AUBURN HILLS, Mich. (AP) After returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2009 and being swept in the opening round by the eventual champions, the Detroit Pistons have a pretty obvious challenge ahead.
This young team has the potential for more growth in Stan Van Gundy's third season as coach and could certainly advance further in the postseason if things break right. But the Pistons should take nothing for granted.
''It's a new year, and we have to go through the process. You can't skip steps,'' Van Gundy said. ''We made the point to guys - this isn't a continuation of last year, we don't start at 44 wins and the eighth seed in the playoffs and try to climb. You start at zero wins and no guarantee of anything.''
Detroit's 44-38 mark last season was good enough for a long-awaited postseason berth, and a four-game loss to Cleveland wasn't too much of a downer after everything the Pistons had accomplished. With Andre Drummond back and signed to a long-term contract, Detroit has a solid nucleus to build around, but the next step won't necessarily be easy.
The Pistons return their starting five of Drummond, guards Reggie Jackson and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and forwards Tobias Harris and Marcus Morris. They expect to be without Jackson for a while at the beginning of the season because of knee and thumb problems.
While the Pistons have a long way to go before standing toe to toe with Cleveland atop the East, there appears to be enough parity among the conference's other playoff-caliber teams that a move up the standings is plausible for Detroit.
Here are a few more things to watch with the Pistons this season:
DRUMMOND'S FREE THROWS
Drummond has made 38 percent of his free throws for his career, a figure that's caused Van Gundy to take his star big man out of games at crucial moments. Drummond has used virtual reality in an effort to improve at the line, but it remains to be seen if his offseason work will pay off.
Jackson averaged 18.8 points and 6.2 assists last season, forming an impressive point guard-center tandem with Drummond. The Pistons announced Oct. 10 that he would miss six to eight weeks after receiving platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injections. If Jackson is able to come back on that timetable, he'd still have a chance to contribute plenty this season, but the Pistons want to make sure they don't fall too far behind while he's out.
Detroit signed guard Ish Smith in the offseason, and his role figures to increase while Jackson is out. The Pistons also brought in forward Jon Leuer and drafted 6-foot-11 forward Henry Ellenson out of Marquette in the first round.
Stanley Johnson averaged 8.1 points a game as a rookie, and at age 20 has the potential for a big leap this season and next. His athleticism on the wing could become a real asset if he develops into a more consistent player at both ends.
Van Gundy said recently the backcourt rotation was still an issue entering the season. Darrun Hilliard showed poise when called upon last season in limited duty, and 6-foot-7 rookie Michael Gbinije could add versatility if he proves he's ready to play at the NBA level.
''Those two spots I'm not totally clear on right now going into the season,'' Van Gundy said. ''I know what we're doing at center, I know what we're doing at the three and the four primarily. It's, what are we doing at the one and the two off the bench?''
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