Were the 2016 Detroit Pistons underachievers?

AUBURN HILLS, MI - DECEMBER 26: Iman Shumpert #4 of the Cleveland Cavaliers looks to get a shot off around Tobias Harris #34 of the Detroit Pistons . (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
AUBURN HILLS, MI - DECEMBER 26: Iman Shumpert #4 of the Cleveland Cavaliers looks to get a shot off around Tobias Harris #34 of the Detroit Pistons . (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images) /

The 2015-16 Detroit Pistons barely made the NBA playoffs and then got swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers. Looking at how well many of those players have done in the playoffs, maybe they should have done better?

Back in April, 2016, Detroit Pistons fans were just thrilled to again be part of the NBA playoffs. It had been seven long years since the team had even made the post-season.

For a franchise used to competing for championships on a regular basis since the late 1980s, it had been a long-suffering time for fans.

But it appeared coach/GM Stan Van Gundy had Detroit on the right track. The Pistons finished with a 44-38 record for the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference, only a game behind No. 7 Indiana (the difference  between 7 and 8 would loom large in the playoffs).

The 2016 Pistons suffered the same fate as their last playoff team in 2009, getting swept in four straight by LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers team.

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But Detroit was competitive in the series against the eventual NBA-champions, every loss was by 10 points or less except Game 2. None of the starters were older than 26, so it looked like the beginning of another good era of success for the Pistons.

(Note: No. 7 Indiana took the Dwane Casey-coached No. 2 Toronto to seven games in the first round.)

Of course, everyone knows what happened after that series loss to the Cavs: Nothing.

The Pistons only other playoff appearance since then was getting swept in four games by Milwaukee in 2019. Detroit is currently in yet another rebuilding phase, although this one looks promising .

Should the 2016 Detroit Pistons have done better?

However, looking at the 2021 NBA playoffs (and last year’s summer Bubble playoffs as well), a lot of 2016 Pistons helped their new teams go really far in the playoffs.

Let us look first at how the 2016 starters for Detroit have done:

  • Marcus Morris: The leading scorer for Detroit against the Cavs. A starter for the Clippers, as they won the first round over Dallas and could knock off No. 1 Utah in the second. Also started for 2018 Celtics team that reached Eastern Conference finals.
  • Andre Drummond: The NBA’s leading rebounder in 2016. Hailed as the saviour for the Los Angeles Lakers when he arrived in March. Drummond put up good stats in the playoffs (9.0 points, 11 rebounds in just 21 minutes a game) but Lakers still lost to Phoenix in first round.
  • Kentavious Caldwell-Pope: A starter on Lakers’ 2020 NBA championship team. Struggled in Phoenix series this year.
  • Tobias Harris: Helped 76ers to No. 1 seed in East this year and should have made the All-Star team. He has been scorching hot in the playoffs, averaging 23.2 points (not counting Wednesday night’s game). If Ben Simmons could make a foul shot, the Sixers would probably already be in the Eastern Conference finals.
  • Reggie Jackson: Has come up big for the Clippers in the playoffs, particularly early on when the offense was sputtering. Averaging 15.2 points in post-season, including a great 44.2% shooting percentage on threes. Also was on Oklahoma City team that made Western finals in 2014.

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Among the subs for Detroit in that series were Reggie Bullock, who helped turn the Knicks around this season and gave them some offense in the playoffs (although not enough) and center Aron Baynes, who started for Boston when they reached the Eastern finals in 2018.

So there are, obviously, a lot of guys who had a lot of success, even five years later, since that playoff series with Cleveland.

The question must be asked:

Did that team underachieve? Should they have been better than eighth in the East and, if they had been, how far could they have gone? If guys are helping other teams win titles, couldn’t they have at least won a playoff round in 2016?

The quick answer is: No

Van Gundy ran it back in 2016-17 with the same starting lineup, albeit a bit weaker bench (Jon Leuer and Ish Smith top subs), and the Pistons went 37-45 and missed the playoffs.

These were all good players, obviously, but none, except for Drummond  have made an All-Star team. They had no ‘go-to’ player to lift them in tough situations.

Yes, the 2004 NBA champion ‘Goin’ to Work’ team had no offensive superstars either. But they did have a future Hall of Famer at center in Ben Wallace and a lot of really, good players. They also played absolutely ferocious defense, making up for the lack of scoring punch.

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Given the right matchup, the 2016 Pistons could certainly have made the next round of the playoffs. But that was their ceiling.

Still it is a bit frustrating seeing former Pistons players help a team go deep in the playoffs, when their Detroit teams did nothing.