Beard: More moves needed for Pistons to continue ascent

Rod Beard
The Detroit News
Andre Drummond and Stanley Johnson

It’s not horseshoes or hand grenades.

It’s not a series win — and close is no consolation.

For the Pistons, getting swept out of their first playoff appearance in seven years was a disappointment.

Coach Stan Van Gundy said as much before the series even started — and even through the losses, the Pistons gave the Cavaliers a better series than most anticipated.

The Pistons aren’t most.

They proved they belonged in the playoffs and as the No. 8 seed, didn’t have enough — experience, savvy, firepower, free throws or whatever the measure — to unseat the defending Eastern Conference champions.

Next year might be different. The next couple years might be different.

Van Gundy accentuated the importance of the Pistons’ learning curve throughout the last few weeks of the regular season and into the postseason. They learned a lot from the sweep and got part of the roadmap toward tweaks that will have to be made in the offseason to get better.

Picking up those pieces — an area where Van Gundy, in his role as team president, and general manager Jeff Bower have excelled — is the next big step forward.

The Monday Drive makes its final lap of the season, with 10 playoff observations:

1. The Pistons were ready for primetime. They came out in Game 1 ready for the Cavaliers’ best shot and were prepared for the first flurry. That loss in the opener turned the tide of the series from the Pistons being able to send a clear message that they were going to contend with a win, to a sour loss, including Reggie Jackson’s technical foul in the fourth quarter.

2. Andre Drummond has to be better. Although he led the league in rebounding and was a menace in the regular season, Drummond became a target in the series. The Pistons can’t excel without their best player on the court at the end of crucial games. Even if his free-throw percentage goes up to 50 percent, it would be an immense improvement. Just as he got better post moves last year, he’ll have to focus on the free-throw line.

3. Sometimes, the whistle doesn’t blow. The Pistons didn’t get the benefit of many calls by the referees — and they shouldn’t have expected it. It’s the playoffs. It’s LeBron James. It’s the top-seeded Cavaliers. In the postseason, getting the typical foul calls shouldn’t be the expectation. As hard as it is to do at times, the Pistons need to play on. Van Gundy got a fine for criticizing the officials in Game 1 and Jackson vented. It didn’t make any difference.

4. Stanley Johnson got better in the playoffs. The rookie’s postseason stats were in line with his regular-season production, but the intensity of playing against LeBron James will make Johnson hungrier in the offseason and more competitive when next season begins. He might not get very much consideration for all-rookie teams, but before his shoulder injury, he had a good first season.

5. The bench needs another big piece. At different parts of the season, the lack of scoring depth showed when the starters went to the bench. And when five reserves played, there wasn’t a go-to scorer among them. Whether the Pistons get another big-production starter and move someone a reserve role or get another bench player, they’ll need that scoring punch if they’re going to progress. Too many leads were lost in the second quarter.

6. More moves are needed. In the summer, the focus likely will be on a couple of spots: a backup point guard, a reserve post player, another shooter and possibly a defender. Some of those roles could be filled by developing players currently on the roster, such as Steve Blake, Anthony Tolliver, Jodie Meeks, Reggie Bullock or Darrun Hilliard, but looking elsewhere also is an option.

7. Don’t expect Van Gundy to stand pat. He senses the Pistons are close and has shown, through dealing Brandon Jennings, Ersan Ilyasova — and almost their first-round pick in the draft and overlooked veteran Joel Anthony — that he’s eager to improve quickly. The window to try to contend is open and could close just as quickly. But his young team isn’t in its prime yet and time is of the essence.

8. Unfavorable draw. The thought was that if the Pistons had been able to get the No. 7 seed, they would have matched up better in the playoffs with the Raptors, who are tied 2-2 with the Pacers. It’s all supposition, but the Raptors had struggled in the past couple years in the postseason and with the moxie the Pistons showed against the Cavs, it’s reasonable to presume that they could have had similar results against Toronto.

9. Another East series is tight too. The Hawks and Celtics are deadlocked at two games apiece — and it makes sense, because both were playing well down the stretch and finished with the same record. Isaiah Thomas has been spectacular in the series and the Hawks are looking to prove that last season wasn’t a fluke. The Hawks could see some of their core break up in the offseason, especially if they don’t win the series.

10. The West has gone almost as forecast. The Warriors lost a game because of a non-call on James Harden’s go-ahead shot in Game 3. But the Spurs swept the Grizzlies and the Mavericks beat the Thunder on a negated game-winning shot at the buzzer in Game 2. The West is top-heavy, but the East, besides the Cavs, is more intriguing because of the relative parity between all eight teams.

Twitter: @detnewsRodBeard