Stan Van Gundy has reshaped the Detroit Pistons to fit his coaching style, but the question is if he’s been able to do enough to help the Pistons survive life in the Central Division. In the last six seasons, which has seen Detroit go through five coaches, they’ve finished fourth four times and fifth twice. They’ve only managed 30 wins twice, with last year’s 32 setting a new high-water mark, and haven’t come close to a postseason berth.
That’s a long drop for a franchise that won the division six times in seven years between 2002-2008 – a stretch that also included the 2004 championship and a seventh-game loss to San Antonio in the 2005 Finals.
They go into 2015-16 with an athletic starting lineup and three-point shooters Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Marcus Morris and Ersan Ilyasova spreading the floor for what blossomed late last season into a devastating pick-and-roll combo of Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond.
There’s very little quality depth, though, and if Morris can’t both take a major step forward and stop brooding about being traded away from his brother, the Pistons will have to rely on untested rookie Stanley Johnson at small forward.
Is that enough to build on last season’s 32 wins and avoid a second consecutive last-place finish? More importantly, is it enough to get the team into the postseason before they lose more of a withering fan base?
To find out, let’s see how the Pistons match up against the other Central Division teams after their own offseason moves.
Cleveland Cavaliers: They still have LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, which makes them a tough matchup for any NBA team, much less the Pistons, and they just re-signed J.R. Smith. They haven’t been able to reach a deal with Tristan Thompson, but he’s a restricted free agent, so he’ll either be back on a qualifying offer a la Greg Monroe last season or on a new long-term deal.
The Cavs made some minor moves at the back end of the rotation, adding Mo Williams and ancient Richard Jefferson, but to be honest, this entry could’ve stopped with “they still have LeBron James” and the Pistons weren’t going to catch them.
Chicago Bulls: They still have Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler, Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah, so the news isn’t any better for Detroit here. Rose is obviously a health risk every time he steps foot on a basketball court, but the Bulls won 50 games with him missing a chunk of the season, so they have just gotten used to it.
The only major change in Chicago is that Fred Hoiberg replaces Tom Thibodeau. This will be Hoiberg’s first year as an NBA head coach, but if you watched the Finals a couple months ago, you know that first-year head coaches aren’t exactly automatic failures these days.
Milwaukee Bucks: This is a weird situation for the Pistons, because the Bucks made a big splash in the free-agent market by signing Monroe, who will replace Ilyasova (kind of) in the frontcourt, while Ilyasova replaces Monroe in Detroit.
The Bucks also added Chris Copeland and Greivis Vasquez, but their second-biggest move might have been to lock up Khris Middleton with a contract extension. In his second season with Milwaukee, Middleton continued to progress into a dangerous small forward, the same position Detroit is struggling to fill. In case you’ve forgotten, the Pistons sent Middleton to Milwaukee as a throw-in to the Brandon Jennings-for-Brandon Knight trade.
The Pistons might have a chance to get closer to Milwaukee this season, but one suspects that Monroe is going to have a huge season now that he’s gotten away from a dysfunctional franchise that was driving him crazy.
Indiana Pacers: This is Detroit’s best shot, as a sub-.500 Indiana team has dismantled itself over the summer. They could be good, they could be mediocre or they could be awful – no one is going to have any idea until this roster takes the floor.
The most important thing for the Pacers is that Paul George is healthy again after the freak accident that cost him most of last season. With Roy Hibbert off to Hollywood, George is expected to play a lot of power forward in a small-ball lineup that’s added Monta Ellis, Chase Budinger and Jordan Hill.
They’ll be tough to guard, but a lot of their rim protection might hinge on the development of rookie Myles Turner. He was expected to be a project, but had a strong Summer League. If he takes a major step forward, the Pistons might not be able to pull away from the Pacers as easily as they’d hoped.
So, no, the Pistons aren’t about to win the Central again, and even a top three finish would require the Ilyasova-for-Monroe switch to work out well for them and badly for the Bucks. They’ll do everything they can to get the postseason spot that owner Tom Gores needs, but it won’t be easy.