The United States is presently on the razor’s edge of a war with Syria but the NBA off-season has returned to a sense of normalcy after a slew of tumultuous moves that have vastly restructured the league’s teams. The Pistons came out of the Free Agency storm looking pretty good. They added a returning champion in Chauncey Billups, drafted their shooting guard of the future, stole an Italian sharpshooter from Europe, took a chance on the Brandon Jennings Express and convinced Josh Smith that Detroit would rise again. Far be it from me to resist hyperbole, so I won’t: the Detroit Pistons had an awesome summer.
But as Confucius says: It only takes one brutal road trip to rob the world of happiness and hope.
Mo and Rasheed and the fellas have a training camp and pre-season mandate to create a blueprint for success. Yeah, easier said that done and spewing cliches isn’t going to win games for most people (Leonidas and the 300 Spartans almost accomplished this, but the Persians had a longer bench). You have to start with the basics. Here’s a few things I’d like to see addressed:
1. What can Chauncey do?
Chauncey isn’t going to play 48 minutes a game, or 40, or probably even 30. He’ll play even less during pre-season, which is obviously the right move. The worst thing that could happen would be a rolled ankle or a broken hip after contesting a meaningless shot against Maccabi Haifa. In the end, relying on an abstraction like veteran leadership is a fools game, unless he can still hit shots or run an offense. Chauncey in moderation is likely to be a net positive on the court, but he’ll have to pass the eyeball exam first. A diminished role ought not to bother a descending star, and especially not one as humble as gracious as Billups has always seemed. Some of the best guards in the league have played inspired ball well into their late 30s and Chauncey’s game isn’t predicated on athleticism or brute force like many of the new elite point guards. Deciding his role for the season (back-up point, starting 2 guard, crunch time captain) is going to make life for Maurice Cheeks a whole lot simpler.
2. Managing Front-Court permutations/combinatorics
The much ballyhooed gripe about this drastically improved Pistons roster is its on the face of it stunning lack of perimeter shot-making ability amongst its huge frontline. I share some of these reservations and it is an ugly image indeed of long bricked twos and bumbling bodies banging into each other. Except, no coach worth their strategic salt is going to keep Josh Smith playing small-forward for 40 minutes. A lot of his time will be spent at the 4, and by necessity either Drummond or Monroe will be sitting for those stretches. Pre-season is the best time in the world to start trying out tag team options. What kind of offense/defense can Smith and Greg Monroe unleash? How about Smith and Drummond? Management should take stock of chemistry and stats and develop a long-term strategy (one that will be tied to the talents of the whimsical Josh Smith) for this beastly trio. Can Monroe net you that difference maker on the trade market? Doubtful, but there’s no harm in planning for all contingencies. Right now Drummond’s star is ascendant but we haven’t seen him play a single minute as Josh Smith’s running mate. Tony Mitchell, Jonas Jerebko, and even Josh Harrellson are part of this lumbering plan too.
3. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope: The Green Light
KCP had an up and down Summer League. Rather, it was down with an uptick towards up, which is perfectly normal. KCP scored almost twenty points a game in college, but he did it shooting 43%, and he’ll likely want to push that percentage up a point or three. However, in the interest of getting him acclimated to a large role, it seems obvious that Mo Cheeks should give him the green light to shoot. It’s annoying but true: shooters have to shoot. KCP should be thrown into the teeth of NBA defenses and forced to hit shots from a slightly further three-point line. Focus on shots coming off screens and off the dribble. It would be a major mistake to pigeonhole Kentavious as spot-up shooter, though this may well be his role the first year in the league. Related to that, a major point of concern is attempting to pigeonhole him strictly as a shooter. KCP has athleticism that shouldn’t be sniffed at disdainfully. He must be taught to attack. His ability to put the ball on the floor (along with his defense) is what is going to get him/keep him in the starting lineup. He’s young and hopefully hungry. Play him to exhaustion in pre-season, let him get some experience under his metaphorical belt then bring him along at a more leisurely pace during the regular season. Then we can hope for a Harrison Barnes like playoff explosion against the Heat.
4. Andre Drummond And the Curse ofsthe Free Throw
Drummond should have a goal to get to the line twenty times a game and make 60% of his free throws. Once Andre can hit free throws with regularity he becomes a nightmare for the poor sucker guarding him in the last two minutes of a game. Strap him into a Clockwork Orange chair and force him to watch hours of footage of Andris Biedrins shooting free throws for motivation.
5. Charlie Villanueva and Rodney Stuckey Showcase
This is probably unrealistic, and more of a pipe dream, but Charlie and Rodney should be allowed to show the world what they’ve got now that people (fans and GMs) are finally ready to pay attention to the Pistons again. Both of these guys, believe it or not, have talents that most good teams in the association wouldn’t mind acquiring. The price tag is another issue altogether, but stranger trades have happened and it is time the last regrets of the late 2000s Pistons are allowed to move on. Call it a win-win-win-win-win situation. Unless they are traded for Ben Gordon and Corey Maggette. That would be some Bukowskian poetic justice.
6. Brandon Jennings: Yea or Nay?
When the Brandon swap was first announced I wrote this:
I really enjoy Brandon Jennings as an abstract concept, but the Emperor has no clothes.
My stance has softened, mostly due to the great leveler of stress and pain: time. The new anarcho big-man über alles approach the Pistons have settled on has my heart racing as a fan and my head reeling as an analyst. Such wonderful things are possible, and somehow this diminutive trickster has become the difference between a 6th seed and an 11th seed. The pre-season should give us some indications of what Brandon Jennings and our group of Ents can do together. We already know in the grand scheme that his number of shot attempts have to decrease. 29 foot threes are no longer acceptable with the weapons (hopefully) he’ll have access to. Brandon’s unheralded craftiness needs is essential here. What I want to see is the evolutionary lovechild of Stephon Marbury and Chris Paul. Jennings sees the floor with a lot more clarity than poor Brandon Knight ever did, and that was the latter Brandon’s ultimate undoing. He wasn’t the guy to run a team centered around Smith, Monroe, and Drummond. Too many hands, not enough basketballs. For a guy who has a reputation as kind of a prima donna, Jennings seems to me like a dude who is just plain tired of getting embarrassed by superior teams. Some guys seem to take losing in stride (seem! I ain’t in their heads!) and some dudes are visibly horrified by the ramifications of coming up short. Jennings definitely is certainly not in the former camp. He’s admitted his shortcomings in plenty of interviews and vows that this year will be different, that his former trigger happy ways are a thing of the past. He is saying all the right things. Preseason is going to be our very first clue to see if he means it.
I hope he does. There’s a good chance the Pistons will be in the playoffs if he does.