This was supposed to be the year that things got a little easier for Detroit Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy.
After two years of rebuilding the roster, Van Gundy signed Andre Drummond to a huge contract and made some tweaks, but he was looking at a season of stability. The Pistons ended a six-season postseason drought this spring, but were swept in the first round by the Cleveland Cavaliers.
This season, the goal was going to be moving up the Eastern Conference standings and try to win a playoff series for the first time since 2008.
However, that plan hit a major snag in the first days of training camp. Reggie Jackson’s chronic knee tendinitis worsened to the point that he underwent blood-platelet therapy. In the long term, that could solve the problem entirely, but the Pistons won’t know if it worked for months.
Either way, Jackson is going to miss a significant chunk of the season. The Pistons are hoping it could be as few as a dozen games, but it wouldn’t be a shock for him to be out for twice that long.
That’s a huge problem for the Pistons, because Jackson is more important to Van Gundy’s system than anyone other than Drummond. Detroit’s offense is built around Jackson and Drummond running the high pick-and-roll over and over.
When the opposition must guard against both getting to the rim, it opens things up around the perimeter for Tobias Harris, Marcus Morris and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. When they are hitting three-pointers, the Pistons are almost impossible to guard.
Last year, that didn’t happen nearly as often as Van Gundy would have liked. Harris (37.5 percent) and Morris (36.2 percent) were both above-average from behind the arc, but neither one came close to being the kind of 40 percent gunner that Detroit needed. Caldwell-Pope didn’t help much at all, hitting 30.9 percent on three-pointers.
Even when everything was going right, though, there was a major problem. It didn’t take teams long at all to realize that they could grind Detroit’s offense to a halt by putting Drummond on the free throw line.
Even for terrible free throw shooters like DeAndre Jordan, Dwight Howard and Ben Wallace, that’s not a viable long-term strategy. As Van Gundy pointed out numerous times during the season, those three would still provide more than 0.8 points per possession for the line, and they would lock down on defense against the team fouling them.
Drummond, though, didn’t handle it nearly as well. Shooting 35.5 percent from the line — he now owns the worst single-season and career marks for bad free throw shooting — he was barely providing 0.7 points per possession. He got frustrated, which made things even worse from the line and affected his defensive play.
The Cavaliers took advantage of the situation in the playoffs, sending him to the bench at the end of close games. Without him, Detroit dropped off significantly on both ends of the floor. They couldn’t execute the pick-and-roll with Aron Baynes at center, nor could they get stops and defensive rebounds.
Drummond chose not to focus on mechanics in his offseason work, but used a virtual-reality helmet to focus on his good free throw attempts. Will it work? No one knows, since teams weren’t about to Bang-The-Drum in a meaningless exhibition game.
Best-Case Scenario: Jackson only misses about 10 games, and Ish Smith and Beno Udrih hold down the fort until he returns. Caldwell-Pope hits 38 percent from behind the arc while still playing strong man-to-man defense, and Morris and Harris both get to 40 percent. Jon Leuer becomes a scoring threat off the bench, and Drummond’s VR helmet turns him into a 50 percent shooter from the line. Detroit wins 55 games, beats the Celtics in the first round of the playoffs and Van Gundy wins both Coach of the Year and Executive of the Year. After the season, Tom Gores announces that Palace Sports and Entertainment is merging with Olympia Entertainment (the Mike Ilitch family) and that the Pistons will move to state-of-the-art Little Caesars Arena for the 2018-19 season. This creates an entertainment monopoly for Gores and the Ilitches and reunites the Pistons with their downtown fan base.
Worst-Case Scenario: Jackson is out until Christmas and takes awhile to shake off the rust. Udrih collapses into the fetal position upon entering the Palace, still emotionally scarred from being destroyed by Chauncey Billups in the 2005 Finals. Teams keep fouling Drummond, and his frustration levels build until he’s a shell at both end of the floor. Detroit goes 28-54 and Gores puts the team and the Palace on the market.
Prediction: Jackson’s injury prevents the Pistons from taking a big step forward, and while Drummond moves his free throw percentage over 40, he still has too many bad nights. Caldwell-Pope becomes a threat at both ends and Stanley Johnson becomes a Sixth Man candidate. The Pistons go 42-40 and lose to the Cavaliers in six games, but a late-season surge and the announcement of a move downtown means a burst of optimism for 2017-18.