Revamped Pistons race toward respectability
Auburn Hills — After making the Eastern Conference playoffs six straight seasons from 2003-08, the Pistons of the “Goin’ to Work” era set a standard for excellence.
Since then, however, the franchise has fallen on hard times, matching the six years of success with a six-year skid of missing the postseason and has become a perennial player in the NBA draft lottery.
This season’s retooled version is looking to end that streak.
More than half of last season’s Opening Day 15-man roster is gone — Andre Drummond, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Brandon Jennings, Jodie Meeks, Spencer Dinwiddie and Joel Anthony are the holdovers.
It’s a roster overhaul Pistons president/coach Stan Van Gundy didn’t foresee his first season, but after a 5-23 start culminated in a 32-50 finish — and plenty of injuries and transactions in between — he needed to make some changes to mold the roster to fit his style.
“That wasn’t a conscious thing, to have that much turnover,” Van Gundy said. “I was disappointed that we weren’t able to get it going with some of the guys we had back. The talent was there to do better, and as a coach, it was frustrating because I didn’t feel like we got the most out of some of those guys.”
The most notable departures are All-Star big man Greg Monroe (Bucks, free agent) and Josh Smith (cut).
A midseason injury to Jennings — who was having an All-Star performance before a season-ending Achilles injury — necessitated a trade, which sent D.J. Augustin and Kyle Singler to the Thunder for Reggie Jackson, who signed a long-term deal to be the pick-and-roll partner with Drummond.
Although it’s a new-look lineup, it could take some time to develop chemistry.
“I like our roster; some things that were major needs got taken care of,” Van Gundy said. “The thing I like the most is our group matured last year over the course of the year and became a tougher, more competitive team.”
’Young ... but mature’
With Drummond among the top young players in the league, the task will be to build around him with shooters and slashers, similar to what Van Gundy did during his time with the Magic in 2008-09 with Dwight Howard as the centerpiece.
The Pistons are younger, and as they showed down the stretch last season, they’ll look to learn to overcome some obstacles, including a dearth of playoff experience.
“Every team faces adversity at some point throughout the season, so that’s not an excuse,” Drummond said. “Stan did a great job this summer going out and getting guys who can space the floor for us. We have a really young team but we have a very mature team.”
One of the biggest additions was forward Stanley Johnson, the No. 8 pick in the draft. The Pistons passed over some other coveted swingmen, such as Duke Justise Winslow, to select Johnson. But at 6-foot-7 and 245 pounds, Johnson already has an NBA build, aggressiveness and a pedigree that appeals to Van Gundy.
Johnson, 19, showed during the exhibition season he could fit in nicely and play either forward spot. And though he’ll start the season as a reserve, he likely will make his way to the starting lineup before the end of the season.
‘Get it done right now’
Still, one of the first tasks for the Pistons is to shed the losing label and not allow a culture of mediocrity to set in.
It’s been a point of emphasis for Drummond, who has emerged as a leader on and off the court.
“Now is the time for us to do what we set out to do every year,” Drummond said. “We say we’re going to do one thing and we don’t do it. This is our time; we’re on the rise and we’re going to do it. It’s just words until you do it. I hate losing — I can’t stand it; it’s the worst feeling.
“People laughing at our team — that’s not a good feeling. I want to rub it in somebody’s face that we’re a great team.”
Making the postseason may not be a stated goal or something the players say coming out of each huddle, but it’s in the back of their minds.
“We discuss the playoffs,” Caldwell-Pope said. “We’re going to make it and that’s what we’re shooting for. Once the season starts, we have to continue to work hard and push toward that.”
Van Gundy said the onus for change doesn’t reside as much with the players as it does with the front office. He’s worked to try to get the pieces that will fit, including forwards Ersan Ilyasova and Marcus Morris in offseason trades he hopes complement Drummond and make the offense more potent.
Still, he wants his young squad to get a taste of the playoffs and end the streak — for owner Tom Gores and the fans.
“For them, it’s been a long haul; for us, we’re trying to build the thing and I don’t think the players feel it, but I feel a responsibility,” Van Gundy said. “At the same time, I have to temper that and have patience, because we have good young players.
“You’d like it to come around really quickly but you don’t want to derail the process and give up on young guys to get old guys and try to get it done right now.”