Pistons will return to the playoffs in second year under Van Gundy


Losing seasons have marred the city of Detroit and its professional sports teams lately.

The Tigers finished dead last in the American League Central in Brad Ausmus’ second season as Detroit skipper with a mark of 74-87 — 16 games worse in the win column than the 2014 version of the ballclub, which won their fourth straight division title.

Then, there’s the Lions, who have been the joke of the NFL so far in 2015, as they were the last franchise to win a game in the 32-team league this season.

But while the Lions might be frustrating you, there’something much worse the city’s sports fans have had to endure recently: watching the Pistons, who have the longest playoff drought among the four major Detroit professional sports teams.

Motown’s NBA franchise, once one of the league’s models of consistency for its six straight Eastern Conference Finals appearances from 2003-08, has no postseason appearances since 2009 when the Pistons barely made a whimper in their first round defeat at the hands of LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

That’s why the pressure is on second-year Pistons head coach Stan Van Gundy to lead Detroit’s pro basketball franchise out of its present rut. It’s certainly possible since the established Van Gundy has only missed the playoffs once in a full season as an NBA head coach (last season with the Pistons).

It also doesn’t hurt that the organization has a budding All-Star on its hands in 22-year-old center Andre Drummond, as long as he finds a way to improve upon his league-worst free throw percentage of .389 from 2014-15. The keys to the Pistons’ offense are now in the hands of Drummond, who no longer has to share the interior with either Greg Monroe or Josh Smith — both of whom fought for space underneath the basket on a nightly basis with the NBA’s leader in offensive rebounds per game last season.

Even with Monroe on the team during the ’14-15 campaign, Drummond was consistently the best player on the court, according to the win shares metric, which measures the estimated amount of wins contributed by each player in the league. According to Basketball-Reference.com, Drummond produced 7.7 win shares in ’14-15 while Monroe chipped in with 6.8 win shares for Detroit.

The player who was worth the third-highest amount of win shares during Van Gundy’s first year on the job was guard Brandon Jennings, who was good for 3.3 win shares. The 26-year-old Compton, Calif., native could be back around Christmas after suffering a torn left Achilles in January, according to Van Gundy.

Jennings’ injury is the reason why it was vital for Van Gundy and Co. to acquire a similar-style scoring guard who could handle the load of starting point guard duties at least until Jennings returns. Van Gundy got that and more when he acquired high volume-scoring floor general Reggie Jackson from the Oklahoma City Thunder at last year’s trade deadline.

Jackson, who averaged more field goal attempts per game than any other Piston during his time in the Motor City last season with 15.6, contributed 4.9 win shares over 77 games – 2.9 win shares in 50 games with the Thunder and two win shares in 27 games with the Pistons. It was the 25-year-old’s second straight campaign of recording 4.9 win shares. Thus, he has recorded nearly 10 win shares the past two seasons (9.8 WS), giving him more than Jennings, who recorded 7.2 in the same time span. It equates to Jackson, who averaged a career-high 9.2 assists per game in his abbreviated ’14-15 campaign with the Pistons, being an upgrade over Jennings at point guard.

While Van Gundy found an upgrade for his starting PG from last season, he did not do as well in picking up a power forward to replace the production of Monroe in Detroit’s starting lineup. However, at the same time, it would be unfair to say that Van Gundy did a poor job in adding players this offseason that can aptly play the position.

Whether or not he planned on it, he added two capable starting power forwards in 28-year-old former Milwaukee Buck Ersan Ilyasova and 26-year-old former Phoenix Sun Marcus Morris — both of whom should see time in the starting lineup this season. If both do what they did last year and produce four win shares, it will equate to eight win shares out of the starting PF position and more than the amount Monroe produced in his last campaign in Motown — the two stretch fours were good for four win shares each during the ’14-15 campaign.

For this reason, although the Pistons didn’t upgrade at the four, they might not miss Monroe’s presence as much as expected.

The Pistons also picked up a high quality backup big man in the offseason who previously played for Greg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs. I’m talking about New Zealand native and fourth-year pro Aron Baynes, who logged the most minutes per game of his career in ’14-15 with 16 per game. The 6’10 center was worth nearly four win shares (3.9) in his final campaign in San Antonio, where he backed up five-time NBA champion and future NBA Hall of Famer Tim Duncan.

With Baynes, Drummond and ninth-year pro Joel Anthony, who recorded 1.2 win shares in ’14-15, at center to go along with Ilyasova and Morris at power forward, the Pistons’ frontcourt should be expected to amass around 21 win shares in the upcoming season, which equates to 21 team wins according to Basketball-Reference.com.

As for the backcourt, the starters in Jackson and shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who accumulated nearly three win shares in ’14-15 (2.8), should put up eight win shares. And once Jennings returns from injury, he should easily be a three win shares player. Veteran shooting guard Jodie Meeks should also be a three win shares player in his second season playing for Van Gundy while offseason acquisition and 13th-year pro Steve Blake should be worth two win shares.

Second-year pro Spencer Dinwiddie and ’15 Detroit second-round pick Darrun Hilliard should be the weakest links of the Pistons’ backcourt, as getting more than half a win share out of either of them would be a win for Van Gundy and Co.

With all that being said, the backcourt should be expected to produce 16 win shares in the upcoming campaign, which makes the Pistons a 37-win team in ’14-15 without accounting for the presence of impact first-year pro Stanley Johnson at small forward.

If Johnson, who averaged 11.2 points per game on 37 percent shooting from the field and 41.7 percent shooting from three-point range in five preseason games from October 8th-18th, has a similar campaign to 2013 first-round selection Caldwell-Pope’s first in Motown and Minnesota Timberwolves wingman Andrew Wiggins’ 2014-15 Rookie of the Year campaign, then Johnson — a University of Arizona product – can be expected to record two win shares in his first year in “The Association.”

As for Johnson’s wingmates Anthony Tolliver, former Phoenix Sun plus Los Angeles Clipper Reggie Bullock and 2009 NBA All-Star Danny Granger, expect about three combined win shares.

While that is the case for Tolliver, Bullock and Granger, do not expect any kind of production out of fellow veteran wing player Cartier Martin or 22-year-old University of Memphis product Adonis Thomas — both of whom are unlikely to be on the Pistons’ roster when the team opens up regular season play on October 27th in Atlanta.

All of the wing players’ win share contributions would give the 2015-16 incarnation of the Pistons 42 victories.
Winning 40-plus games is something the franchise has failed to do since the 2007-08 campaign when it won 59 games and lost in the Eastern Conference Finals to the Boston Celtics — the last year of the squad’s six straight conference finals appearances.

With 42 victories, Detroit should also be able to qualify for the postseason as the eighth seed in the conference.
While a first-round exit would be inevitable in a matchup with likely LeBron’s Cavs, the playoff appearance alone would mark an accomplishment for the upstart Pistons and bring the organization a much-needed boost in fan support.

And you can expect both the playoff appearance and a subsequent rejuvenated fanbase to come to fruition in year two of the Van Gundy era in Motown. I even “Guaransheed” it.