What to Make of the Detroit Pistons
The Detroit Pistons had high hopes last year to christen their brand-new arena with a playoff berth. Despite sporting the league’s tenth best defensive rating and the midseason acquisition of star forward Blake Griffin, Detroit still missed the playoffs at 39-43, finishing ninth in the East. The Pistons failed to capitalize on the momentum of their 2016-2017 playoff run, so they fired head coach/GM Stan Van Gundy and brought in Toronto’s Dwane Casey, the reigning Coach of the Year, to replace him. The Pistons retained most of their underwhelming core this offseason. They only made ancillary changes to the roster for next season in hopes that a new coach and increased time to allow the roster to mesh will lead to improvement.
Blake Griffin wasn’t able to help Detroit reach the postseason after he was acquired from the Los Angeles Clippers for a package headlined by Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley and the Pistons first-round pick which eventually turned into Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
That package alone was a steep price to pay considering the talent of those players. But that’s not even considering Griffin’s massive contract, which will be paying Griffin nearly $39 million for the 2021-2022 season if he accepts his player option. This means the burden of responsibility for Detroit’s success falls squarely on Griffin’s shoulders. The former dunk contest champ has adapted his game as injuries have stifled his Kia-hurdling athleticism. His playmaking and burgeoning perimeter stroke theoretically pair well with incumbent center Andre Drummond, although that’s what they said about DeAndre Jordan, too.
Drummond made massive strides with his free-throw shooting last year, but he’s still limited offensively, and his defensive production still doesn’t match his potential based on his athleticism. The Pistons will be able to count on the big man snaring rebounds at a top-notch pace (his 16 per game led the league last season.) He’s also dependable at finishing easy chances near the rim, but it might be time to give up on Drummond as a defensive anchor or a guy that can carry an offense through the post. Even though he’s only 25, it felt like Drummonds game has hit a plateau. Perhaps the quickest way to help Detroit take a huge step forward would be Drummond him adding another facet to his game this year, such as a face up game or a jump shot.
Reggie Jackson has become somewhat of a lightning rod for criticism in Detroit after the team faltered when he returned from injury, and he was less effective than backup Ish Smith. His perimeter shooting, which has never been a strength, fell off to nearly unplayable levels last season, while his injuries seem to linger and hampered his ability to attack and score at the rim, which was how he made his money. If he’s healthy this year, Jackson could thrive as a secondary playmaker next to Griffin and an ideal pick and roll partner with Drummond, which would be the best-case scenario for Detroit.
Besides production from its trio of stars, Detroit will need more from their supporting cast in 2018-2019 if they hope to reach the postseason. The Pistons will be relying on jumps from Luke Kennard and Stanley Johnson, a pair of lottery picks, to lead the bench. Kennard had a solid rookie year and will earn minutes with his three-point shooting, although he has a limited ceiling. On the other hand, Johnson needs to show some offensive progress to justify a starting spot (side note: yours truly played Stanley Johnson twice in high school and was convinced he was guaranteed to be an All-Star. Sad!). Reggie Bullock and Glenn Robinson III should push Johnson for the starting small forward role, and both could finish games with the starters thanks to their more reliable perimeter games. Ish Smith and free-agent signee Anthony Tolliver both figure to play significant minutes as well off the bench, giving the Pistons a fairly steady second unit.
Detroit certainly has more than enough talent on paper to secure a playoff bid amidst a slew of mediocre teams at the bottom of the Eastern Conference, but obstacles remain in their quest for even that modest goal. The Pistons will need Jackson and Griffin to stay healthy for a majority of the season, which is problematic since Griffin hasn’t played more than 70 games since 2013-2014 and Jackson has missed significant time the last two years. Dwane Casey will need to show that the strides made by Toronto last season, especially offensively, were the result of his growth as a coach and not his former assistant Nick Nurse’s influence. Also, he will need to maximize role players the same way the Raptors league-leading bench did last year, especially if the nearly inevitable Griffin/Jackson injury occurs.
The Pistons have locked themselves into this core since each member of their “Big 3” would have to be practically dumped in a trade due to their inflated contracts. Things could get ugly fast in the Motor City if the Pistons don’t figure it out this season. Even if they do, Detroit appears to have a ceiling as first-round fodder for one of the top seeds in the East with no path to adding more significant talent, which means this team would be wise to consider a rebuild sooner rather than later even if they achieve their potential in 2018-2019.