Beard: Without megastars, Pistons’ title outlook dim

Rod Beard
The Detroit News

The NBA just isn’t what it used to be.

Way back when, a dark-horse team like the 2004 Pistons could ascend to the top of the league and win a championship. Though that team had four All-Stars in 2006, only Ben Wallace ever was a starter in the showcase.

Back then, teams had a few different models to follow on the golden road to title contention Not anymore.

The arrival of rookies LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in 2003 was the preface of things to come: the super-team model that still dominates the NBA today. No longer is it sufficient to have just one superstar; true contenders on the level of Golden State, Cleveland, Boston and Houston need at least two megastars to be in the championship conversation.

That brings us back to the current construction of the Pistons, who don’t have any players on that megastar level. In Sports Illustrated’s rankings of its top 100 players, four Pistons are between 51 and 100, but none in the top 50.

Those four players — Andre Drummond at No. 51, Avery Bradley (54th), Reggie Jackson (78th) and Tobias Harris (81st) — represent the Pistons’ current state: some potential to be good but not much to get overly excited about.

Pistons' Drummond slides to No. 51 in SI's top 100

After finishing 37-45 last season and missing the playoffs, the Pistons are looking to bounce back with a retooled starting lineup and the addition of Bradley, an upgrade over Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (ranked 99th on the list), who signed as a free agent with the Los Angeles Lakers.

The Pistons have missed the postseason seven of the past eight years; their 2016 sweep at the hands of the Cavaliers showed how far they are from contending. Their prospect of making any sustained run in the playoffs rests on several hypotheticals — chief among them is multiple players ascending to career years. Jackson was hampered by tendinitis last season and Drummond took a residual step back from missing his pick-and-roll partner.

Last season, Harris flourished in a reserve role — where he could have been in consideration for sixth man of the year, had he not been moved into a starting spot. Bradley already had a career season, with 16.3 points and 6.1 rebounds, but he’ll be motivated, as he’s in the final year of his contract, with a max deal likely waiting next summer.

Drummond, the longest-tenured Piston, can get back to his 2016 All-Star level — when he was 29th in the Sports Illustrated rankings — with some refinement to his game. If he improves his effort, energy and rim protection, he could be the most dominant big man in the Eastern Conference.

“As it stands, Drummond must prove that his unique strengths can consistently translate to a greater degree of team success or he must evolve into a more complete all-around impact-maker before he can be regarded as one of the NBA’s brightest rising stars again,” Sports Illustrated’s Ben Golliver wrote.

Time is now for Johnson

Then there’s Stanley Johnson.

With Marcus Morris off to Boston in the trade for Bradley, Johnson stands to gain the most. He’s likely to move into the starting lineup alongside Harris, giving the Pistons a more athletic starting group.

Johnson hasn’t lived up to the expectations of the No. 8 pick in 2015 and the flashes he showed during his rookie season. In a starting role, he’d have more minutes to show the extra work he put into his game in the last two offseasons. At 21, it’s still too early to give up on him, but it’s also time for him to show that he’s worthy of that confidence.

It’s likely a make-or-break year for the Pistons’ long-term future and president-coach Stan Van Gundy, who’s entering his fourth year of a five-year contract. If they Pistons don’t get back to the playoffs, there could be some sweeping changes to the front office and roster.

It’s a far cry from the “Goin’ to Work” Pistons, who seemed to contend every year.

But things aren’t what they used to be, either.