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Detroit Pistons Season Preview: Young team ready to take the next step

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The Pistons have a young, talented returning core and spent the offseason bolstering the team’s bench

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Miami Heat Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The Detroit Pistons finally emerged from a Joe Dumars-induced NBA purgatory and found their way back into the playoffs last season. Now, under the leadership and management of Stan Van Gundy, the Pistons look to continue building an intriguing, young core that includes Andre Drummond, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Stanley Johnson, Tobias Harris and Reggie Jackson – all 26 or younger. The Pistons likely won’t be ready to challenge the Cleveland Cavaliers for Eastern Conference dominance, but no other team seems better poised to take advantage of the Post-LeBron Era.

Team Name: Detroit Pistons
Last Year’s Record: 44-38
Key Losses: Jodie Meeks, Anthony Tolliver, Steve Blake, Joel Anthony
Key Additions: Ish Smith, Jon Leur, Boban Marjanovic, Henry Ellenson

1. What Significant Moves were made during the off-season?

While no big names were added to the Pistons squad, the minor moves they made in bringing in Ish Smith and Jon Leuer could have a major impact. The Pistons had one of the worst benches in the NBA last season, playing a league-low in minutes and having the worst point differential of any team that made the playoffs except for the injury-plagued Memphis Grizzlies.

Smith is a jitterbug point guard who excels in the pick and roll and is great as a drive and kick facilitator. Leuer, meanwhile, is a big man with a perimeter shot (aka the Stan Van Gundy Special) who has the added advantage of being able to play small-ball center and handle perimeter-oriented big men when star Andre Drummond is chased off the floor.

Van Gundy bet big dollars that these two players, who both have a scant track record prior to last season, will fortify the bench, add versatility and play major roles in the rotation. Unfortunately, both have major red flags. Smith is one of the worst shooters in the NBA (career 44.3 true shooting percentage) and is a poor defender. Leuer, meanwhile, is coming off a career year by just about every metric. Is he someone who finally blossomed once he finally got a chance or did he just put up good stats on a bad team?

2. What are the team's biggest strengths?

Detroit’s biggest strength is controlling the boards; that sort of goes hand-in-hand with having the world’s best rebounder in Drummond. Their other strength is the man who runs the show, Notorious SVG himself. He’s installed a system and attention to detail that has allowed a team whose only real plus defender was Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to jump from 25th the year before he took over to 12th least season in defensive efficiency. Van Gundy finds success in ensuring his team does three important things – limits the opponents 3-point attempts, eliminates transition opportunities and, as previously mentioned, rebounds the ball.

3. What are the team's biggest weaknesses?

Perhaps ironically for a Van Gundy team, this team seriously struggles at shooting. Detroit hasn’t been able to surround Drummond with the kinds of dead-eye shooters SVG had in Orlando around Dwight Howard. KCP shot five 3s per game last season and hit below 31 percent. In fact, Detroit’s five most prolific returning perimeter shooters combined to connect on just 33.6 percent of 3-point attempts. They also feature no efficient scorers -- at least as long as Van Gundy indulges/develops Drummond’s post-game.

Other shooting efficiency woes include, stop me if you’ve heard this one before, free throws. Drummond is coming off perhaps the worst free-throw shooting season in NBA history (35.5 percent on 586 attempts).

4. What are the goals for this team?

The Pistons are attempting to climb the NBA relevance ladder and eventually find themselves in contention for an NBA title. They are still a few years away from that sort of contention so for now they hope to turn a No. 8 seed and a first-round sweep at the hands of the champion Cavs into a 4-5-6 seed and perhaps getting past the first round of the playoffs. Considering the makeup of the team, it likely means improving into a top-10 defense and hoping for marked improvement from 3-point-range

5. What can the Pistons get from Stanley Johnson this year?

Johnson played nearly 1,700 minutes last season despite the kind of struggles on offense one can expect from a 19-year-old rookie. Johnson was a quality NBA defender from the opening tip last season, and has the kind offensive instincts where you were happy with what he was trying to accomplish even when he couldn’t pull it off. That being said, the Pistons need a big step forward from Johnson in year two. With Ish Smith lacking any sort of jump shot, Detroit can’t afford to have two complete non-shooters running the reserve unit. Johnson needs to improve on his 30 percent 3-point shooting and cut down significantly on turnovers.

6. Will Andre Drummond finish games?

Let’s make one thing extremely clear – nothing about the rule changes to lessen hacking will help Andre Drummond finish games. The rule changes govern off-the-ball fouls, which might mean less fouling Drummond 50 feet away from the ball, but Van Gundy won’t let Drummond finish games if he still can’t hit his free throws. That is because Drummond could still be intentionally fouled if he sets a screen, goes for a rebound or does any of a number of things that makes him a part of the play.

For Drummond to finish games, he needs to increase his free-throw success from the mid-30s to high 40s. Approaching the 50 percent threshold that would eliminate hacking would practically vault him into superstar status (defensive improvement pending). The team and Drummond both know that the biggest impediment to Drummond reaching his ceiling are his free throws. Reports from this offseason indicate the team is focusing on the mental aspect of Drummond’s free-throw woes, with the team investing in virtual reality for self-actualization and to reinforce good mechanics and habits.

That being said, if Drummond isn’t finishing games then who will be? Last year it was Aron Baynes, and you’re mileage may vary on his effectiveness. He’s not a great defender, but he’s a big body who tries to make the right play. If it’s not Baynes it might be Leuer who can not only shoot but is a quality rebounder. If he proves he can hold his own as a small-ball center he might be Van Gundy’s go-to crunch time big man. And then, of course, there is Boban Marjanovic. He played 500 of the most effective minutes in NBA history last season, but he was deployed selectively and in garbage time. Can he handle the defensive duties against NBA starters in close games? I certainly hope so because life is always better with more Boban.