It wasn’t even a year ago when the Detroit Pistons were considered one of the league’s most promising up-and-coming teams.
On the back of Andre Drummond’s burgeoning two-way prowess and a well-rounded roster boasting young talent across the floor, Stan Van Gundy’s squad would continue climbing the Eastern Conference ranks until its hard-fought sweep at hand of LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round of the 2016 playoffs would no longer be considered a moral victory. The Pistons were coming, situated with the Milwaukee Bucks and perhaps the Philadelphia 76ers as one of the teams primed to take advantage of James finally slowing down due to the inevitable effects of Father Time.
Then last season happened, and any momentum Detroit had built in its first two years under Van Gundy vanished entirely. Drummond’s development slowed to a crawl or stalled entirely; Reggie Jackson missed the first month of play, and indulged his worst basketball and attitude instincts upon his return; Stanley Johnson fell out of the rotation before woefully underwhelming during the hopeless doldrums of spring; and a team who’s confrontational brand of chemistry once seemed a unique strength became the biggest factor that suggested its eventual dismantling.
The Pistons’ 37-45 record doesn’t paint a bleak enough picture of their regression. What does is the once-untouchable Drummond being a fixture on the trading block since last February, and the all-encompassing notion that Detroit is now a lost cause. The East has never been weaker. If there was ever a chance for the Pistons to act like 2016-17 never happened by racking up hollow wins against historically substandard in-conference foes, this season would be it.
But Detroit is an afterthought now, situated somewhere among the morass of teams far below the upper class with little realistic means of the improvement necessary to contend. Are the Pistons or the Charlotte Hornets going to be better in 2017-18? That any sane league follower would bet on the perpetually solid but never-threatening Hornets is a good indication of the basketball world’s appraisal of Van Gundy’s team as opening night quickly approaches. No one knows exactly what this team is; worse is that no one really cares.
They should, though, if for no other reason that there’s a real possibility this season becomes a months-long fire sale for Detroit. In June, amid ongoing rumors of a trade involving Drummond, Van Gundy didn’t exactly dispel the assumption that the Pistons were prepared to hit the reset button if the right deal came along.
“We won 37 games,” he told Ansar Khan of mlive.com. “We’re going to look to do anything we can to get better.”
A week later, that meant trading Marcus Morris to the Boston Celtics for Avery Bradley and a second-round pick, which effectively ended free agent Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s tenure in Detroit. Bradley makes the Pistons better this season, and getting rid of Morris opens up playing time for Johnson and former lottery pick Henry Ellenson – the two players on this roster who could change their team’s fortunes more than any others.
But the Bradley trade and its fallout aren’t all about immediate wins and losses. The Pistons had no interest in paying Caldwell-Pope mega bucks in restricted free agency, and Bradley is a free agent after this season. He’s perfect trade bait should Detroit fail to establish itself as a surefire playoff team early in the calendar, which is something that could be said for several other players on this team. Few forwards are more malleable than Tobias Harris in a supporting role; teams like the Brooklyn Nets would love to buy low on a young player with Johnson’s untapped potential; and Drummond, proliferation of skilled big men notwithstanding, isn’t the type of talent the league at large gives up on so quickly.
The Pistons are in a make-or-break season, basically, but their level of volatility has a higher ceiling than other teams facing a similar crossroads. Just how good could Detroit be if everything suddenly started clicking, both this season and going forward? The limits on Drummond’s game have become clear. He won’t ever be a direct source of offense and is unlikely to develop the commitment and awareness necessary to be a truly elite defender. That doesn’t mean Drummond isn’t valuable or lacks room for improvement, but what it does mean is that dreams of him leading a team to contention won’t be materializing on the court at any point in his career.
Without a player to pick up Drummond’s vacated mantle of franchise player, the Pistons would top out as nothing more than a middle-of-the-road playoff team in the weaker of two conferences. Van Gundy knows that better than anyone, of course. The question he must answer this season is whether or not he’s comfortable coaching a team with a hard cap on its upward mobility. If Detroit struggles early, Van Gundy’s choice will be easy. But should the Pistons get off to a start that portends a spot in the postseason? Pulling the plug on progress is much more difficult than doing the same on stagnation.
Every year, there’s a team or two that could suddenly devolve into one of spare parts if its season goes awry. Detroit, maybe more than any other team in the league, qualifies in 2017-18. That possibility coming to pass wouldn’t make for great basketball, but would allow for the Pistons to wield far more influence across the NBA than they would otherwise.
Could Jackson revive his career as a backup playmaker on a good team? Is Bradley good enough to be a difference-maker for a contender as a midseason addition? Just what type of player is Johnson? What if Drummond’s lack of improvement is tied to his current circumstances with the Pistons?
Diehard basketball fans won’t need a reason to watch Detroit. For everyone else, imagining what individual Pistons might look like wearing a different jersey should be more than enough justification to pay attention.