Last week, we looked at how Stan Van Gundy’s offseason deals have built the kind of starting lineup that brought him such success in Orlando, and, to a lesser extent in Miami. Unless Reggie Jackson turns out to be much better than even Van Gundy hopes, there’s no Dwyane Wade in Detroit.
The problem, which stems from Detroit’s major issues with attracting free agents, is that once Van Gundy has to go to his second unit, there’s not much there.
Even when the Pistons were consistently winning, they were never a great free-agent market. Hockey players are used to cold weather, and Mike Ilitch had an open checkbook, so the Red Wings have never had a problem getting players to come to Detroit, but that’s not the case for the Pistons.
Every player that came to the Pistons was immediately told by his teammates to put the flashy car away for the winter and get the biggest four-wheel drive truck you can find. Some players took this to incredible extremes – Ben Wallace finished his career driving a pickup that had been built onto the frame of a 18-wheeler’s cab – but you only saw the Bentleys and the top-end Mercedez Benzes during training camp and the postseason.
After seeing the disasters of Joe Dumars’ excursions into big-money free agency – Charlie Villanueva and Ben Gordon almost got him fired, while Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings did – Van Gundy has built his roster mainly through trades. That has worked well in the sense that he’s gotten the players he’s wanted, but he’s had to give up valuable pieces to do it. It’s the same strategy that Dave Dombrowski used to build the great Tigers teams of the last few years, but got him fired when he ran out of trade chips.
Dombrowski, though, had minor-league prospects to trade, while every deal Van Gundy makes has to come from the current roster and draft picks. On a few occasions, he’s gotten lucky with a team looking to clear cap space. He got Ersan Ilyasova for Shawne Williams and Caron Butler, because Milwaukee needed to make room to sign Greg Monroe.
The same thing worked with Phoenix, where he acquired Marcus Morris, Reggie Bullock and Danny Granger for a future second-round pick. The Suns were in a hurry to clear space for a futile run at LaMarcus Aldridge, and gave away a decent player in Morris.
Sometimes, though, he has to pay market value. To get Reggie Jackson, Van Gundy had to give up an experienced point guard in D.J. Augustin, plus his best 3-point shooter in Kyle Singler. He also gave up two bench players in Jonas Jerebko and Gigi Datome, both of whom helped Boston, in an odd move to bring Tayshaun Prince back to Detroit – a place he obviously didn’t want to be.
Right now, the Pistons have a projected starting lineup of Jackson at the point, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope at shooting guard, Morris at small forward with first-round pick Stanley Johnson expected to be pushing him, Ilyasova at power forward and, of course, franchise cornerstone Andre Drummond at center.
That’s not a lineup that is going to threaten for a title, but for the first time in years, it is a lineup that is at least built around a coherent plan. Van Gundy’s system needs better 3-point shooting from the wings – something that he’s been unable to find in free agency for two summers in a row – but he’s getting things built in the right direction.
The problem, though, is the bench. Detroit’s second-highest paid player is Jennings, who isn’t ready to come back from last year’s Achilles surgery, and doesn’t have a position to play with Jackson entrenched at the point.
Ilyasova is third on the payroll, but fourth is Aron Baynes, who will be making $6.5 million to back up Drummond without possessing any of his talent. Jodie Meeks will also be making over $6 million to come off the bench behind Caldwell-Pope after failing badly to win a starting spot last year. In both cases, Van Gundy had to overpay players to come to Detroit in free agency.
Anthony Tolliver is a solid backup power forward, but Jackson’s backup will come down to a battle between inexperienced Spencer Dinwiddie and aging Steve Blake.
That’s what is most likely to hurt the Pistons in 2015-16. The starting lineup should be able to do a better job of staying in games, but the bench is going to struggle to keep them there.