2018 Preview — Detroit Pistons

2018-19 Detroit Pistons


Projected Record: 40-42 (8th in East)

Over/Under: 37.5

2016: 39-43 (9th in East)


Key Additions:

  • Khyri Thomas (Pick #38)
  • Bruce Brown (Pick #42)
  • Zaza Pachulia (Free Agent)
  • Jose Calderon (Free Agent)
  • Glenn Robinson III (Free Agent)

Key Subtractions:

  • Anthony Tolliver
  • Dwight Buycks
  • Eric Moreland

Summary

Strengths:

  • Dwane Casey is a great coaching fit
  • Offense could surprise
  • Few can match star power in frontcourt

Weaknesses:

  • Can the Griffin-Drummond combo have success?
  • Will Jackson be both healthy and productive?
  • Defense lacks impact players

Nothing will loom larger over the 2018-19 Detroit Pistons than the trade that brought Blake Griffin to the Motor City. The blockbuster trade was a bold decision, to say the least; the Pistons shipped out Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley and Boban Marjanovic along with a first- and second-round pick for the right to pay the injury-prone Griffin through his age-32 season.

I can understand the intent behind the deal, however. Harris is a nice player, but an upcoming free agent, Bradley is nothing special, and Marjanovic is fun but doesn’t really move the needle. For a franchise that rarely nabs notable free agents, it’s a reasonable play to bring in star-level talent that they might not be able to find elsewhere.

On paper, Griffin and Andre Drummond form one of the most dynamic frontcourts in basketball. Both are athletic finishers and high-level passers who can set each other up nicely, and few teams in the modern, wing-heavy NBA can handle their physicality in the paint. If rumors of Drummond’s burgeoning three-point shot are true, both will be able to stretch the floor as well. That’s at least interesting!

You don’t have to squint too hard to start to see a functional offense here. Luke Kennard and Reggie Bullock are elite snipers from behind the arc, and newcomers Jose Calderon, Langston Galloway, Glenn Robinson III and Khyri Thomas have potential from there as well. Reggie Jackson should be healthier and brings some much-needed shot creation. All of this revolves around Griffin and Drummond — their ability to dominate the paint, create second chance opportunities, and facilitate the offense from the elbows. This could really work!

Then there’s the new sheriff in town, former Raptors coach Dwane Casey. For all his faults, Casey was very much influential in the Raptors’ development into a perennial Eastern Conference contender. He cultivates young talent well — especially in the frontcourt, which is this team’s strongest asset. Casey will be a much-needed change of pace from Stan Van Gundy, and as a whole, this team should be playoff-bound, somewhere in the back-end of the Eastern Conference’s top-eight.

Still, this is all an immense risk. Griffin is making a lot of money, and he hasn’t managed more than 67 games in a season since 2013. Drummond has improved in some dramatic ways, but he’s still a weak defender and this talk of three-point shooting could end up being a needless distraction from developing his one-dimensional game in the paint. Meanwhile, Harris was a borderline All-Star at a position you can essentially never have enough of. It feels like the kind of move that get people fired, and tie up a franchise for half a decade.


Most Valuable Player: Blake Griffin

It’s a little strange to consider what I would have been writing about Blake Griffin in this space just five years ago. Did you know he hasn’t made a single All-Star team since the 2014-15 season? I can’t think of a fact that better encapsulates how injuries have started to slowly cripple Griffin’s once-remarkable career than that.

Griffin is Detroit’s MVP basically by necessity right now. He’s their most dynamic player, their most prolific scorer and the heftiest drain on their cap sheet. What they can expect from him, though, seems… well, uncertain. He’s managed more than 60 games only twice in the past four seasons.

You can see the effect Griffin’s injuries have had on his once-fabled dominance in the paint. Last season, he attempted 282 shots at the rim and converted on 68% of them. In 2012, it was 77% of 431 attempts. On the glass, he tallied a career-low 7.4 rebounds per game, including only 1.4 on the offensive end. In 2013, it was 9.5 and 2.4. Yes, Griffin is shooting much more from distance now — he took a whopping 5.6 three-pointers per game last year — but that feels almost symbiotic with the problem: he’s chucking jumpers far more often partially because he’s seemingly lost too many steps.

Four years remain on the $173 million mega-deal the Clippers signed him to just last offseason. He’s under contract through his age-32 season. Will Dwayne Casey be able to pull things together with this version of Griffin as his best player? The Pistons will have a lot of regrets if he can’t.

X Factor: Andre Drummond

In the first five seasons of his NBA career, Andre Drummond surpassed 40% from the free throw line exactly once. Last season, he shot 60%.

In the first five seasons of his NBA career, Andre Drummond never posted better than a 6% assist rate. Last season, his assist rate was 14%.

It’s difficult to overstate: Andre Drummond made some of the most strikingly dramatic improvements we’ve ever seen. He was the absolute worst free throw shooter in the history of the NBA! He deserves a ton of recognition for what he’s accomplished.

But now, it’s time to ask: can he improve in a way that brings the Pistons to the playoffs? Can he learn to defend at least passably well? He’s still below-average in the paint and at protecting the rim, and he’s food in pick-and-roll situations. Can he improve his efficiency in the paint? He’s a great finisher, but settles for inefficient layups and hook shots far too often. He’s talked a big game about shooting three-pointers this season, but is that really the most pressing concern for him right now?

Drummond has a ton of talent, and he’s still somehow only 25 years old. Last season proved he’s capable of reinvention; now, it’s time to break through.

Don’t Forget About: Reggie Bullock

Reggie Bullock was second in the NBA in three-point percentage last season. That’s right — not Steph Curry, not Klay Thompson, not Kyle Korver… Reggie Bullock.

You could make a VERY strong case that Bullock should have been a finalist for Most Improved Player last season. Two seasons ago, he was an afterthough bench chuck playing for his fourth franchise as many seasons, and last year he started over half of the Pistons’ games and posted the best offensive rating on the team at 106.9 (tied with the departed Tobias Harris). His true shooting percentage was an impressive 61.5%.

Detroit isn’t winning any games by relying on their defense,  and Bullock and wing-mate Luke Kennard will immensely important to keeping their offense balanced. The duo should feast on the perimeter, in large part due to the unique passing ability of Detroit’s star bigs; lineups featuring Bullock, Kennard and Griffin posted net rating of +7.9, while the pair with Drummond had a ridiculous +15.5.

Finishing among the league’s best three-point shooters was no fluke on Reggie Bullock’s part. This season, he’s aiming to prove it.


Second Opinion

Thom Powell (@thom_not_thom)

Detroit’s return to the postseason in 2016 felt like the start of something new. Stan Van Gundy had broken through the nearly decade-long malaise that followed the Billups-Iverson trade and the Pistons stood on the precipice of their first 50-win season since 2008. Instead, Reggie Jackson got hurt two years in a row, the front office let Kentavious Caldwell-Pope walk, and the Pistons spun their wheels with 38 and 39-win seasons. The Blake Griffin trade was a homerun swing that didn’t quite pay off (though it did mercifully put an end to the Avery Bradley’s tenure in the Motor City) and instead became the final nail in the coffin for the SVG era.

Despite the disappointment of the last two years, there’s reasons for optimism. Division games will be a whole lot easier now that LeBron James has moved to the west coast. Andre Drummond looks to build on a frankly miraculous season that saw him completely fix his historically bad free throw shot and become one of the better passing centers in the NBA. Dwane Casey is aboard as head coach and is as steady as they come (in the regular season, at least). Casey will have a bit more time than his predecessor to figure out how his personnel fits around Griffin’s dynamic skillset and has a better break-in-case-of-emergency point guard (Jose Calderon) than last year’s model (Dwight Buycks, trying his best). Casey’s greatest strength as a coach is player development, something Detroit desperately needs with former top-10 pick Stanley Johnson stagnating in year three and Luke Kennard’s promising rookie season obscured by him not being Donovan Mitchell. If Detroit wants to take the next step, they need their young guys to move forward too.

The Pistons’ offseason additions were relatively minor but should help. Michigan Man Glenn Robinson III is a rotation wing with decent 3-and-D potential, Khyri Thomas was a steal in the second round, and Zaza Pachulia replaces training camp overachiever Eric Moreland for… some reason. Pachulia and Calderon are solid veteran presences who can still contribute when called upon. Jon Leuer is healthy again, for whatever that’s worth, and Henry Ellenson is… bad. Very, very bad.

It’s hard to believe that the Dumars boom period of the 2000’s lasted about half as long as the soul-crushing doldrums that followed it, but this is the year the Pistons finally break out. The East is wide open, a coach with a recent winning pedigree is at the helm, and Detroit stands poised to finally become more than the sum of their parts. Griffin and Drummond will both be all-stars, Reggie Jackson will return to his 2016 form, and Luke Kennard will benefit from the year-two shooting guard bump. Everything’s coming up Pistons!

Predicted Record: 40-42.


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