So ESPN has already weighed in with its prediction that the Pistons will win 35 games and finish 11th in the Eastern Conference. This view is a safe projection, predicated on the fact that the team suffered through a disappointing 2014-15, lost a key player (Greg Monroe) in free agency, and has added many new faces to its roster. But a closer look at what happened last year, plus the new players Coach Stan Van Gundy has since added, reveals that there are legitimate reasons to be much more optimistic.
A retooled roster
When Joe Dumars signed Josh Smith to join Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe in a "Big Three" frontcourt, many observers questioned the wisdom of that move. Since some already doubted whether Drummond and Monroe could co-exist as starters, the Smith addition was especially counter-intuitive. It was also a major failure, as the Pistons went 34-76 during the "Josh Smith Era." During the first full season of 2013-14, the Pistons were one of the NBA’s worst teams at three-point shooting, hitting only .321 percent (29th).
Van Gundy endeavored to add shooting last summer, signing D.J. Augustin (career .371 percent from three), Caron Butler (.349), Cartier Martin (.372), and Jodie Meeks (.373). Alas, Martin and Meeks were injured when the season opened, and Augustin didn’t find his stroke until January. After a promising November, a hand injury hampered Brandon Jennings’ shot, too. The team’s miserable 5-23 start was "assisted" by a .330 three-point percentage.
A confluence of factors affected the subsequent Detroit turnaround: Meeks came back, Jennings’ hand healed, Smith was waived, and Augustin’s touch returned. Anthony Tolliver was acquired from Phoenix to further bolster the long-range shooting from the power forward position. The team won seven games in a row and went 12-4 until Jennings was lost for the season, posting a solid 16-10 record up till the All-Star Break.
At that point Van Gundy decided to break up even more of the roster he had inherited, trading Augustin and Kyle Singler for Reggie Jackson, and Luigi Datome and Jonas Jerebko for Tayshaun Prince. The immediate results were disappointing. After two wins boosted the record to 23-33, Detroit lost 10 games in a row, dooming any remaining playoff hopes. The Pistons’ three-point shooting average fell to 29 percent over the 12 post All-Star Break games.
When an injury subsequently sidelined Monroe as Memphis visited Motown in mid-March, Tolliver was inserted into the starting line-up. The home team won 105-95. After a loss in Philadelphia the next night, the Pistons rattled off four straight victories – three over playoff teams (Boston, Chicago and Toronto). Before Monroe returned as a starter the Pistons also downed Atlanta and Miami, going 7-4 as Tolliver helped stretch the floor.
The lessons of that late-season success were not lost on Van Gundy. In June he obtained Ersan Ilyasova, a power forward who has shot 37 percent from three for his career, anticipating that it was neither affordable nor the best fit to keep Monroe. Aron Baynes, a center with a solid mid-range touch, was signed to back-up Drummond. Marcus Morris (36 percent on threes) was acquired to fill the hole at small forward. And Steve Blake (career 39 percent three-point shooter) was obtained to spell Jackson (retained with a five-year/$80 million contract).
So as SBNation writer Satchel Price opined last month:
Now, Van Gundy has a roster that resembles his incredible Orlando Magic teams of the late-2000s. The Pistons have an elite big man (Drummond), a talented lead guard (Jackson) and an array of shooters around them.
In all likelihood Detroit will field a starting line-up that features three long-range gunners in Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Ilyasova and Morris. And when they go to the bench, Van Gundy can send in Meeks, Tolliver and rookie Stanley Johnson, who shot 37 percent from three at Arizona and topped that mark in the Orlando Summer League. If Jennings can return to form, he’ll add another threat from three to the arsenal.
While Jackson himself has not proven to be a consistent three-point threat, his role as a point guard who can run the pick and roll and get to the basket is another key factor. So says San Antonio’s Greg Popovich, who has employed a similar style of player in Tony Parker:
"Without penetration you don’t get those uncontested threes, so you have to have people who penetrate and create shots for other people. That’s how it happens. Without the penetration it would all be contested, percentages would go down and people wouldn’t be shooting very well."
Promising signs from last season
Because of last year’s roster chaos (12 players started at least one game), making sense of what happened and how it pertains to the impending season can be challenging. But any assessment of what holds promise for the future must begin with the "Post-Smith Era." Prior to him being waived, the Pistons offense was among the league’s worst, sporting the worst field goal percentage (.413). And the team leader in shots per game (14.0) was Smith, even though his percentage was a paltry .391. But just as telling is the fact that over the next 54 games most of the key players began to shoot better. In the "Post-Smith Era," Detroit shot 44 percent – a rate high enough to be 22nd in the NBA. And their three-point percentage of 35 percent would have been 14th.
While the Pistons went 27-27 after Smith left, the rest of the season still had its share of ups and downs. Yet a common thread is evident that explains the team’s degree of success for these remaining games. In contests in which Detroit fielded a line-up with two shooters, the record was 4-13. During those 17 games, Detroit shot 33 percent from three – barely better than the 33-percent mark when Smith was still on the team. They averaged 7.9 makes on 23.9 attempts – also akin to the 7.7 of 23.3 averages when they stumbled to 5-23.
When three shooters were employed from the opening tip, the Pistons made 36 percent of their three-pointers in those 37 contests. They averaged 26.6 attempts per game, and made 9.5. And their record was 23-14 (.622). If they had played that well all season long, they would have won 51 games and secured the third-seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Their points differential for these games was +3.3, which was just above 55-27 Memphis’ mark. Chicago (+3.0) and Dallas (+2.9) each won 50 games.
Can Detroit win 50 games next season?
Last year began with Van Gundy seeking to make the best possible use of the roster he had inherited from Joe Dumars. That effort was a dismal failure, as even the new shooters he had added in the summer of 2014 were unable to make a difference during the first third of the season. Then, in spite of reworking the team’s attack on the fly and remaking the roster after Jennings’ injury, Detroit played .500 ball for the rest of the year. The squad posted a +1.9 point differential during that span, which was above the season average of five playoff teams – Boston, Brooklyn, Milwaukee, New Orleans and Washington.
With a full training camp and preseason to fine-tune an offense built around the Drummond-Jackson pick-and-roll, plus a pantry restocked with more proven three-point marksmen, the Pistons do not have to settle for battling it out for the eighth seed in the postseason. If they can stay relatively healthy, and their young core continues to improve, a 50-win season may be possible.
Or as their rookie first-round pick has said:
"We’re trying to win the championship ... No one’s fighting for eighth place ... We’re trying to finish first."
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