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Pistons pointing toward greater expectations

Rod Beard
The Detroit News

Auburn Hills — Being swept in a playoff series isn’t anything to be excited about.

But after the Pistons’ first-round loss to the Cavaliers last season, the organization and pundits were optimistic about the prospects moving forward.

That continued into training camp, with all of the starters returning and bolstering the bench with a couple of key free agents, raising expectations this season. Some projections had the Pistons as high as 50 wins and fourth in the Eastern Conference — a huge jump over their 44 victories and No. 8 seed from last season.

They got Henry Ellenson and Michael Gbinije in the draft and Stanley Johnson had an encouraging summer, honing his skills and looking to improve as their multi-tool sixth man.

Then Reggie Jackson’s knee tendinitis got worse.

Two weeks ago, Jackson had a plasma injection into his left knee, a procedure that will keep him out until at least late November, which translates to about the first 15-20 games of the regular season.

Like the autumn leaves, the optimism is turning — with a focus on just getting through the first quarter of the season with backup point guard Ish Smith filling the void during Jackson’s absence.

“With losing Reggie, it’s tough for us, so now we have to try something new with our offense and we have to get used to things now. You can’t expect us to get the hang of things overnight,” Andre Drummond said. “We just added Ish Smith as our starting point guard and we’re all not used to playing with him yet so it’s going to take time.

“Being with each other and playing with each other more, as time goes on, things will work themselves out.”

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In the preseason, the Pistons struggled for the first two games in adjusting to Smith, who started 50 games for the 76ers last season. He bounced back, averaging 11 points, 4.3 rebounds and seven assists, with no turnovers, in the next three exhibition games.

That’s where the Pistons’ early-season hopes lie — not so much in Drummond, their All-Star center, in Johnson’s improvement or even the forward tandem of Marcus Morris and Tobias Harris.

But those will be key factors as well.

The Eastern Conference is ripe for the Pistons to make a power move, with the defending-champion Cavaliers keeping their roster mostly intact and the Celtics making a jump by bringing in Al Horford during free agency. The Raptors will remain formidable after making the conference finals last season, but beyond those top three, the East looks to be wide open.

The other four East playoff teams: the Heat, Hawks, Hornets and Pacers, weren’t trending upward the same way the Pistons were — at least before the Jackson injury — and with the Pistons’ young and improving core, it could be their time.

“To me, what you don’t want to do is have a ceiling on this group. I look at it and I have great respect for the other teams and know how difficult it’s going to be in the East,” Van Gundy said. “Cleveland won a championship, Toronto was really good and competitive and Boston has come up.

“At the same time, I look at it and say, ‘Why not us?’ If we’re willing to do what it takes and people will take a step forward and we commit more defensively, why not us?”

With no player on the roster over 28 years old, the Pistons could be the chic pick not only to take a step forward this season, but for the next couple years as well.

It’s an odd step from eighth seed to rising contender, but the feeling goes from the top down, including owner Tom Gores.

“We made a lot of progress last year; we made the playoffs and that’s something we needed to do to bridge the gap. Our expectations for this year are very, very high,” Gores said at media day. “Last year was last year. We don’t start out (this year) as an eighth seed. We don’t start out with 44 wins — we start with zero wins.”

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Drummond still growing

The optimism starts with signing Drummond to a max deal (five years, $127 million) in the offseason. Drummond is coming off his best year, posting 16.2 points and an NBA-best 14.8 rebounds. He turned 23 in August and his game continues to improve, but this could be a breakout year for Drummond if he can find the same rhythm in the pick-and-roll with Smith early in the season and can make gains in other areas.

Besides the obvious free-throw issues from last season, when Drummond hit a league-worst 36 percent from the line, Van Gundy doesn’t put limits on what Drummond can do this year.

“I don’t even know if the guy has a ceiling. When he’s locked in, there’s so much he can do,” Van Gundy said. “He can block more shots, he can become better defensively. I don’t think there’s a ceiling on his play. When he’s locked, he’s outstanding.

“That to me is the only issue — when he has that, he’s going to be really, really good.”

The additional component for Drummond is leadership. After he notably groused on the bench during the Pistons’ playoff-clinching win, he was criticized for being selfish and not exemplifying a team spirit during a watershed moment for the franchise.

After signing the big contract, he’s both the best player and face of the franchise and growing in stature on a league level, but he’ll have plenty of help this season, with the new acquisitions.

Bench improved

The bench was the biggest bugaboo last season, ranking as one of the worst reserve groups in the league. Many times last season, they blew leads or allowed teams to extend leads when the starters went to the bench.

They added Smith, Jon Leuer and Boban Marjanovic in free agency. All three performed well in the exhibitions, erasing the question marks from last season in how they could back up one of the NBA’s most productive starting groups.

Leuer adds a multi-faceted offensive skill set, with excellent 3-point shooting and an underrated game inside the arc, with mid-range jumpers and drives to the basket. Van Gundy coveted Leuer because of stretch forwards such as the Cavaliers’ Kevin Love and the Pelicans’ Anthony Davis, for whom the Pistons didn’t have an answer defensively.

Unlike last season, they won’t sneak up on anyone — they’ll have to earn their wins — even if they hope to get back to what seems like a manageable goal of 44 wins. The number of victories, though, isn’t as important as making a bigger move in the postseason and getting past the first round.

“Making the playoffs was just a quarter of what we’re trying to go,” Marcus Morris said. “Expectations are way higher. Being swept in the first round is not acceptable. We have to forget last year; it’s a whole new team with next expectations for ourselves.”