Detroit — The Pistons keep moving pieces, and now are moving places, back downtown for the first time in decades. And yet, three years into the Stan Van Gundy regime, the question still simmers: Where are they going?
This is a riddle seeking a rhyme, as the Pistons open the season tonight with another potential cornerstone addition, Avery Bradley, another promising draft pick among five new faces, another push for more.
When owner Tom Gores gave Van Gundy a five-year, $35-million contract in 2014 to take complete charge of personnel, in addition to coaching duties, he also purchased patience, but not an unlimited amount. Van Gundy is a respected basketball mind who made the playoffs each of his seven full seasons as an NBA coach before taking over a franchise in disarray. Since then, the Pistons have reached the playoffs once in three years and are yet to establish a firm direction.
For every positive sign, there’s an uncertainty. No one’s picking them to challenge the best in their conference — Cleveland, Boston — but in the watered-down East, they absolutely have the talent to return to the postseason, and they should. As they leave their longtime home at the Palace of Auburn Hills for glittering Little Caesars Arena, the lights get brighter, and yes, hotter.
“It’s a world-class arena, a fabulous place,” Van Gundy said. “I do think there’ll be an increased energy, and I think it’ll be a good thing. There’ll be a little more edge to the crowd, and maybe a little bit more pressure, but if you’re running from pressure, why did you go into this business? We’re supposed to go down and win games. I don’t have any problem with people holding us accountable to that.”
Van Gundy has flipped the entire roster in three years with one exception — Andre Drummond. The coach and the 7-foot center are linked, by contract (Drummond has four years remaining on his $127-million deal) and by circumstance, and both have to make it work.
The dilemma is, how much patience can Van Gundy — who can be famously impatient — afford with another revamped roster, topped by two would-be stars. Drummond had sinus surgery that has improved his breathing and increased his stamina, and don’t look now, but his historically poor free-throw shooting (38.6 percent last season) shot up to 80 percent (16-for-20) in the preseason.
Reggie Jackson is still working his way back to full strength after essentially a four-month break designed to alleviate tendinitis in his left knee. He’ll likely split point-guard duties with veteran Ish Smith, after Van Gundy learned a lesson when he rushed Jackson back late last season.
“Ready to unleash’
Let’s not be delusional here. Smith is a perfect fill-in, with the personality and passing skills to get teammates engaged. But if the Pistons are to challenge in the East, Jackson has to be the guy pushing the ball and scoring in the clutch. After missing 30 games last season, he didn’t return with any of his trademark to-the-hoop burst, and he’s not quite there yet.
“All parties are cautious, especially when I came back last season and never really felt healthy at any point,” Jackson said. “I feel good up to this point. I’m just ready to stick with the plan, ready to unleash as much as they allow me to unleash.”
To be fair, Jackson needs time. And Drummond, still only 24, needs the urgency to hone his all-around game, from defensive aggressiveness to passing to, of course, free-throw shooting.
The problem is, the Pistons aren’t exactly loaded with time, and if they don’t make the playoffs, it’s troubling. In trading forward Marcus Morris to the Celtics for Bradley, they brought in a defensive whiz with great leadership skills. But Bradley, 26, is in the final year of his contract, and while he says all the right things about loving Detroit, he surely wants to see what’s developing, too.
It goes back to the original tandem, Van Gundy and Drummond, as the pieces around them keep changing. Last season, Drummond was moody and listless at times, and his scoring (13.6) and rebounding (13.8) averages dropped as he struggled without the injured Jackson.
“I’ve been in the league for six years, and obviously over time, you’re going to mature and things are going to start becoming more serious,” Drummond said. “For me, I was a kid coming into a lot of money, having fun playing basketball, but at the end of the day this is still a business, and maturity is something that was necessary. … The year I had last year is not who I was. That’s not the player I’m supposed to be, not the player I’m supposed to represent for this city.”
Van Gundy likes what he hears and sees so far. But the Pistons aren’t in position to simply keep waiting for Drummond and Jackson, and Van Gundy has no choice but to push it. The goodwill vibe of the new arena won’t last all season.
Two years ago, when the Pistons broke a six-year drought and made the playoffs, a continued rise with a young roster seemed inevitable. The mantra before last season was “Why not us?” after the Pistons fought Cleveland hard in a first-round playoff sweep.
“We did a lot of talking,” Smith said. “Now, what expectation does anyone have for us? We gotta take it personally.”
Injuries and inconsistencies plummeted them to 37-45 and near the bottom of the league in most offensive categories, including 28th in 3-point shooting. That’s an issue Van Gundy is still struggling to solve, creating an identity that sticks.
The Pistons have decent mid-level guys, reflected in their leading returning scorer, Tobias Harris, only 25. But in the absence of bona fide stars, Van Gundy has been hunting for shooters, futilely at times. He traded Morris and let Kentavious Caldwell-Pope leave as a free-agent. He brought back Anthony Tolliver and drafted Duke sharp-shooter Luke Kennard.
In his three drafts, Van Gundy has picked up pieces — Stanley Johnson, Henry Ellenson, Kennard — but no difference-makers yet, although Johnson has the ability to become a fierce defender. At some point, one of the young guys has to make an impact.
“I think on the defensive end, we got the makings of a team that can be very, very good,” Van Gundy said.
“We got a lot of guys that are smart and tough, that alone will make you pretty good. … We’re not gonna be a team that’s reliant on one guy. We got a lot of guys capable of getting 20 points, but we’re not gonna come in and just ride one guy night in and night out.”
Three years after a major overhaul, the Pistons are still looking for someone, or something, to ride night in and night out. Drummond? Defense? Van Gundy’s passion and savvy?
We know for certain the Pistons are back downtown, where they belong. Beyond that, we’re waiting to learn a whole lot more.
Hornets at Pistons
What: Detroit’s first regular-season game in Little Caesars Arena
When: 7 Wednesday
TV/radio: FSD/97.1 FM