Monday August 17th, 2015

The Detroit Pistons were a bad basketball team last season, though their performance was notably less bad than in seasons prior. Modest improvement shouldn't be dismissed; not every developing team is in a position to take an immediate leap, particularly one that had shuffled through coaches as a means to exercise internal frustrations. Stan Van Gundy, now entering his second year as both coach and president of basketball operations, is both the best coach in a long series of quickly fired bench leaders and the first among them to be given any measure of control.

The initial return was a 32-win season on the strength of a roster that Van Gundy had largely inherited. In the months since, he's taken steps to shape the Pistons to more closely align with his coaching preferences. Detroit ultimately sacrificed some talent (Greg Monroe, while an imperfect fit, is still a significant player) for the sake of clarity. There will be no ambiguity as to how the Pistons' offense will run, the types of players that will occupy each place in the rotation, and the internal value placed on spacing. Detroit, propelled by Andre Drummond and the re-signed Reggie Jackson, will be a spread pick-and-roll team.

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In that regard, the Pistons project to be a better version of what they were last season. Detroit was already better than its record showed; their ninth-best net rating (point differential adjusted for pace) in the East last year translated to the conference's 11th-best record, if for no good reason beyond basketball's innate randomness. The Pistons are thus in some sense building on the statistical profile of a 38-win team less the value of Monroe's contributions.

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What Detroit lost in Monroe it hopes to gain in stylistic offset. Drummond put up monster numbers last season (19 points and 16.5 rebounds per 36 minutes while shooting 55.6% from the field) whenever he played alongside floor-stretching power forward Anthony Tolliver. Lineups featuring the two were roundly positive—an effect that was exaggerated further by the presence of Jackson. Those basic ingredients (finishing, playmaking, and floor spacing) that made for Detroit's most successful blends should be the standard now that Monroe has moved on and Ersan Ilyasova has been brought in alongside Tolliver to help fill the position in a different way.

How far that might take the Pistons next season is a more complicated matter. Detroit should be a better team with a better record next season for many reasons. Yet they occupy a particularly volatile space in the Eastern Conference hierarchy for all that might go on around them in the standings. There are at most seven East teams that can be penciled in for a playoff berth in the coming year. Of the eight that remain, seven are legitimate possibilities to contend for inclusion. Any projection of Detroit's performance is mired in the complicating projections of how Boston, Indiana, Charlotte, Orlando, Brooklyn, and New York might concurrently fare.

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None of those teams are in any way exceptional, Detroit (which won't have a single one of its games shown on national TV next year) included. Yet they all fall within a level of plausible proximity as to make their relative standing transient. Orlando could solidify quickly under Scott Skiles and make a run. Brooklyn might stubbornly cling to playoff relevance. Playing Paul George at power forward could catalyze Indiana in a way that separates the Pacers from the pack.

Boston seems the easy favorite of the bunch to claim the final playoff spot (or climb higher in the standings), though Detroit looks to be the kind of team that flutters just on the edge of playoff qualification. Changes in lineup construction alone could mean big things for an offense that already rated right around the league average last season. The Pistons' defense has room to mature as a young core moves into its second season under Van Gundy—the first of which already took Detroit from 24th to 20th points allowed per possession. Incremental improvement should put the Pistons right around the metric benchmarks typical of the East's eighth seed.

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Whether Detroit can actually claim a spot in the top eight matters in the sense that playoff berths always do. Scrambling for the eighth seed tends to elicit a certain guffawing dismissal in the NBA world, but keep in mind that this franchise hasn't made the postseason since 2009. Nothing that the Pistons have done under Van Gundy to date—even the expensive contracts given to Jackson and backup Aron Baynes—take away from the team's natural, growing momentum. Qualifying for eighth wouldn't be the only way to mark Detroit's further improvement, though it's the next logical step for a team at this stage in progress.

Statistical support courtesy of NBA.com.

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