For the Detroit Pistons, the 2015-16 season can’t be business as usual. They haven’t reached the postseason in the last six years, and haven’t posted a .500 season or won a playoff game since Flip Saunders’s last season in 2008.
As a result, the Palace of Auburn Hills has gone from one of the toughest places to play in the NBA to one of the deadest arenas in basketball. Owner Tom Gores has poured tens of millions of dollars into upgrading the building, which opened in 1988, and has made it clear that he wants a winning team to bring the crowds back.
Things hit a low point last year when, by far, the loudest crowd of the season came on a night where Toronto fans took over the building, turning it into Air Canada Centre West. Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy joked that he was used to it – having it happen every time New York came to Miami – but it was an embarrassment for a franchise that’s used to sellout streaks that last for years.
Van Gundy got a one-year grace period – Gores understood that he was working with the dysfunctional roster left behind by Joe Dumars – but he needs to take a serious step forward this season.
What Happened Last Year
As Van Gundy put it many times last season, the Pistons didn’t play one season in 2014-15, they played at least three. He hadn’t been able to make many changes, especially when Detroit’s first-round draft pick ended up in Charlotte as part of a deal Dumars had made to dump Ben Gordon’s contract, but Van Gundy hoped that he’d at least have the team playing solid defense and taking advantage of players like Brandon Jennings, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond.
That didn’t happen. Instead, the Pistons started 2-6, and after hopes were raised by an overtime win in Oklahoma City, promptly lost their next 13 games. At Christmas, they were 5-23, by far the worst record that a Van Gundy team had ever posted, and a huge part of the problem was down to one player – Josh Smith.
Smith, another of Dumars’s disastrous free-agent signings, was destroying the team on both ends of the floor. He shot just 40.7 percent on two-point attempts, but still found himself behind the three-point arc time after time. In his 28 games with the Pistons, he took 37 three-pointers, making just nine. If he played power forward next to Drummond, it kept Monroe off the floor, and when Van Gundy tried him at small forward, he was helpless on the defensive end.
Worse, Smith and Jennings couldn’t work together at the end of games, with both needing to prove they were the go-to player on the team. The Pistons lost leads almost every night as Jennings and Smith took shot after shot.
Van Gundy had hinted at cutting Smith’s playing time, but while the Pistons were on Christmas break, he did more than that. He convinced Gores to eat Smith’s contract and waived him outright.
That started the second Pistons season – the one that looked like it might turn Van Gundy into a miracle worker. With Smith gone and Anthony Tolliver brought in to back up Monroe at power forward, Jennings was able to take over the team. Detroit won its first seven games after the holiday, and after being Orlando on Jan. 21, they were 17-26, a 12-3 run since Smith had been banished. In the win over the Magic, Jennings became the first Piston with a 20-point, 20-assist game since Isiah Thomas 30 years earlier, and people were predicting that Detroit would make the postseason despite the horrible start.
In the next game, playing against his old team, Jennings tore his Achilles’ tendon. Eight months later, he’s still nowhere near ready to play, and doesn’t have much of a future left in Detroit.
Without Jennings, the playoff hopes were gone, but Van Gundy made a major move at the trade deadline to try to salvage the season, acquiring Reggie Jackson from Oklahoma City to replace Jennings as Detroit’s point guard of the present and of the future. In the short term, the move didn’t work – the Pistons went on a 10-game losing streak as soon as Jackson took over the job, but he eventually started to build chemistry with his teammates. The season ended at 32-50, and another empty summer was at hand.
What Happened This Summer
Van Gundy found that between a bad recent history and brutal winters, getting quality free agents to come to Detroit wasn’t easy. Monroe left for Milwaukee without many regrets on either side, and Van Gundy turned to trades to make his biggest pickup of the summer: Milwaukee power forward Ersan Ilyasova. It was obvious last season that Jackson and Drummond were a dangerous pick-and-roll duo when Tolliver – a stretch 4 – was on the court, but struggled when Monroe was in the post. Ilyasova gives Detroit that same kind of shooting range from the outside.
Van Gundy picked up Arizona wing Stanley Johnson with the eighth pick of the first round, and he’s expected to be the small forward of the future. Until he’s ready, the Pistons will go with Marcus Morris at the 3 after Van Gundy acquired him in a Phoenix salary dump.
The franchise is built around Drummond, but Van Gundy’s tenure as team president is going to be remembered by the five-year, $80 million contract he gave to Jackson in the offseason. Jackson has shown signs of brilliance as an injury replacement with both the Thunder and Pistons – he joined Jennings with a 20/20 game of his own late last year, but he’s never been the No. 1 guy for a team.
If he and Drummond can expand from the foundation they built last season, they could revitalize the franchise, but that’s a big if, and there’s no Plan B. Jennings isn’t expected back until at least Christmas, and he and Jackson don’t have the skill sets to play together. If Jackson doesn’t work out, $80 million will poison the salary cap for years to come, no matter how big it gets.
Right now, the Pistons still don’t have enough three-point shooting to make Van Gundy’s system work. They’re going into the year with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Morris on the wings, and they aren’t the type of players who can bomb a team out of a zone defense. Ilyasova will help in that regard, but the Pistons need Johnson to take the small-forward spot as quickly as possible.
They also need Jennings to return quickly and at something close to full speed. They don’t need him on the floor, but they do need to be able to trade him to a contender for a shooter.
Van Gundy’s got his roster now, but he wasn’t able to make the moves he needed in free agency to set up a big step forward. The Pistons will be better, and may sneak into one of the last Eastern Conference playoff spots, but contending will have to wait at least one more year.