The Detroit Pistons made major changes to their roster in the offseason and looked bound for a return to the playoffs, but after a disappointing season, they missed the postseason for the fifth consecutive season.
What started as a season full of promise and excitement, after an active offseason, ended with the Pistons missing the playoffs for the fifth year in a row.
After signing Josh Smith and trading for Brandon Jennings in the offseason, many had Detroit slotted for a place in the Eastern Conference playoffs race.
However, after their new-look frontcourt failed to gel and the whole team struggled on the defensive end, the Pistons were left languishing with a 29-53 record – fifth worst in the East and eighth worst in the league – at the end of the season.
Detroit made a living inside the paint, exploiting the size of Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe to create havoc down low for opponents. They finished the season with the second-most two-point field goals made in the league and were first in the league for offensive rebounds – their offensive rebounding dominance was so great that the Pistons finished the season ranked third in total rebounds despite finishing 22nd in defensive rebounding.
However, with the addition of Smith, Monroe’s development began to falter. His scoring fell to 15.2 points per night – the first time it had not improved on the season before in his career – while his 9.3 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game were also down on last season.
Jennings (15.5 points [the lowest since his rookie season] on 37.3% from the floor and 33.7% from deep and 7.6 assists per game) also struggled to adapt to life on a team with so many options on offence. Unlike his time with the Milwaukee Bucks, where the former Oak Hill prep star was often the main focus on offence, Jennings was often indecisive of when to feed his big men and when to look for his own shot.
Veterans Rodney Stuckey (13.9 points) and Will Bynum (8.7 points and 3.9 assists) provided some help off the bench.
Meanwhile, second-year forward Kyle Singler showed he could be a valuable role player heading forward, averaging 9.6 points and 3.7 rebounds in 28.5 minutes per night.
However, the play of $37.7 million man Charlie Villanueva (4.6 points in 9.0 minutes per game over 20 appearances), fourth-year Swedish product Jonas Jerebko (4.2 points), former Finals MVP Chauncey Billups (3.8 points and 2.2 assists through 19 games) and 2013 eighth overall pick Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (5.9 points – missed All-Rookie selection) emphasised the changes that need to made to the Pistons roster.
Most Valuable Player
The Pistons took a gamble on Drummond when he fell to ninth in the 2012 draft. He was an excellent prospect with fantastic size and upsize, but was super raw and still learning the fundamentals of the game.
However, two seasons later and that risky selection is paying off tenfold. In his sophomore year in Motor City, Drummond scoring and rebounding increased to 13.5 points and 13.2 rebounds (second in the league) per game respectively – both career highs.
He also shot a ridiculous 62.3% from the floor, denied 1.6 shots per night (10th) and finished the season with the leagues 13th-best Player Efficiency Rating at 22.6.
Drummonds first season was a sharp learning curve, averaging just 20.7 minutes per night and making only 10 starts in 60 appearances. But he burst onto the scene this season, upping his minutes to 32.3 a night and appearance in all but one game for the season (all starts).
He still has his weaknesses. Mainly, free throw shooting. Drummond hit 41.8% attempts from the stripe this season. However, he shot 29.5% from the line in his sole season at Connecticut and 37.1% in his rookie season, so there are at least signs of improvement.
Drummond could also stand to improve his positioning around the rim on the defensive end – he led the league in personal fouls last season with 273.
But despite those small blemishes on his game, Detroit have definitely found a keeper at the pivot.
The thing about an X-Factor is that it is not always a positive thing, nor is it always a consistent thing, which in essence completely sums up the first season of the J-Smoove era in Detroit.
Whether it was playing out of position, trying to hard to prove himself as an All-Star or a straight up lack of discipline, the fact of the matter is Smith struggled to adjust to life in Detroit.
With Drummond and Monroe occupying space down low, Smith was driven to the perimeter and forced to play small forward for the first time in six seasons – this season, Smith played 56% of his minutes at the three, compared to 13% last year and just 5% the year before.
As a result, the drop in Smith’s rebounding numbers – falling to 6.8 per game, down from a career average of 7.9 – can be forgiven. Likewise, with other scoring options on the roster like Monroe and Drummond down low and Jennings, Stuckey and Singler on the wings, you can forgive his lower points production – down to 16.4 from 17.5 last season.
What cannot be excused is the horrible shot selection that Smith forced Pistons fans to endure. A career 27.9% shooter who has never connected on better than 33.1% from beyond the arc in a season, Smith hoisted a career-high 265 long bombs, connecting at an abysmal 26.4%.
To compound the frustration, Smith shot 71.1% at the rim for the season.
If the Pistons are to climb the standings and make a return to the playoffs, they need Smith to learn his limitations and play within himself.
The Pistons made one of the biggest signings of the offseason before the season had even finished and free agency officially began, after securing the signature of head coach Stan Van Gundy.
Van Gundy, who boasts a 371-208 record in seven-plus years a head coach, could be exactly the sideline presence Detroit needs to turn their fortunes around.
SVG’s 64.1% win percentage is good enough for sixth all-time for coaches with at least 500 games on the sideline and he has made the playoffs seven times, reaching the finals with the Orlando Magic in 2009.
Know as a headstrong and vocal presence in the locker room, who is not afraid to call out his players when they put in subpar performances, Van Gundy could be the perfect coach to turn around Smith and Jennings’ careers – Van Gundy made Hedo Turkoglu into a key cog of a Finals team, imagine what he could get out of Smith if he can get through to him.
Unfortunately for Van Gundy, who will also take on the role of President of Basketball Operations, the Pistons will not have a first-round draft pick to work with this offseason.
Detroit sent a top-8 protected pick to the Charlotte Bobcats in order to shed Ben Gordon’s inflated salary in 2012. The Pistons finished with the eighth worst record in the league, but were pushed down the draft board after the Cleveland Cavaliers’ (who ironically held the ninth worst record) 1.7% chance at winning the lottery proved to be enough to jump to the top of the board.
However, the Pistons are not completely out of options to improve their squad in the offseason. Detroit has only $39.2 million in committed salary after shedding the expiring contracts of Villanueva and Stuckey and likely not taking up the team options of Billups and Josh Harrellson.
A move for a defensive-minded player should definitely be at the top of the Pistons wish list. Avery Bradley would be a bargain option (and would easily fill the void left by Stuckey if he walks), while Luol Deng would be the perfect player to balance Detroit’s roster – be that through trading Smith or allowing Monroe to leave.
They do have to decide what to do with Monroe, and even Stuckey may be worth re-signing, but there is plenty of flexibility for Van Gundy and the Pistons moving forward.
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