Monday, October 27, 2014

Reclamation: The '14-'15 Season Preview

The dirty secret about the Pistons that no one seems willing to admit? The Pistons are young, especially relative to their experience (the average age is 26 years old, good for 14th in the NBA), and the amount of individual talent is off the charts. Brandon Jennings, a high school-to-pro draftee, enters his sixth NBA season having just turned 25 years old. Josh Smith, another player who skipped the college ranks, enters his 11th season without turning 30 years old. The team’s unquestioned star just turned legal drinking age and finished a tour with Team USA in the FIBA World Championship. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope will turn 22 during his sophomore year campaign and fifth-year power forward Greg Monroe won’t be 25 until after the season. The only three players that will end the season at least 30 years old are Caron Butler (role player), Cartier Martin (role player), and the recently acquired Joel Anthony. Reports of the Pistons’ demise have been greatly exaggerated.

Last season was an unmitigated disaster. It began with Maurice Cheeks and ended with a diaspora of 20-foot jump shots. But the motivations behind Joe Dumars’ roster molding weren’t malicious nor entirely ill-conceived. Dumars understood the current positional revolution happening in the NBA, and when he said “The primary reason for Josh being the No. 1 guy and a player that we wanted to pursue the most was because of his versatility,” and something to the extent of “get the best players on the floor and we’ll figure out the positions later,” he had the best intentions in mind. The biggest issue for the Pistons was that the players Dumars had assembled fundamentally eschewed this philosophical shift. Andre Drummond can’t play farther than 5 feet from the basket. Monroe is a prototypical back-to-the-basket power forward. Jennings could never fit into any role other than point guard. Fundamentally, Dumars understood the thematic shift of the NBA, but he had long-since stopped understanding players.

The ’13-’14 Pistons were a potentially good team executed in the worst possible manner, so with the introduction of Stan Van Gundy as the team’s new shepherd, it’s time to reconsider the Pistons' potential. Jennings, a ball-dominant passing wizard enters this season after setting his career high in assists per game, despite playing on a team that finished tied with Sacramento for 19th in offensive efficiency. Jennings averaged 1.1 more assists per game than his previous career high, while his 2.7 turnovers per game were only 0.2 higher than his career average. His 2.81 A/TO ratio on the season improved his career ratio to 2.44 A/TO (a number that bests Tony Parker’s career A/TO ratio).

What plagued Jennings last year was his shot selection and inability to finish at the rim, chronic problems throughout his career. But you could see it in his play: “If I can hit this three pointer in transition, we’ll get the deficit under 10 points.” It was a video game mentality, the kind of thing he can pull off in the Drew League. Jennings felt compelled to put the team on his back and carry them to victory, rather than understanding basketball as a game of attrition. And given the outfits he’s played on throughout his career, it’s hard to fault him. This preseason, while his shooting was problematic, his distribution was on full display: through six games, Jennings charted 44 assists to just 8 turnovers. Though he also went 7-23 from outside and struggled shooting the ball, it’s possible that he won’t be called on to take many shots this season, instead focusing on distribution and generating good shots for his teammates.

Josh Smith, too, has been written off and left for dead by fans, but remains a unique power forward everyman. Last season, Smith, forced to play on the perimeter as Drummond and Monroe consumed the paint, shot 3.4 three pointers per game, more than double his career average (1.6 3FGA/game). This preseason, Smith is 3-7 from outside through seven games. Also on display are all of the other aspects of Smith’s game that make him a terror: 45 rebounds (6.43 rebounds/game), 35 assists (5 assists/game), 6 blocks, and 4 steals. Unfortunately, Smith is shooting only 42% from the field and has amassed 21 turnovers. In spite of these problems, during the Pistons’ preseason finale, Smith was making a conscious effort to catch the ball high and drive into the lane, either finishing at the rim (7 of his 14 shots in this game came in the paint) or kicking the ball out to open shooters, something he’s remarkably adept at for a power forward.

And therein lies the promise of Josh Smith at power forward. His ability to run the floor, distribute to teammates, occasionally stretch the floor, and defend both bigger and smaller players is the versatility that Dumars was looking at when he signed the enigmatic big man. Because Smith can do these things better than most power forwards, teams have assumed that he is a multi-positional player, which he’s simply not. Smith is difficult to guard and an exceptional defender precisely because few power forwards in the league can match his skill set. Watching those highlights from the preseason finale, you see Smith drive hard into the lane, kick out passes to open three point shooters, and posterize Nerlens Noel, who dominated Andre Drummond throughout the game. It is easy—and probably wise—to remain skeptical of Smith, a mercurial player throughout his career, but with SVG at the helm, we can expect the best out of the Pistons’ wonky, talented makeup.

All of which is true before you get to the franchise’s centerpiece and running mate, Drummond and Monroe, respectively. Monroe stopped being an asset to the Pistons the moment he signed the qualifying offer. Trading him becomes nearly impossible, and, even if the Pistons are able to re-sign him following a successful season, they’d be doing so with an unrestricted free agent for market price. Regardless, Monroe is playing in a contract season, a phenomenon that almost universally sees NBA players outperform expectations. More importantly for Monroe—as long as he’s able to humble himself and accept the role—will be coming off the bench. Monroe and Drummond’s games do not complement one another, due to their mutual limitations. Monroe is yet to develop a consistent mid-range game, forcing him closer to the basket than a power forward would ideally play. Combine that with Drummond’s almost nonexistent offensive game through two seasons, and suddenly those devastating Monroe spin moves from the post are being greeted by the opposing center. Monroe’s saving grace is his excellent hands and passing ability, but those could be put to better use with more space.

Drummond and Smith present an athletic frontcourt unlike many in the NBA. Both run significantly better than replacements at their position, and are able to create havoc on the defensive end because of their mobility (think a poor man’s DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin on both ends of the floor). With Jennings’ flashy, consistent passing, dunks in transition and off of high pick and rolls should become a staple of an offense whose primary tenant will be stretching the floor. Monroe acts as a counterpunch to that attack. With a post-up game that has few contemporaries, playing Monroe with stretch power forwards like Jonas Jerebko will clear the lane for Monroe to attack defenses with ease.

This was always the strength of the frontcourt hodgepodge. In a league dominated by wings and point guards, the Pistons (like Memphis and pre-All Star Paul George before them) have the depth, variation, and skill to bully teams on the inside. What was missing was an ability to both manage those egos and punish opposing teams for focusing on the interior. The acquisitions of Jodie Meeks—whose contract will be a drop in the bucket when the salary cap expands—Caron Butler, and DJ Augustin, along with a sophomore leap from Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, will remedy this missing piece.

Defensively, the outlook isn’t as cheery. The Pistons will be a better team simply by having a consistent scheme that allows them to develop as a unit, but on a player-to-player basis, there are still some glaring issues. For proof of the Pistons’ coaching ineptitude last season, look no further than how they defended the pick and roll. With no communication between the on-ball and screen defender, ball carriers were often escorted to the basket. And while the preseason has shown some improvement in this area, allowing 103 points on 47% shooting to the 76ers, a team openly trying to lose, is startling.

Like the offense, Detroit’s defensive prowess will be heaped on the back of Andre Drummond, a sub-par on-ball defender who still hasn’t made his mark as someone who can alter a play from the weakside. Drummond rebounds as well as any player in the league, but his defensive impact lacks the effect of Dwight Howard, the player to whom most have compared Drummond following SVG’s arrival. Drummond is great at challenging shots, but to become an All Defensive Team member, he will need to become more adept at getting a hand on the ball. Where he struggles most is in one-on-one match ups, where he is frequently duped on the block and often beaten to the basket. This will hopefully develop with time, but '14-'15 is an important season in his development.

Besides Drummond, there is Smith, who is a great weakside defender and source of havoc, and KCP, the Pistons’ unquestioned perimeter defensive star. Short of that, the Pistons will struggle to keep teams in front of them. Jennings is abhorrent on the perimeter, often gambling for steals off the ball and playing olĂ© defense on the ball. Butler doesn’t have much left in the tank, so his impact on the defensive end will be minimal. DJ Augustin is known to be one of the worst defenders in the league, and Jodie Meeks has never excelled on that end. And players like Jerebko, Singler, or Cartier Martin don’t move the needle much. The Pistons’ best hope on this side of the ball is improvement from Drummond in the middle and an offense that forces the opposition to take the ball out of the basket more often than not.

The one true known is Stan Van Gundy, a proven coach unwilling to deal with the bullshit that surrounds this Pistons roster. This is the first time in well over a decade that the Pistons have had a coach this universally praised. Whether or not the oft-discussed 4-out, 1-in offensive scheme becomes a reality this season (which, for the record, I’m skeptical given Drummond’s still-shaky offensive game), SVG will have a scheme that is intelligible and puts players in their optimal position.

Perhaps most importantly, this Pistons team is going to be fun to watch. With loads of young talent and a rotation that makes sense, this is a proving ground year for most of these players. Jennings and Smith are undertaking reclamation projects. For Smith, he wants to prove that he can both help lead a young team (something he was accused of being unable to do in Atlanta) as well as recover from the worst season of his career. Jennings may finally be able to come through on his promise of becoming a more complete, effective player in Detroit; he finally has the teammates and will now have the scheme. Monroe wants a big contract. KCP wants a career. Meeks and Augustin want to prove that last year wasn’t a fluke. This is a blue collar team the way that Dumars imagined, but not for the reasons he hoped. The Pistons will pick themselves up and dust themselves off. This season will be the first step.


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