August 1, 2013 at 1:39 am

Vincent Goodwill

Offseason moves thrust Pistons into the playoff picture

Brandon Jennings averaged 17.5 points and 6.5 assists for the Bucks last season (Mike McGinnis/Getty Images)

The dust hasnít fully settled from the Pistonsí latest dramatic move of the offseason, one day after acquiring point guard Brandon Jennings in a sign-and-trade from the Milwaukee Bucks, but itís not too soon to examine their prospects in the Eastern Conference.

Itís clear owner Tom Gores was tired of empty seats in The Palace and was getting impatient with the rebuilding process, so the front office shifted its efforts into overdrive, becoming as active as the franchise has been in nearly a decade.

With the additions of headliners Jennings and Josh Smith to go along with Chauncey Billups and Luigi Datome, giving up only Brandon Knight in the process as a rotational player and losing Jason Maxiell to free agency, the conversation about this team will rightfully shift.

In yearsí past, their margin for error was admittedly thin in terms of the ability to make the playoffs.

The core was young and talented the last two years but clearly not experienced enough to weather tough stretches.

Now, the complexion has changed and although the Pistons arenít at the top of the Eastern Conference, theyíre firmly in the conversation, taking the hope element out of the equation.

By adding athleticism, shooting, leadership, a much needed point guard and raising the overall talent base of the team, the biggest question is about how the talent fits. In recent years, everything centered around making up for the lack of talent.

Itís no longer a question of ďifĒ the Pistons are a playoff team, but what kind of playoff team they are and where they rank in the East.

Clearly, Miami and Indiana are in the first tier. The two-time champion Heat and Pacers engaged in a seven-game slugfest that leaves many wondering if the Heat are ripe to be beaten by a Pacers team no longer burdened by playoff inexperience.

The next tier is headlined by the new-look but very old Brooklyn Nets, who bolstered their team by taking advantage of the Boston Celtics garage sale, getting Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce and paying no mind to the price.

Chicago should be healthier with the return of 2011 MVP Derrick Rose and the New York Knicks have added Andrea Bargnani and Metta World Peace (formerly Ron Artest) to their aging mix.

After that is where the Pistons come in, perhaps not in the class of the Nets, Bulls or Knicks in terms of expectations. But those teams have plenty of questions as well, not unlike the Pistons.

And letís not forget, the shooting guard spot is still an unknown at this point, because no one can predict how first-round pick Kentavious Caldwell-Pope will adjust to the pro game. Heís the only true two-guard on the roster.

Many felt the Atlanta Hawks and Cleveland Cavaliers were a half-step ahead of the Pistons, especially if Cavaliers center Andrew Bynum stays engaged and healthy for an entire season, and if Kyrie Irving stays upright for the first time since he was a prep star.

From this seat, the Pistons are ahead of those two teams now, and ahead of the Bucks, from which they acquired Jennings.

Before the Jennings trade, there was still doubt from several executives about the team entering the season, especially with the unsettled position of point guard, Chauncey Billupsí emergence notwithstanding.

Not that Jennings is the savior or that he doesnít come with his sizable warts, which is why he was left out of the free-agent party to begin with. He can be unpredictable and wild and make head-scratching plays.

But heís a capable playmaker and should he tap into that part of his game, he makes the Pistons very dangerous, as in they can sneak up on the right team at the right time come playoff time.

Jennings can go head-up with the point guards of the teams ahead of the Pistons, and although he isnít in the class of a Rose or Deron Williams (Nets), the Pistons should enter those matchups with the aforementioned teams feeling like they have the better player at the most important position ó point guard.

Even more so, a lot of the Pistonsí fortunes depended on the productivity of Rodney Stuckey and Charlie Villanueva, but whatever contributions they provide at this point will be gravy because the talent has been upgraded across the board.

In fact, their greatest value at this stage is their expiring contracts, which can help facilitate more trades or simply provide future flexibility to re-sign future restricted free agent Greg Monroe after the season.

In other words, the Pistons arenít done dealing, but whenever they choose to, they can do so ó short of disaster ó from the comfort and strength of knowing theyíre already a playoff team.

vgoodwill@detroitnews.com
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