Preview: Detroit Pistons

2017-18 Detroit Pistons


Projected Record: 39-43 (8th in East)

Over/Under: 38.5

2016: 37-45 (10th in East)


Key Additions:

  • G Avery Bradley
  • G/F Luke Kennard
  • G Langston Galloway
  • F Anthony Tolliver

Key Subtractions:

  • G Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
  • F Marcus Morris
  • C Aron Baynes

Summary

Strengths:

  • Balanced offense
  • Rebounding

Weaknesses:

  • No true #1 option
  • Limited overall upside
  • Awkward roster construction

I honestly never know exactly what to say about the Stan Van Gundy-led Pistons. They’ve had an extremely weird several years, built around players who either haven’t developed how I’d hoped (Andre Drummond) or who I just didn’t like to begin with (Reggie Jackson). The one constant is that they always seem to underachieve, and nobody really seems to have any irrational expectations for what their ceiling might be.

The biggest move of their offseason, such as it was, was to let Kentavious Caldwell-Pope walk in free agency and bring in Avery Bradley from Boston to replace him. In the context of just this season, it’s a great deal – Bradley is a better player than Caldwell-Pope on both ends of the court, and they have enough forward depth that losing Marcus Morris in the exchange doesn’t hurt all that badly. Going forward, though, it’s a head-scratcher: they let Caldwell-Pope walk because they didn’t want to pay him the $18 million he got from Los Angeles, but they replaced him with a guard who is three years older and due to hit free agency and get even more next year. Do they intend to lock up Bradley? If they do, is he really that much better than Caldwell-Pope? I love Bradley to death, and I’m not sure.

Offensively, this team should be pretty good, if unspectacular. Reggie Jackson will have the ball in his hands most of the time, for better or worse, and Avery Bradley’s off-ball prowess seems like a decent fit next to him in the backcourt. Andre Drummond will continue to provide loads of second-chance opportunities, if nothing else. Though he’s positionally awkward, Tobias Harris has been a nice player for them offensively over the past season and a half. Luke Kennard and Langston Galloway will be quality three-point threats for them off the bench. It’s an offense full of decent-to-great B-options, essentially.

It gets murkier when you try to predict how this team might look defensively. Andre Drummond just hasn’t developed into the DeAndre Jordan-type defensive anchor the Pistons have hoped he could be (I have more thoughts on this in a moment), and Bradley, while great, is not the kind of guy who makes his teammates better on that end of the floor – his strengths have always been in one-on-one matchups, rather than defending in a team context. It worked with the Celtics, who had guys like Jae Crowder and Marcus Smart flying around with 115% effort, but the Pistons don’t have anybody like that. Stanley Johnson could get there, but he’s been a cataclysm on offense to this point, and I’m not sure you can get away with playing him too many minutes while he’s shooting 35% from the field.

One thing I desperately want to see is Boban Marjanovic unchained. Marjanovic left the Spurs at the urging of Gregg Popovich to take a $21 million deal the Spurs weren’t going to match, but then, absurdly, played even less with Detroit than he did in San Antonio. He’s a freakishly huge 7’3″ center with an advanced scoring touch in the paint who can hit his free throws, control the glass, and might even contribute defensively. He averaged 23 points and 16 rebounds per 36 minutes last year! Why is he getting paid if he’s not even in this team’s rotation? Would it kill them to give him some run?


Most Valuable Player: Avery Bradley, Reggie Jackson

The Bradley-Jackson backcourt tandem actually intrigues me a little bit (just a little) because it feels as though the two are complementary to one another. Jackson largely operates with the ball in his hands, while Bradley is a weak ballhandler, preferring to make most of his offensive action through off-ball cuts and spot-up shooting. They should both be able to get their shots without really disrupting each other.

Jackson isn’t what I’d call a great point guard; he’s sort of just a guy, a borderline starter. He doesn’t have a great stroke from deep, he’s a bit of an inconsistent defender, and he’s a merely average passer. He’s a discount Eric Bledsoe. I feel he provides at least an adequate option for this Detroit roster though, and if he stays healthy, his fit in this starting lineup should be decent enough.

X Factor: Andre Drummond, Stanley Johnson

Drummond still feels like he has some mythical upside he hasn’t yet reached, and at 24 years old now, it might just be that he isn’t going to get there. I feel like the Pistons have erred in how they’ve developed Drummond in his five NBA seasons thus far; his offensive usage rate ticked up from the 15-17% range in his first two seasons to the 22-24% range in his latest three, and he’s subsequently declined in efficiency over that span of time an equally noticeable amount. It feels like the Pistons have focused on getting Drummond more involved on the offensive end to the extent that his defensive development has become secondary, perhaps as a result of the hype that generated from his positive first two seasons.

Consider the Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan, who has never taken as many shots in a season as Drummond has each of the past three years. The Clippers brought Jordan along extremely slowly – he didn’t break 30 minutes per game in a season until 2013, his sixth season – where Drummond was playing at least that many minutes as just a sophomore. Jordan has always played with dramatically better scoring options than himself, true, but it feels as though the diminished pressure on him to become a star allowed him to focus on skills that allowed him to become a productive specialist first. There’s no physical reason why Drummond couldn’t provide similar value to what Jordan has; I suspect it’s heavily fallen on how they’ve each been used. I don’t know what undoes the damage, but I feel fairly confident in why Drummond is the player he is right now.

Last year’s Celtics were able to exist with Marcus Smart on the floor because they could throw out a coherent offensive around him, especially with Isaiah Thomas commanding double- and sometimes triple-teams from opposing defenses. The Pistons have no such offensive threat, which is why I’m concerned that Stanley Johnson might not be a particularly usable basketball player again this season.

Johnson just hasn’t developed enough beyond a strictly defensive role to justify more than a few minutes per game. He doesn’t rebound particularly well, which limits his positional versatility, and he doesn’t have Marcus Smart’s point guard skills, either. Smart is an atrocious offensive player who can get by on the fact that he’s a point forward in a 6’4″ body, but Johnson thus far has played like an undersized shooting guard in 6’7″ body, and that’s about as far to the opposite as you can get. I want to see Johnson become a productive pro, but it takes a special set of circumstances for somebody as bad offensively as he has been to contribute, and he doesn’t yet meet the criteria as I see them.


Conclusion

Detroit is honestly just a pretty unexciting team, overall, with no real stars and a roster full of third- or fourth-best guys on a normal playoff contender. Stan Van Gundy is still a great coach, and I’m taking the Pistons in the 8th spot in the Eastern Conference almost out of attrition; I just don’t think the 76ers will be healthy or deep enough to jump them. It feels like their destiny lies as an 8-seed that will get handled by LeBron James in the first round of the playoffs once again.

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