The Cleveland Cavaliers and Detroit Pistons had one of the league's best rivalries over the first six or seven seasons of LeBron James' career. Both teams reached the NBA Finals, and the Pistons even won a title. Both teams also experienced stunning collapses once their respective runs came to an end. In the Cavaliers' case, LeBron James' free agency departure blew a major hole in the roster and it was debilitating. In the Pistons' case, Joe Dumars, who had constructed their championship team, invested in ill-fitting free agents that crippled the franchise. Twice. The Cavaliers are back with the return of James. Can the Pistons rise once again as well?
Dumars is gone, and Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva are too. Stan Van Gundy is in, and third-year Andre Drummond is too. After that? It's all question marks.
Additions: The aforementioned Stan The Man. He's the head coach, and he does the player personnel stuff. Is he up for it? He was incredibly successful in Orlando with a star big man and shooting around him. He gets a potential star big man and ... not any of the shooting. Yet.
Jodie Meeks got a slightly ridiculous three-year, $19 million deal except that I kind of liked it. Is it an overpay? Absolutely. But it's Detroit, and I'm not sure it's much of a free agent destination right now. The fanbase is reeling, the Palace is kind of old, and they haven't won. So if you are going to invest, why not make it in a player that does exactly what you need a player to do? The Pistons have three good players in Drummond, Josh Smith, and Greg Monroe. Those guys can't shoot. What can Jodie Meeks do?
He can shoot. The yellow is kind of misleading. The guy took a lot of threes last year with the Lakers and he was productive. Eighty percent of his made field goals were assisted last season. He's a really good fit. Every time Meeks takes a three instead of, say, Brandon Jennings or Josh Smith, it'd be a win for Detroit. Alas, Meeks is likely to miss the first six weeks of the season with a stress fracture in his lower back. So ... that's not ideal.
The Pistons brought in Caron Butler and he will be a nice guy for them who doesn't do ridiculous things and thus will be worth having around. But otherwise, the Pistons didn't do anything crazy. The team was in line to hold onto the 8th overall pick in this past June's NBA Draft unless a team jumped them to land a top three pick. The, uh, Cavaliers jumped up. Detroit's pick went to Charlotte and became Noah Vonleh.
Pistons fans were kind of like
And so pressure and attention falls to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. The second-year Georgia product will start the season at shooting guard. He was inconsistent last season, but that was really the story of the Pistons. His minutes were erratic and sporadic. A lot of the advanced stats guys liked his game before the draft, and I didn't riot when the Pistons took him over Trey Burke. The Pistons need him to be a capable shooter and help space the floor. If he can play well while Meeks recovers and Brandon Jennings buys into what Van Gundy is selling, the team could hang around playoff contention.
It's hard to expect that much after his rookie year though, even if the circumstances excuse a lot of the difficulty. He was under 40% from the field, and just 32% from three point range. He got better as the year went on, but it would have been hard not to. Your faith in Caldwell-Pope should largely determine whether you think the Pistons can survive through the new year.
The biggest question, though, is how you manage the minutes of Drummond, Smith, and Monroe. Seth Corp over at Detroit Bad Boys lays it out pretty well:
I'd be willing to bet a small fortune that the trio of Drummond, Monroe and Smith will not start this year. That means that one of Monroe or Smith comes off the bench. Smith is the superior defender but a much inferior offensive player. Monroe complements Drummond better but isn't as versatile defensively and after signing the qualifying offer might not be a long-term answer.
With all the craziness and incompetence of the lone Mo Cheeks / John Loyer season, it's surprising that when any two of the three big men were on the floor, the Pistons were a pretty good team. In the 1,540 minutes any two of the three bigs were on the floor, the Pistons actually outscored their opponent by 36 points. The problem is that the three bigs played together for 1,360 minutes and got destroyed by 185 points.
So the Pistons need to stop playing the three of them together, and I think it's pretty likely that Van Gundy understands that. Monroe is younger than Smith, and is playing out the last year of his rookie contract. He will be an unrestricted free agent after this season, and it might be in the Pistons best interests to move him for either a pick or a young wing or point guard, or any combination of those things. The defensive potential of Smith-Drummond frontcourt is ridiculously high, but it's theoretical at this point.
And let's talk about Josh Smith. He's a really good power forward. He's not a good small forward. He isn't a good shooter. He's a versatile defender who can score in a variety of ways. If Van Gundy is creative with him, he can live up to his contract. The Pistons will likely keep the phone lines open for teams inquiring about him, but it's in their best interested to do everything they can to make the contract work. The relationship moving forward with Monroe might be broken, and in the case that he leaves, Josh Smith becomes one of a few good basketball players employed by the team.
What does the team need for a successful season? Stan Van Gundy has to stagger the minutes of his quite capable three big rotation. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope needs to live up to his draft choice. Jodie Meeks needs to come back and shoot at least 39 percent from three point range. Caron Butler needs to hit threes and be a solid presence in the locker room. Brandon Jennings needs to bounce back (would he be bouncing back?) and be productive.
It's a fascinating team and it isn't likely to go careening off the rails unless Van Gundy decides it's time to pull out the tank. I think it's a playoff team.