Story by Nick Howe, The Saint Reporter
Photo Courtesy of Keith Allison
As the Detroit Pistons begin their season this week, let’s first look at what we can expect for the upcoming season. Stan Van Gundy is coming off his first season as coach and his second summer as an executive. Today, only three players remain on the Pistons roster since SVG took over as Head Coach and President of Basketball Operations in May 2014. Clearly, SVG knew this team needed a major overhaul, and realized the likelihood of struggling last year. After beginning the season 5-23, the Pistons waived Josh Smith to unclog the frontcourt. Ensuingly, the team won seven games in a row, and 12 of 15. During which time, point guard Brandon Jennings was playing the best basketball of his career, averaging 20 points and 7 assists per game over the 15 game span. However, in late January, the Pistons’ season took a turn after the red-hot Jennings went down with a torn achilles.
Stan Van Gundy addressed his point guard situation a few weeks later, acquiring Oklahoma City point guard Reggie Jackson. Jackson, the talented back up to star Russell Westbrook, desired an opportunity to be “the guy” and has got his wish in Detroit. In the 27 games with Detroit after the trade, Jackson averaged 17 ppg and 9 apg, enough to earn him a massive deal, 5 years/80 million, with Detroit this summer.
It is now up to Jackson to prove his worth. Along with offseason acquisitions of versatile forward Marcus Morris, stretch-four Ersan Illyasova, banger Aron Baynes and stud rookie Stanley Johnson, Van Gundy is finally dealing with a roster of players he envisioned 18 months ago.
After scoring a large contract last July, all eyes will be on Reggie Jackson. The Jackson + Andre Drummond pick & roll will be a focal point in the Pistons offense. Jackson has been criticized for his poor assists to turnover ratio, but look for this to improve after working many of the kinks (from learning a new system)out last season and having a full training camp with the team under his belt. Teams will look to go under screens for Jackson on defense, so how well Jackson shoots the ball this season will be a huge factor in the team’s success.
Finally, Stan Van Gundy can relive his Orlando Magic team’s offensive schemes that led them to the NBA Finals in 2009. The focal points to those teams in Orlando were pace-and-space, three point shooting, and Dwight Howard. With Greg Monroe out of the picture (and out of the paint), Andre Drummond can fully embrace the Dwight Howard role as the dominant man in the middle, both anchoring the defensive schemes and flourishing in a 4-out, 1-in offense with efficient three point shooting around him. Along with Jackson, much of the fate for Detroit weighs heavily on Andre’s ability to have a Howard-esque season. Look for both players to have a good shot of making the All Star Team if the team owns a respectable record by the new year.
Since day 1, Stanley Johnson has been lights out since putting on a Pistons uniform, showing the poise and decision making abilities of a veteran. Johnson is a tank of a human being at 6’7”, 240 lbs. Early comparisons are most commonly to (a younger) Ron Artest and Jimmy Butler, both incredible two way players. Keith Langlois, the Pistons official beat writer, has swooned over Johnson, describing a unique, head-turning aura in the rookie. Which first year guys have exemplified the star-level swagger in a Pistons uniform before? Langlois pointed out the rare air, noting that he’s only seen this twice before: Isiah Thomas and Grant Hill, both first ballot hall of famers. Marcus Morris likely receives the nod for the starting job when the season starts, but look for Stanley to ultimately overtake the position at some point this year.
As noted in the recap of last season, Brandon Jennings was balling last season. Sure, he has always been a streaky player, but he hit his stride under Van Gundy, as most point guards have tended to. The biggest factors that keep Jennings away from ever reaching this type of productivity again (both huge question marks) are: how well he can recover from a torn achilles, a devastating injury shortening the careers of many players and most always takes away that essential first step and whether Jennings can embrace his new role coming off the bench and in lineups that include Jackson. Jennings fits the role of the high-volume shooter, mediocre defender that the sixth man can embrace (a la Jason Terry, Jamal Crawford, etc.)
As it stands today, Detroit is on the bubble for making the playoffs. The Pistons play in the most competitive division in the Eastern Conference, the Central Division (with the Cavaliers, Bulls, Bucks and Pacers.) All four of these teams are expected to make the playoffs. After splitting with Josh Smith, the Pistons went 27-27, in spite of switching up several important rotation players.
I speculate this season will not be as bumpy now that the roster is closer to SVG’s ideal model.
Not to mention, Stan Van Gundy is one of the best coaches in the league. In his second years with Miami and Orlando, Stan improved the team’s record from their previous season by 17 wins and 7 wins respectively. Look for Detroit to improve their record in a similar fashion, maybe somewhere in between those numbers. My projected record is 42-40 with the Pistons making the playoffs.