The Pistons will not be hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy next June. Sorry guys, that is as much of sure thing as I am willing to predict in an NBA season, notoriously a fickle beast dominated by catastrophic injuries, too many games, and trades and the like. But the Pistons can still set goals. In fact, a team crawling on their bellies out of the wilderness, they have to. It is hard to erase bad habits or to make drastic changes to the way you’ve been doing things your entire career. Growing pains. The Pistons will have them. Here’s a few things (in no particular order) the Pistons should look to accomplish in Year One of the Great Leap Forward.
1) Defensive Pride
The addition of Josh Smith will be huge on the defensive end. A space cadet at any moment ready to explode into flames, Smith’s offensive output has been widely and often correctly criticized for relying on the things he simply isn’t very good at. Fair enough. On defense this is a different story entirely. Smith is a plus defensive player. Even his more lackadaisical defense is generally above average. Yeah, he loves getting those SportsCenter blocks, but he’s no one-dimensional clown. He’s extremely solid and a huge upgrade over anyone else on this Pistons roster vis-a-vis man to man defense. It is probably too much to ask of Smith to transform into a Kevin Garnett type defensive doomsday preacher, but even a lite approximation of that will do wonders for a Pistons team that has the physical talents but often seems to completely lack the will.
2) Frontcourt Chemistry
The three-headed elephant in the room. Will there be enough space for this big non-shooting frontcourt? Mo Cheeks and his staff would do well to draft up a playbook completely catering to getting Smith, Greg Monroe, and Andre Drummond acclimated to their comfort zones, though those comfort zones may often end up overlapping in some kind of Venn Diagram dunkfest. Images of Smith and Drummond bumping into each other going for alley-oops and Greg Monroe taking ill-advised twenty-foot jump shots haunt my weird dreams. Since Josh Smith is basically a center in a small forwards body, the Pistons could be said to effectively be starting three centers, that is to say three modern NBA centers (Monroe being a slight outlier). Offense will be a kind of wacky experiment for the first few games, maybe the first half of the season. If it at first it looks like a complete mess, give it time. Not to be too prosaic, but these guys are people with an undue amount of expectations suddenly thrust on them, they aren’t algorithms programmed to come to a perfect synthesis all at once. If it is a yearlong disaster then I expect Greg Monroe will be the sacrificial lamb and Dumars will dangle that lamb for a disgruntled impact player.
3) The Coach is the Coach
No more mutinies. I know the knuckleheads have been run out of Motown, but it bears repeating: the way the Pistons have treated their last three coaches (reaching a gruesome crescendo with the open rebellion against John Kuester) was shameful and shameless. I hope the specter of Rip Hamilton’s Bruised Ego doesn’t come back to haunt this young impressionable squad. Mo Cheeks is a pretty respected (though not feared) dude around the league and is reportedly a decent molder of men. Let’s hope Cheeks, his staff (I’m looking at you Sheed!), and Chauncey Billups can create a kind of legitimate “government” and the pointless and distracting backbiting and skullduggery of the last few years is finally completely finished. Once that is over everyone can concentrate on the novel idea of playing basketball!
4) Develop a Rotation
Besides teams perennially wracked by injuries, I’d hazard a guess the last three or four years of Detroit’s history have been straight up schizophrenic when it comes to starting line-ups and rotations. This may seem like a small detail, but when guys (a lot of guys) are in and out of the line-up, constantly losing their starting jobs or being pushed to play positions out of their comfort zones, it takes a toll on morale. Establish early on your starting line up and your core bench guys, the second unit shock troops, your closing unit. This doesn’t have to be followed to the letter, obviously. The best coaches will throw unorthodox curveballs with an alacrity, especially during the playoffs, after a season’s worth of expectations can trick your enemies into a stupor, but every great team starts with this kind of disciplined military approach. Everyone on the Spurs and the Thunder and the Heat know their roles and exactly what is expected of them day in and day out. I very much doubt Rodney Stuckey or Charlie Villanueva have ever known either of those things.
5) Develop the Youngsters
Andre Drummond didn’t play as much as we wanted last year, the victim of Lawrence Frank (justifiably, I might add) trying to save his job by playing for wins and not development. A coach is a hired gun and is always the first person forced to fall on his sword so I don’t blame Frank. For rebuilding teams a balance is required, one that doesn’t leave you high and dry when circumstances force your untested youngsters into big moments. When Drummond was allowed on the court he put on a show. It was enough to make him a League Pass Superstar and now a more crucial piece of this puzzle than former cornerstone Greg Monroe. This year it is up to Cheeks to distribute the minutes both to win games, and to get youngsters like Caldwell-Pope, Drummond, Singler, Knight, and Mitchell enough minutes to gain the experience playoff teams need out of their rotations. A good example of a team that recently perfected this method is the Golden State Warriors, who often played three rookies and a second year player in crunch time during the playoffs. They could do this because Golden State’s coaching staff played them a lot of minutes during the regular season, and most critically, let them play through mistakes.
6) Start Winning Games!
Winning games is an immense psychological boon. A team that wins realizes it can win and continues to do so. Every time a former lottery team makes the leap with more or less the same personnel it is a huge mental barrier that has just been smashed. To cite two recent remarkable turnarounds, think about the Thunder or the Grizzlies. The Thunder went from wins in the 20s to the 50s in one season. Perhaps more akin to the Pistons, the Grizzlies had a likewise spectacular rise, though less meteoric, as befits a team without any Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook type game changers. The young Grizzlies bought into Lionel Hollins and his gritty defensive schemes and they tailored their offensive attack to be an inside and slightly less inside game that has pulverized the league for years now. The Pistons would be doing themselves a favor to study the way the Grizzlies went from being terrible to good to great to elite in the space of a few seasons.