Auburn Hills – — The NBA's offseason seemed more theoretical than practical, but for all intents and purposes it's over, as training camp begins right at the start of fall.
The Pistons' season is right around the corner, with their preseason opener 11 days away. Before the seemingly perpetual question of "Have the Pistons really improved?" can be answered, they have to get through a tedious exercise called training camp.
It's where Stan Van Gundy will take off his executive hat and morph back into a proven coach, one who took the Orlando Magic to the 2009 NBA Finals. Whatever stamp he puts on this team, the imprint will be initially felt during training camp, where he'll attempt to establish some semblance of a foundation.
But like all training camps, the Pistons have questions, and here are a few:
Whether it was schematic or personnel-based, the Pistons defense never made it to Auburn Hills last season. One could attribute that to Andre Drummond's youth, Greg Monroe's adjustment to power forward or Josh Smith having to chase around small forwards, or any litany of reasons — or excuses.
The bad habits that never felt fully formed must be broken if this team has the slightest hope of improving. Giving up 105 points per game and allowing teams to shoot 51 percent on 2-pointers is likely a point of emphasis for Van Gundy. Establishing strong concepts is the first step to becoming better.
Drummond, obviously, is the biggest piece, as the potential anchor of the defense. If he catches on as a fast learner, it bodes well for the corresponding players.
"It's a lot of teaching. You have to have an open mind. You have to be concept-ready," said forward Caron Butler, who played under Van Gundy in Miami and could be the starting small forward come opening night.
"Understanding the situations and letting it register. It's gonna be consistent."
Brandon Jennings admitted he struggled on the defensive end, but he wasn't the only culprit and there was definitely a lack of trust among the players on the floor. Developing it means a lot of drilling from Van Gundy, to say the least.
"It'll be a lot of work, a lot of teaching," Butler said. "You'll be playing, scrimmaging a lot."
It seems rather simple, but there's always an influx of energy at the start of camp and even more so with new faces on the floor and on the sidelines.
With the last three coaches, it was easy for players to get sidetracked away from the plan. Lack of positive reinforcement, lack of detail and even too much detail could be blamed for why things didn't work out for Maurice Cheeks, Lawrence Frank and John Kuester.
Van Gundy made it known he wanted players back in town on the first of September so the team could hit the ground running as fast as possible come training camp.
Everyone has been in town since that time for the voluntary workouts, hoping that bonding early could lead to a sense of togetherness when adversity inevitably hits. In seasons past, it didn't take much to get the team away from the coach's message or the collective goals.
"It was definitely optional," Butler said. "He sent out a text saying it would be great if everybody could come a little early so they could see concepts and start talking about it. It's certain conditioning drills we want to get in early, so if you bank and get those things in early, it'll help us.
"Guys really bought in with their spare time. Four weeks out, you can do anything so guys bought in and said we'll come back to Detroit early and learn our new teammates. There's a lot of new faces here and obviously coach Van Gundy being one of them. We jelled a bit early."
It's easy to look at the roster and surmise who will be starting where, at least potentially, but the way this roster is formed, the player combinations could be intriguing.
At point guard, Brandon Jennings said he's ready to rebound from what he called his "worst season ever," but the Pistons did make serious overtures at upgrading the position this offseason, in addition to adding D.J. Augustin via free agency. Will Bynum is still in town, shedding some weight (he won't reveal how much), so the competition between the three diminutive guards will be stiff.
"It's something you welcome because it makes you better as a team, that's where we're trying to get to," Bynum said. "We all do different things well, and I don't think it'll be a problem either way."
The other guard spot will have two players going at it, as second-year shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and new addition Jodie Meeks will vie for minutes and opportunities. Caldwell-Pope had a breakout summer league, while Meeks took advantage of Kobe Bryant's absence in Los Angeles to make a name for himself and earned a multi-year contract from the Pistons on the first day of free agency.
There will be competition across the board, not just for starting positions but minutes and roles in Van Gundy's first year as the all-everything being to whom the organization handed the keys.
Smith, of course, is never far from questions about his present and future on this team. Playing the small forward doesn't appear to be part of the plan this upcoming season, as Van Gundy intends to keep Smith closer to the basket — and closer to Smith's all-around strengths as opposed to his maligned weaknesses.
Smith had to endure trade talk all summer long — including a public, if not serious, flirtation with the Sacramento Kings before things died down. Provided Van Gundy can convince Smith to stay away from the seductive 3-point line (265 attempts, second on team last season), it'll be a tangible step toward having a strong-minded player buy in.
But where does that leave him tangibly? Will Van Gundy start him during the preseason or bring him off the bench? If he does start, does that automatically mean Van Gundy will at least begin games with him playing small forward?
How the pieces fit together during camp will answer such concerns, and it doesn't seem like Van Gundy has preconceived notions about how things will flow. But how he coaches the trio of Drummond, Monroe and Smith — and how he establishes things during camp — certainly will go a long way toward indicating what kind of season he'll have.