Auburn Hills — The final images of the preseason were of Pistons players, smiling, laughing and enjoying a dunk fest against backups from the Atlanta Hawks.
Now they want the good times to roll Tuesday when they open the regular season against the Hawks at Philips Arena. This is a new look team from the one that began last season 5-23 and revamped its roster on the fly.
Marcus Morris, Stanley Johnson and Steve Blake are among the new faces. Center Andre Drummond has a new game that he continues to perfect and Reggie Jackson begins his new role as the lead guy. The Pistons are viewed as a wild card by many NBA observers. They can surprise just as easily as they can crash and burn.
The problem with this team isn’t talent. It is familiarity. The result is likely to be some nights where they look like the Golden State Warriors but too many nights where they look like the woeful Sacramento Kings.
“We are hungry man,” Morris said. “We are just trying to get better. We are building, trying to get good habits. Our ultimate goal is to make the playoffs. We can’t look that far so you keep trying to get better.”
The solution is both simple yet complicated. If the Pistons play good defense, which is a chore for this team, and move the ball then they should be fine. There are nights where the ball movement causes coach Stan Van Gundy to dance for joy and there are nights where he stomps his foot in anger. He often does not know which Piston team will show up.
He wants to see ball movement and it is a reason fans might see more of journeyman Steve Blake than expected. During the Pistons 115-87 victory over the Hawks he was a passing whiz. Blake finished with 12 assists in just 23 minutes. And once he started passing teammates got into the moment and began to pass also.
“We’ve had moments in every game,” Van Gundy said. “Tonight was really good. It really stood out with Steve. We had back cuts and guys will start to cut and move without the ball better if they know they are going to get the ball. I thought it was a great model for our team.”
It would not be surprising for Van Gundy to pull Jackson for Blake if he does not like what he sees. Blake is a savvy veteran that has bounces around the league. He is not a big scorer and knows it. So he plays within the team and tries to make others better.
“For us to be successful that is the way it has to be,” Blake said. “We have a few players that can go one on one, but overall the ball has to be moving and we have to shoot the ball well.”
Toil pays off
Hard work and hunger earned Reggie Bullock a roster spot on the Pistons. The Pistons are expected to release injured forward Danny Granger, paving the way for Bullock to make the roster. Van Gundy said he’s been the Pistons best player during training camp.
If he sticks then he is likely to make more money. He will make $1.25 million this season and if the Pistons keep him for next season, he will get a $1 million raise. Now you see where the hunger comes in.
"It means more to me just being on an NBA roster," Bullock said. "Getting paid is another thing, but just being on a roster when I know that I belong in this league is the only thing I'm worried about.”
Bullock earned a spot on this team, something Van Gundy was reluctant to say. But he all but assured that Bullock has a spot this weekend.
“When you look at the whole thing and consistency game in and game out he was our best player in the preseason,” Van Gundy said. “Certainly our most consistent guy. It would be really hard to find any fault with what he did in the preseason. He’s certainly gained our confidence.”
Bullock said his main job is to be ready and work hard on the defensive end when called on.
“My mindset when I come into games is straight defense,” Bullock said. “When I get open shots I try to knock them down. My mindset is to defend team’s best players, make things tough for them and lock people down. If you do that there is always a place for you to play basketball.”
Blake said he is completely healthy after sitting out most of the preseason with a concussion. He took a nasty spill during a practice and did not play until Friday when produced with 12 assists and five rebounds.
He will likely back up Jackson.
“I have never been through this before, so I didn’t know what to expect,” Blake said. “It took longer than I expected. I tried to come back and ride the bike but had a setback, had migraines. I was not expecting that but that is the way it goes. You go through it and it is time to move on.”