list of Most Likely First-Time All-Stars. And stat-happy Kevin Pelton ranks both Dre and Reggie among his own top 10 likely first-time all-stars.
Pelton on Drummond: "In the 11 games Monroe missed last March and April, Drummond averaged 16.9 points, 14.8 rebounds and 2.4 blocks, numbers that are sure to garner All-Star consideration."
Pelton on Jackson: "Jackson quietly averaged 17.6 points and 9.2 assists per game after being traded to the Pistons at the deadline. In the past decade, Deron Williams was the only player to average at least 17 points and nine assists and not make that season's All-Star team, so if Jackson can keep it up, he's got a real chance at making the roster."
So I pitched Pelton a question during his live chat...
Fair enough. I can understand that skepticism.
[EDIT] In response to a comment below, I looked up Reggie's numbers from that 11-game stretch without Monroe, and I just have to include them here. Some of you may have already seen them, but they're pretty jaw-dropping.
Uh, wow. If Reggie plays like that the entire season, John Wall might even shut up about his salary. [EDIT]
Then another reader tossed a Pistons question at Pelton...
"I don't know that the Pistons have a huge downside." Make sure you read that twice.
Here's why I agree with him on that point:
The Pistons were 24-14 last year when their starting lineup consisted of three shooters - even when one or more of those shooters were guys like Anthony Tolliver, Tayshaun Prince or Caron Butler. That record includes the 12-4 PSE run, the 5-6 stretch after Jennings' injury (including the game after the trade when Reggie didn't play) and the 7-4 run when Monroe was injured.
That's 38 games - nearly 1/2 of the season. Half of those wins (12) were against playoff teams. Half of those losses (7) were against playoff teams. I'm no statistician, but that seems to be a pretty healthy sample. Factor in that they had a depleted roster for 22 of those games, during which they were forced to start backups like Butler and Tolliver, and give regular minutes to third-stringers like Shawne Williams, John Lucas III and Spencer Dinwiddie.
All the Pistons have to do is surround Andre and Reggie with three guys who defenses must at least respect on the perimeter. Aside from Aron Baynes & Stanley Johnson, every single likely rotation player on the roster commanded that respect last year.
They were .500 without Josh Smith for 2/3 of the season. They were .632 with three shooters in the starting lineup for nearly 1/2 the season. And to those who'd say "But they had Greg Monroe, Brandon Jennings, DJ Augustin and Kyle Singler!"... they were even .636 without any of those guys for 11 games at the end of the season. You know, when Reggie & Dre played like All-Stars.
A .500 record translates to 41 wins (did that without a calculator). A .632 record translates to nearly 52 wins (needed the calculator for that one).
It's funny, because I've been saying the range for this team is about 41-50 wins, and that was before I did all this stupid math. Maybe I'm being too skeptical.
And the experts see this as a 35-win team.
Am I missing something?
While I've often been accused of peddling Kool-Aid, my optimism for this season is based not on speculation that key players will perform at far higher levels than ever before.
Instead, it's primarily based on what we've already seen. The formula that worked best last season is going to be used for this entire upcoming season... only the pieces in place are better, stronger and tougher.
WHY I MIGHT BE OVERESTIMATING THE PISTONS
I have to admit, if I weren't a Pistons fan, and if I didn't watch every single game last year, and if I didn't pick through last year's results with a fine toothed comb, I wouldn't be high on them right now. I get it. It's a 32-50 team that didn't add a big name in the offseason and lost a potential All-Star in Greg Monroe. It also looks like the Eastern Conference has improved this year, which means the Pistons will likely have fewer pushovers on the schedule.
If I weren't a Pistons fan, I'd point out the small sample size of Reggie's tenure here. I'd point out Dre's horrible FT percentage. I'd call Ilyasova injury-prone. I'd call Marcus Morris an average (at best) starter. I'd mention that KCP plays horribly on the road, that Brandon Jennings might never be his former self (same for Jodie Meeks), that Stanley Johnson is a rookie and might not move the needle, that Tolliver is a journeyman and that Baynes is vastly overpaid.
But I don’t think so, friends.
Here's my guess at how the Eastern Conference top 10 will shake out. Feel free to share yours in the comments.