Cleat Geeks

Goin’ to Work: 2016-17 Pistons Preview

It’s time to go to work as another Detroit Pistons season approaches

The Pistons made their return to the NBA’s main stage last season, posting a 44-38 record, earning their first playoff appearance since 2009, landing the eighth seed. Ultimately, they bowed out in the first round to the eventual champion Cleveland Cavaliers in four games.

Through all their struggles and despite an early postseason exit, we were shown just how good this team was in the 2015-16 season. And this year we’re looking at a team that will be even better.

Let’s dive right in.

Transactions

IN: F Henry Ellenson, G Michael Gbinije (both via draft), PG Ish Smith, PF Jon Leuer, C Boban Marjanovic (free agency)

OUT: F Anthony Tolliver (free agency), C Joel Anthony (waived), SG Jodie Meeks, PG Spencer Dinwiddie (both via trade), F Cameron Baristow (acquired via trade w/Chicago, waived on July 10th)

CAMP BODIES/HOPEFULS: F Nikola Jovanovic, G Ray McCallum, G Trey Freeman, G Lorenzo Brown

Starting Five

As I’ve mentioned in a previous piece, the Pistons starting five is one of the youngest units in the league, with an average age of 24.6, with Marcus Morris topping out the group at age 27. In addition to being young there is talent galore. It is a lineup that contains at least one and what could be as many as three all stars: Andre Drummond, Tobias Harris, and Reggie Jackson.andredrummond

Drummond is arguably, with DeMarcus Cousins, the best center in the NBA. Dre led the league in rebounding (14.8 per contest) and averaged a double-double per night, despite dismal free throw shooting which he is reportedly taking more steps to improve. Should this be true, this will allow Stan Van Gundy to leave him on the court during close games, adding yet another weapon. And, on top of all of that, he’s athletic for his size.

Harris, effective in 27 games after being traded from Orlando last season, now has a full 82-game season in a system where he now feels more at home, which should only serve to increase his productivity. He gelled with Reggie, Dre, and company and can play either the small or power forward positions. His shot is reliable and he can threaten you from beyond the arc and almost anywhere else on the floor. And he only cost an expiring contract and a cheap stretch four.

Reggie has shown that he wants to be and will be the new franchise point guard, like Isiah Thomas and Chauncey Billups before him. Prior to last season SVG said he could see Jackson emerging as the new leader of the team. He has all-star potential, averaging 18.8 points to go with 6.2 assists per game in his first full season in the Motor City. However, this potential may be stifled for this season, as he is set to miss anywhere between 6-8 weeks due to recurring knee tendinitis. (For your silver lining: surgery will most likely not be needed, per SVG.)

Morris, acquired in a trade that is quite possibly Van Gundy’s second-best move (number one being the dumping of Josh Smith, because come on, how can that NOT be the best?) during his young tenure as Detroit’s VP of basketball operations, fit in immediately, bringing a grit that had long been absent from the lineup (think Corliss Williamson), to go with reliable scoring, rebounding, and defense when needed; he even earned All-Defensive team considerations for his tough play.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, while not emerging into the 3-point threat and scorer that he was touted to be coming out of the University of Georgia as quickly as fans would want, has improved. Last season he established career highs in field goal percentage and points per as well as free throw percentage, though his outside shot was less than reliable at just under 31%. But most of all he has become a defensive asset, earning All-Defensive team considerations after last season.

And, best of all, four of the starting five (sans KCP, who is in ongoing contract extension talks) are under club control until at least 2018, which will give this core more time to develop and to gel, setting the stage for the time when all five concurrently hit their prime.

I’ll just let you imagine that as we move onto our next point of discussion.

The Bench

Last season the Pistons’ bench ranked 7th in the league in scoring, with 37 per game, averaging 18 minutes a contest. Many of those pieces are returning, and those who are newcomers will serve as upgrades to those who have been lost.

aronbaynesAron Baynes headlines the group. Proving to be a more than reliable backup to Dre, Baynes averaged about 15 minutes per while putting up 6.2 points and 4.7 rebounds each night. His performance in Rio with the Australian national team (9.6 ppg, 5.8 rpg) shows further improvement to his game and boosts confidence in his abilities off the bench behind Drummond.

Only three other bench pieces return from last season: G Reggie Bullock and Fs Darrun Hilliard and Stanley Johnson.

Bullock, acquired in the Morris deal with Phoenix, was more valuable than his statistics show. Earning a spot on the roster out of the preseason, he didn’t get a chance to shine until an injury to Stanley Johnson allowed him to see more time on the court. He proved to be a key factor in a match-up against the 76ers, putting up 16 points in 26 minutes. He’ll be a role player that will see his time on the court when he’s needed.

Hilliard, a 23-year old sophomore, is coming off of limited playing time in his rookie year and has dealt with back issues during the off-season. He provides depth at the small forward position, a position that has gone from barren to incredibly deep for this club. In front of him, besides Morris, is fellow sophomore Stanley Johnson.

Though Stanimal didn’t have the best shooting percentage during his rookie campaign, the 20-year old showed promise, averaging 8.1 points, as well as making it clear that he wasn’t afraid of LeBron James. As mentioned earlier, he lost seven games due to a shoulder issue, one that didn’t return after that. He should see more time on the floor and continued development under Stan Van Gundy.

And now, the upgrades

Ish Smith, at 28, is a breath of fresh air from the aging Steve Blake. Though not the greatest outside shooter percentage-wise, Smith managed 12.6 ppg in 77 games last year, including 14.7 in 50 starts for a less-than-great Sixers squad, all while shooting over 41% total from the floor. He also averaged 7 assists per, showing that he will have vision on the floor behind Reggie and as he may be thrust into a starting role in his absence to start off the season.jonleuer

Jon Leuer, or the poor man’s Ryan Anderson (whichever you prefer), will serve the purpose that Anderson served on Van Gundy’s squads in Orlando: a stretch four that can serve as a rebounding body while providing a reliable outside shot. Leuer has the height and numbers to provide the rebounding body (6’10”, 5.7 rebounds per game in 18.7 minutes off the bench for Phoenix) as well as reliable shooting from the floor with a fairly smooth outside stroke (48% FG, 38% from beyond the arc).

But the move that I’m most excited about, and I don’t know why, was the signing of Spurs center Boban Marjanovic. Given a three-year deal worth $29 million, it may seem like a lot of money to shell out on a guy who’s only played 54 games in the NBA, averaging only 9 minutes per. But let’s look deeper and see just why it’s worth it.

Maybe it’s because I’ve always wanted the Pistons to have a freakishly tall guy to come off the bench, but I really like this move. A lot. It’s pure genius on SVG’s part because it fills a likely need that will arise after this season.

In addition to gaining a 7’3″ giant with massive hands, a soft touch from the field and charity stripe, with plenty of athleticism to boot, it’s likely that the Pistons are looking at their future backup center. With Aron Baynes showing out for Australia at the Olympics, as well as proving to be a very reliable backup, he is also faced with a player option on his contract following this season, meaning it’s up to him whether he stays with the Pistons or tests the market. He has the skillset to start elsewhere, so it’s very likely that he will forego this option and test the open market.

Enter Boban. Having already seen SVG’s system for a season, he will be able to step into an expanded role without any learning curve and will be able to immediately fit in. In fact, if there is any indication that Baynes will opt out following the season, there’s the possibility that they can flip Baynes for some solid return rather than letting him walk for free in the offseason putting Boban into the backup role as early as this season.

With these upgrades, plus the few returning pieces from last season, we are looking at the most complete Pistons squad that we have seen in quite a while.

Schedule

printable-detroit-pistons-scheduleThe Pistons will face every team in the Eastern Conference four times, each Western Conference team twice. The season will tip-off in Toronto against the Raptors on October 26th, with the home opener on October 28th against the Orlando Magic. The team will head out west in early November and again in early to mid-January.

Games will be telecasted on Fox Sports Detroit of Fox Sports Detroit Plus, with George Blaha and Greg Kelser returning to call the action. Every game will also be broadcasted on 105.1 The Bounce, with Mark Champion behind the mic. At this point in time we can expect six games to be televised nationally, up from one primetime tangle with the Knicks last season. There will be 17 sets of back-to-back games, including a stretch of four games in five nights.

Division play will be the first area to watch this season While the Bucks will look to improve after a disappointing 2015-16 season and the Bulls look to become Jimmy Butler’s team and to get work done with their new additions, the Pacers and Cavaliers will once again be the Pistons’ biggest competition in the Central Division. And these games are key, as better play against the Pacers would have resulted in a higher seeding for them in last season’s playoffs.

Competitions against the Bulls are always hard-fought (just look at last year’s triple-OT thriller) and the Cavs are, well, the Cavs. Besides division play, keep an eye on match-ups between the resurgent Boston Celtics and the Toronto Raptors, as the North have given the Pistons fits over the past few seasons.

One place of interest in the schedule falls around Christmastime. While the Pistons will not have a Christmas Day game, they will have two high-profile match-ups immediately before and after the holiday, facing the Durant/Curry/Thompson attack of the Golden State Warriors in their only trip to the Palace this season on December 23rd, followed by a division clash with the Cavs on the 26th.

Conclusion

After going 44-38 last season and seeing the improvements that the club has made this off-season, as well as factoring in the returning young core I think that the expectation of between 47 and 50 wins with a playoff seed anywhere between 3 and 6 isn’t an unrealistic expectation. However, this is contingent on the return of Reggie Jackson into the starting five, how effective he will be immediately following his return, and any other injuries that may pop up. But you can definitely expect this team to return to the playoffs this year even if these factors come knocking.

There’s reason to get excited. Very excited, in fact. Because we are seeing the early stages of a young, talented team that could and very likely will challenge Toronto for the throne in the east following the cessation of the reign of King James.

So buckle up, Pistons fans, and enjoy the ride.

Comments? Projections of your own? Post them below!

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