Pistons season preview

By Blake Froling

We all know where the Pistons stand in the NBA hierarchy: not good enough to win a title, not bad enough to get a top-3 pick in the draft. Most likely, the Pistons won’t inch any closer to either of those extremes this season. That doesn’t mean you still can’t enjoy the race for the playoffs, even if that means a likely first-round exit. Here are three questions that will be answered in the coming months.

Who will finish more games? Ish Smith or Reggie Jackson

On paper, Jackson is a better point guard than Smith. But knee problems and lack of chemistry made the Pistons worse off when Jackson was on the floor than when Smith ran the point. For the Pistons to be legitimate contenders, they need a fully healthy Jackson to be able to run the pick-and-roll with Andre Drummond and to be that fourth quarter “closer,” something that is not Smith’s specialty. That would be in a perfect world. We don’t live in a perfect world.
Smith has been the best performer on the team during the preseason and said he worked with Tim Hardaway during the offseason to improve his game. He couldn’t shoot to save his life last year (47.7 percent true shooting percentage, 362nd in the NBA), but maybe that offseason work will improve his numbers. Players seemed to enjoy being on the floor with Ish more than Reggie last year, and the tension in the locker room was well documented.
I think Ish will take that next step and become a better option at the point than Jackson. This will allow Stan Van Gundy to rest Jackson during the second night of a back-to-back or to restrict his minutes and keep him fresh. That all adds up to Smith starting more games than Jackson. However, the really intriguing thing to look for is who finishes more games. That’s when you find out who SVG trusts in clutch situations. I think that will be Smith.
Check out Blake’s interview with Detroit News Pistons writer Rod Beard here.

Can Avery Bradley stay healthy?

The most important offseason addition for the Pistons was clearly Avery Bradley. He’s essentially the same player as Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who signed with the Lakers in free agency, only better. Bradley is widely regarded as one of the top perimeter defenders in the NBA and posted career highs in points, rebounds and assists last season with Boston. The only problem was that he missed 27 games with a strained Achilles.
Bradley has never played all 82 games in a season and has missed a combined 109 games in the last six seasons. With another injury-prone guard in Jackson, the Pistons need Bradley to be the constant in the backcourt; Someone who can play with both Jackson and Smith but more importantly, just play a whole season. KCP only missed an average of 3.25 games per season in four years, and the Pistons need Bradley to be that consistent as well.
In Detroit, Bradley has an opportunity to have a career year. He can now be the centerpiece of the offense for the first time ever. He’s been used to playing with Isaiah Thomas, a ball-dominant guard, and before him the Big Three of Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. In Detroit, he can be leaned on as the go-to scorer in clutch situations, and I expect him to thrive. The only question will be if he can stay on the floor.

Will Andre Drummond become elite?

Haters will say this is impossible. They’ll be silenced when LeBron picks Andre to be on his team in the new All-Star draft. They’ll be silenced when he shoots over 50 percent from the free throw line. I can’t wait to silence the haters.
If you can’t tell, I’m all aboard the Drummond bandwagon.
He’s already an elite rebounder — he led the NBA in rebounding percentage last season. He’s got all the physical tools to become the most dominant post presence in the NBA. Andre’s also only 24 years old, still not even in his prime. His performance seemed to dip last season, in large part due to the absence of his pick-and-roll buddy Jackson. A lack of  decent shooters around him also limited his open looks. And we can’t ignore the often-horrifying attempts at hook shots and other inefficient post moves too far away from the rim.

This year, Drummond came into camp 30 pounds lighter and with two working nostrils. This should allow him to play with higher energy and intensity, something that was perhaps his second-biggest downfall last year. This should also help with his effort level on defense, which made him a liability last season. A man with his physical gifts and raw athleticism should never be a liability on defense.

Drummond’s main downfall, obviously, was his horrendous free throw percentage, which was the worst in the NBA. In the preseason, Drummond made me and other Pistons fans giddy with anticipation as he sank 80 percent of his shots from the line. Maybe his mechanics changed, maybe his mindset changed. Whatever it was, he might have found the fix. Might.

This 80 percent mark is definitely not sustainable in any way. If Drummond can stay above 50 percent, or even approach the 60 mark, he’ll be able to stay on the floor in late-game situations for the first time in his career. Then we’ll really see what kind of player Drummond is, and what he can become.

Predictions

Record: 41-41
Playoffs: 7 seed, loss in first round to the Boston Celtics
All-Stars: Andre Drummond
Drummond free throw percentage: 55 percent
NBA Finals: Cleveland vs. Golden State
NBA Champion: Golden State in six games

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