Pistons next milestone in the Van Gundy Era? 50 wins


Head coach Stan Van Gundy has improved the Detroit Pistons by 15 wins in his first two seasons with the team.

Could the Detroit Pistons really reach the 50-win plateau for the first time since the 2007-08 season?

While not an easy conclusion, the answer is “yes,” as the Pistons enter the third season of the Stan Van Gundy era.

With a 12-win improvement from 2014-15 (32 wins) to 2015-16 (44 wins), attaining 50 wins during the 2016-17 campaign has become a realistic expectation. And if the Pistons get to 50 wins, they could maybe even be in position to lock up a top-3 seed in the NBA’s East.

The defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers and the Toronto Raptors were the only two Eastern Conference squads to finish with 50-plus wins last season. They look poised to remain one and two in the East, respectively, with Cleveland’s “Big Three” led by LeBron James remaining intact plus the All-Star duo of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry still leading the way for Toronto.

Now, let’s try to determine whether the Pistons can get to 50 wins. To properly do so, let’s first look at the makeup of the Eastern Conference playoff teams from a season ago that are not named the Cavaliers or Raptors.

The one with arguably the most significant turnover going into this season is the Miami Heat.

This offseason, Miami president Pat Riley controversially parted ways with franchise icon Dwyane Wade and fellow multi-time NBA champion Chris Bosh, who might never play another minute of NBA action due to recurring blood clots.

The Atlanta Hawks, who along with the Heat, Boston Celtics and Charlotte Hornets finished 48-34 last season, also had their fair share of turnover over the offseason.

They traded starting point guard Jeff Teague to the Indiana Pacers, and lost four-time All-Star center Al Horford in free agency to the Celtics.

And how did the Hawks go about replacing Horford? They brought in another All-Star center in Atlanta native Dwight Howard, who might not mesh well with Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer’s offensive scheme that relies upon extremely efficient ball movement.

The Hornets joined the Heat and Hawks in losing an impactful big man over the offseason.

It was Al Jefferson, who jettisoned the Hornets to join Teague and the Pacers.

And it wasn’t just Jefferson who decided to leave the Hornets. Charlotte also lost veteran sharpshooter Courtney Lee to the New York Knicks.

Moving on to the Celtics, who grabbed one of the biggest fishes of free agency in Horford. The four-time All-Star adds a ton of basketball acumen and veteran leadership to a young Celtics roster full of players under 30 years old. He also possesses the ability to anchor the Celtics’ defense, just like recently retired Kevin Garnett did during his tenure in Boston.

The only other team who finished ahead of the Pistons last season was the Pacers, who finished with 45 victories.

The Pacers should be about a 45-win team once again with superstar Paul George leading the way. However, don’t expect much more from the Pacers during the 2016-17 campaign. The squad’s top-tier defense is expected to take a step back as the result of moving on from noted defensive whiz Frank Vogel as head coach.

Through that lengthy dissection, one thing stood out to you: only the Celtics legitimately upgraded their squad. Everyone else either stayed about the same talent wise (Pacers) or took a step back (Hawks, Heat and Hornets).

Which means the Pistons have a legitimate shot at moving up in the Eastern Conference pecking order, and should be able to crack the top four in the conference.

In determining whether the Pistons can get to 50 wins, though, there’s one other important aspect to look at: the potential of the Pistons to make internal improvements.

Van Gundy’s team should be aided by a full season of last season’s prized pre-trade deadline acquisition Tobias Harris plus improved play from second-year players Stanley Johnson and offseason acquisition Boban Marjanovic.

Harris, who is only 24, was worth a career-best 6.6 win shares in time spent with the Orlando Magic and Detroit last season. Harris also posted a career-best player efficiency rating of 18.2 (league-average PER is 15) in 27 games with the Pistons. It was good for the third-highest PER on the Detroit roster, trailing only franchise cornerstones Reggie Jackson (19.6) and Andre Drummond (21.2).

It’s important to note that Harris also proved to be a fairly efficient shooter from long distance in his time with the Pistons last season. He knocked down 37.5 percent of his 3-point field goal attempts.

If he continues to do so, there’s no doubt that he will thrive in Van Gundy’s offense that is predicated upon efficient 3-point shooting and the presence of a dominant big man, like Drummond.

Speaking of Drummond, his presence along with fellow big men Aron Baynes and Marjanovic, two former San Antonio Spurs, should lead to one of the most physically intimidating frontcourts in the NBA during the 2016-17 campaign.

Good luck trying to score underneath the basket against the three of them. And if you think the 6-foot-10-inch Baynes or 6-foot-11-inch Drummond are tall, then you haven’t seen Marjanovic yet.

Marjanovic, already a Pistons fan favorite and perhaps better known as simply Boban, comes in at a towering 7-feet-3 inches tall. And no, that is not a mistype. Boban averaged 3.6 rebounds in less than 10 minutes a game as a rookie with the Spurs last season. Over 36 minutes, that equates to nearly 14 boards a game. His rebounding prowess should complement Drummond’s NBA-leading efforts (14.8 per game) from last season very nicely.

Boban, Baynes and Drummond are all proficient shot blockers, too. When you look at the amount of blocks per game for each player from the 2015-16 campaign and equate the stat to a 36-minute average, you’ll see that each imposing big recorded at least 1.5 blocks a game. Each of them also posted solid PERs in their respective 2015-16 campaigns, with Boban leading the way with a 27.7 mark in 54 games.

Marjanovic should be considered one of the most underrated additions of the offseason.

The strong defense and rebounding from the frontcourt is nice, however, the Pistons will also need to find a way to score, and that’s where Jackson, the star point guard, comes into play.

The Boston College product averaged a career-best 18.8 points per game last season. He also was worth 6.9 win shares, good for second best on the Pistons roster.

Who was No. 1 in win shares? None other than Detroit’s 2015-16 All-Star representative Drummond with 7.4 win shares.

The only other two members of the 2015-16 Pistons that finished with more than five win shares were shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (5.3) and forward Marcus Morris (5.4).

Jackson, KCP and Morris each made significant jumps in win shares from 2014-15 to last season, allowing Detroit to make significant strides during SVG’s second campaign as Detroit head man.

For Detroit to become a 50-win squad in SVG’s third season, Jackson, KCP and Morris will need to take another step forward. If you’re questioning whether this is feasible for all three players, let me stop you right there.

While it might sound crazy, remember that Morris is the oldest of the three players at 27. Jackson is right behind him at 26 while KCP is a mere 23 years old.

KCP, the Pistons’ first-round draft pick in 2013, could be in store for another significant jump. As for Jackson and Morris, a minor jump isn’t out of the question.

Harris should be able to replicate his 6.6 win shares in a full season with the Pistons. He was good for 3.3 WS in the 27 games he played in Motown during the ’15-16 campaign.

There’s also reason to believe there will be an uptick in production by Johnson, Detroit’s first-round pick in the 2015 NBA Draft. He was considered a steal when the Pistons acquired him, and the up-and-coming elite wing defender should be able to showcase why that’s the case even more in his second year as a pro.

Wisconsin product Jon Leuer, like Boban, was one of the most underrated acquisitions made by an NBA team this offseason. He’s the definition of a stretch four, after knocking down 38.2 percent of his 3-point attempts with the Phoenix Suns last season. He also managed to produce 2.7 win shares, a career-best mark for the sixth-year pro. At 27, Leuer might finally be realizing his full potential as a pro, and that’s bound to produce excitement for SVG whose offense is a perfect fit for the former second-round pick.

The Pistons are loaded and could have an embarrassment of riches in the frontcourt for a long time after making 6-foot-11-inch forward Henry Ellenson their first-round selection this past summer.

As the result of the logjam in the frontcourt plus the need for Ellenson to develop a more consistent 3-point shot, the Marquette University product is not expected to make much of an impact during his rookie campaign. He should see time with the Grand Rapids Drive, the Pistons’ D-League affiliate, this season.

The logjam in the frontcourt is a good thing, though, as it provides the Pistons with an ample amount of quality bigs.

It also can’t be forgotten that SVG and Detroit GM Jeff Bower picked up a backup point guard this offseason whose “Ish” doesn’t stink. I’m talking about journeyman Ish Smith whose stint with the Pistons marks his 10th different NBA stop. But this journeyman is not a dud, he’s still only 28, and provides an upgrade over last season’s primary backup point guard, Steve Blake.

Added depth and likely improvements from Detroit’s young core should pave the road for a 50-win campaign in Motown during SVG’s third year. But don’t expect a top-3 seed in the East quite yet.

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