NBA Season Preview: Detroit Pistons

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Projected record: 34-48, 11th in East

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Stan Van Gundy
Stan Van Gundy is Detroit’s best hope for success. (AP)

Head coach: Stan Van Gundy
Projected record: 34-48 (11th)
2013-14 record: 29-53
2013-14 ORtg: 102.9 (T-19th)
2013-14 DRtg: 107.3 (T-25th)
Players in: Stan Van Gundy (coach), D.J. Augustin, Caron Butler, Spencer Dinwiddie, Aaron Gray, Cartier Martin, Jodie Meeks
Players out: John Loyer (coach), Chauncey Billups, Josh Harrellson, Peyton Siva, Rodney Stuckey,
Projected Starting Lineup: Brandon Jennings, Jodie Meeks, Josh Smith, Greg Monroe, Andre Drummond

Someone’s got to be 11th.

Detroit has resurrected the 2009 Orlando Magic Finals team, but five years later, the Pistons have the ceiling of a low playoff team at best, and ultimately ranked 11th in the Eastern Conference by The Brooklyn Game.

Detroit fans have undergone five coaching changes in five consecutive lottery seasons, and unless there’s some magic left in Stan Van Gundy, they should prepare for a sixth. 50 games into the 2014 season, Detroit fired rookie head coach Mo Cheeks after a mediocre 21-29 start, only to see interim head coach John Loyer guide them to a sloppy 8-24 finish.

At least this time around, they’ve brought some stability to the franchise, hiring Van Gundy as their coach and President of Basketball Operations, with a lucrative five-year deal worth $35 million.

Van Gundy never missed out on the postseason with the Magic in his 5-year stint, but also never won a title, losing to Kobe Bryant and his Los Angeles Lakers in his only shot in 2009.

Now, he plans to learn from his mistakes in a different environment. Last year, the Pistons ranked 25th in the league in defensive rating, allowing 109.9 points per 100 possessions. In Van Gundy’s five-season tenure in Orlando, his teams ranked 6th or better in defensive rating four times, including a league-best ranking in 2009.

Dwight Howard always locked down the paint in Van Gundy’s system, earning his three Defensive Player of the Year awards under his rule, in addition to ranking first in the league in Defensive Win Shares in four of five seasons under Van Gundy.

Now, Van Gundy turns to Josh Smith & Andre Drummond as defensive anchors. Neither is as glamorous as Howard, but Smith is still feared in moniker around the league, earning All-Defensive second team honors in 2010 and leading the league in defensive win shares in 2012. Van Gundy will have the towering Drummond to lock down the paint, while Smith, if motivated, wreaks havoc inside and out. At his best, Smith can function as Van Gundy’s new Hedo Turkoglu that can actually hold his own on both sides of floor.

But their offense remains fickle. The Pistons added a glorified ‘09 Courtney Lee in Jodie Meeks this offseason, giving them range at shooting guard. Meeks is coming off a breakout year with the tumultuous Lakers, so it’s hard to pinpoint what he can bring to a well-rounded team. But hey, the ball goes in the hoop the same in every city.

Van Gundy relied on his facilitators to run the show in initial sets and pick-and-rolls, explaining point guard Jameer Nelson’s crucial role in Orlando’s success. Jennings will have to remove the glue from his palms and distribute the ball, because that is the only way the Van Gundy pick-and-roll game can flourish. Van Gundy loves to have the ball on the move; none of his starters ever had a usage rate above 25%. Jennings can certainly score more comfortably than Nelson, but he’ll have to compromise his mercurial game for the good of the team.

Like Lionel Hollins in Brooklyn, Van Gundy has to build this team’s identity around toughness. He relied on a shooter at power forward in Rashard Lewis, and Greg Monroe will act as his replacement, but Monroe isn’t the outside shooter Lewis is. Smith has had a prominent long distance game, but not in a good way.

Luckily for him, one aspect of Orlando will carry over to Detroit: the 5. Andre Drummond and Dwight Howard both struggled in their early years to create for themselves, and instead took advantage of easy shots inside and second-chance opportunities. This will allow Van Gundy to run a simple, and quick 4-man offense, with Drummond to go Pac-Man on the glass and throw down alley-oops. Drummond is still only entering his 3rd season in the league, ready to augment his already scary stat sheet after a competitive Team USA summer school experience. His mind remains a sponge, and Van Gundy remains an educator that can mold him into the next Superman.

Van Gundy could even start Kyle Singler or Caron Butler at the 3, bringing Smith off the bench as a defensive 3-4 hybrid. Monroe and Drummond generate enough ferocity inside that Smith could be superfluous. That method would add some range while bolstering the bench. He’ll also have to develop Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, a lanky 6’5” shooter that led all scorers in Orlando Summer League. He can offer Detroit a versatile option off the bench, but the coaching staff has to morph him into that type of player first.

The Pistons have the talent this season to wreak havoc in the East on paper, but in reality, that will be contingent on their chemistry. Nobody expects the Pistons to make a splash in this newly strengthened Eastern Conference, but their youth can certainly turn some heads in this upcoming year, and they can take advantage if other teams don’t live up to expectations. Watch out, because Stan Van Gundy doesn’t simply go home in April.

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