The Detroit Pistons go into training camp next week with a lot of question marks. Most of them won’t be answered until the team takes the floor for real at the end of October, but there are a few that Stan Van Gundy can start to answer during practices and preseason games.
Obviously, the biggest question hanging over the team is their ability to just compete again. The Pistons went to the Eastern Conference Finals six straight times between 2003-2008, including winning it all in 2004 and taking the Spurs to seven games in 2005, but they haven’t won a single postseason game since that streak ended. They were swept by the Cavaliers in 2009 and haven’t won 40 percent of their games in any of the last six years.
A lot of that was due to the mismanagement of Joe Dumars, who lost the touch that had built the 2004 champions. He fired Flip Saunders after the 2008 Eastern Conference Finals loss to Boston, saying that the franchise needed a coach who could take them to the next step. That wasn’t Michael Curry, who was fired after the blowout by Cleveland, and John Kuester, Lawrence Frank, Mo Cheeks and John Loyer never got the Pistons near the playoffs.
Dumars is gone now, but Van Gundy needed last year to try to rebuild a dysfunctional roster, and had to do it without a first-round pick in his first summer, thanks to another Dumars mistake.
Van Gundy is building his roster around one Dumars-era player, Andre Drummond, but the only other player who remains from two years ago are Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and the injured Brandon Jennings. The rest, while not always acquired in ideal circumstances, are all players that Van Gundy has brought in.
Van Gundy spoke to Keith Langlois of Pistons.com about the roster turnover:
“Again, we have a lot of new guys. I will admit, I will look forward to the day where we do not have as many new guys and I think, hopefully, we’re getting to that point now where there’s not going to be the number of moves. There may still be moves, but not the number of them and you can start to build some continuity. But with so many new guys, you sort of start at zero and work your way up.”
“It’s starting over again, there’s no question. But I like our group. We’ll just have to see how quickly it all comes together.”
The biggest training camp battle will be sorting out the point-guard situation. Reggie Jackson goes into the season as the starter with a five-year, $80-million contract, but it isn’t clear who will back him up. Jennings is at least two months away from being able to practice at full speed, and there’s no way of knowing when he’ll be able to play or at what level he will return.
Spencer Dinwiddie didn’t show anything as a rookie that makes it clear that he can handle the backup role on a playoff team, which is why Van Gundy brought in veteran Steve Blake. However, with Jennings taking up a spot on the 15-man roster, can the Pistons afford to carry four point guards, or will they have to risk either going with Dinwiddie as the only healthy backup or cutting ties with him and going with Blake?
There’s also a possible battle at small forward, where rookie Stanley Johnson will be challenging newcomer Marcus Morris. Johnson is anticipated to be the long-term solution at the position, but Morris plans to keep the job as long as he can, and he also spoke to Langlois about it:
“There’s a lot of opportunity here. I have a chance to come in and start right away. I’ve been in the league for five years. It’s nothing new to me. I’ve started my share of games. It’s not like I’m new to it.”
Morris is looking forward to the mismatches that the Pistons should be able to create with three-point shooters Ersan Ilyasova and Anthony Tolliver sharing the power-forward position previously held by post-specialist Greg Monroe:
“That’s the great thing about having Ersan and AT, having them at the four and calling for pick and rolls and getting that switch and being able to attack those guys. That’s going to work in our favor.”
“That’s always been a part of my game. With being a big three, I’ve got to utilize that. I don’t want to stand out on the wing and I’ve got a smaller guy on me. That tended to happen a lot in Phoenix where they didn’t utilize the mismatches. And I think that’s going to be a mismatch.”
There’s one thing that’ll be a certainty, though. From the first minute of the first practice, Van Gundy will be preaching the importance of defense – something he’s done since his first NBA job in Miami. The Pistons made improvements on that end toward the end of last year, but there’s still a lot of work to be done (via Pistons.com):
“We’re making some adjustments to our pick-and-roll defense – how we play it, how we teach it. We’re going to make some fairly significant changes in how we guard guys, shooters, running off screens. So there’s a decent amount of adjustment.”
Van Gundy knows that the Pistons aren’t going to challenge for an NBA title this season, but he also knows that by the end of camp, he has to have them ready to play well. Last year, they were 5-23 at Christmas, a hole they could never escape, and he can’t afford that to happen again.