The Pistons won’t begin their training camp until later this month, but when they head to Ann Arbor for a week of preseason preparation, they’ll have a different direction than last season, when they finished 39-43 and missed the postseason for the second straight season.
With new coach Dwane Casey and the core of the roster returning, the Pistons are projected to be a playoff team after some shifting among the top teams in the Eastern Conference. Still, there’s plenty that they can do to elevate themselves to the middle of the playoff pack and give themselves a shot at a more than a first-round run.
Andre Drummond is coming off another All-Star season and Reggie Jackson and Blake Griffin are back healthy, forming a trio that the new front office is committed to building around.
As they sit on the cusp of becoming a playoff contender, here are some reasons to be optimistic about a bounce-back season — or pessimistic about their chances of getting back to respectability.
1. Best-case scenario: In hiring Casey, who was voted coach of the year after leading the Raptors to a franchise-record 59 wins, the Pistons got the best coach on the market. He’ll have a different philosophy than his predecessor, Stan Van Gundy, with more of an emphasis on 3-point shooting. More than the offensive and defensive schemes, Casey is regarded for his relationships with players — an area where he’s already made some strides in his first couple of months on the job. The next big test will be getting the reserve players to jell and play as well as his second group did with the Raptors.
2. Reggie's back: Reggie Jackson had tendinitis issues with his knee two seasons ago and he missed 37 games last season — the Pistons went 12-25 in that span — so having him back at full strength is a must. Jackson isn’t elite among the NBA’s point guards, but he’s the Pistons’ most important piece. He’s gotten the label of oft-injured but his severely sprained ankle last season was more circumstantial than anything else. If he can play 65 games or more, the Pistons should be in a good position to finish above .500.
3. Blake effect: After acquiring Blake Griffin at the trade deadline, the Pistons were constantly adjusting on the fly and trying to work him into the offense. With Jackson out, Griffin had more ball-handling and playmaking responsibilities, but having them both on the court at the same time for only eight games was not a big enough sample size to make any sweeping declarations about whether it can be successful. Griffin brings some star power and can be a mismatch at power forward, especially when he’s playing on the perimeter. Griffin is excited about this season, as he’s had his first healthy offseason in a few years.
1. Injury bug: Jackson has been the most notable Pistons injury concern, but there are others, including Griffin, who missed the last eight games of the season. Jon Leuer, who missed all but eight games last season because of myriad foot injuries, already has had a setback because of a knee injury this summer. He’s expected not to miss significant time and could be ready for the start of the season, but his injury status remains a constant concern. In getting veteran point guard Jose Calderon, the Pistons got an experienced alternative starter in case Jackson is injured again, which could keep Ish Smith with the reserve group.
2. Mix or match: Besides Griffin, the Pistons have had mostly the same core for three years and haven’t had much success to show for it. They made a push, including trading their first-round pick last season, to shore things up, hoping that Griffin is the missing piece. They’re committed financially to making that work — and if it doesn’t bear fruit this season, there isn’t much roster flexibility next season either. Stanley Johnson is coming up on his opportunity to be a restricted free agent and they’ll have a decision to make about their 2015 first-round pick. Because of their roster construction and financial commitments, the Pistons can’t make a significant move in free agency; if they want to make any significant change, they’ll have to make a larger trade to free up some space.
3. Take a pick: The Pistons’ two best players — Drummond and Griffin — are big men and they still don’t have a definitive starter at either of the wing positions, which are arguably the most important spots in the game. Reggie Bullock and Johnson were the starters last season, but Luke Kennard and Glenn Robinson III are viable options as well. If Casey gets caught up in trying to juggle minutes at those positions, it could delay the development of one of the younger players or stagnate the Pistons’ upward trajectory