Pistons preview: Andre Drummond, Reggie Jackson crucial to any shot at playoff return
The Pistons are looking to bounce back from a disappointing season in which they went 37-45
The Detroit Pistons have come to a fork in the road.
Two seasons ago, Stan Van Gundy led a young squad to 44 wins and their first playoff appearance since 2009. Making it in as the eighth seed, the Pistons were swept in the first round by LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Still, they were competitive throughout the series, losing two of the games by five points or fewer. With a talented young squad, they appeared to be on the rise.
Last season, however, did not go according to plan. Due to injuries and poor play, the Pistons slipped back into the lottery, and struggled to a 37-45 record that saw them finish 10th in the East. They also earned the unfortunate distinction of being the only team from the Central division not to make the playoffs.
Now, as they enter the 2017-18 campaign with many of the same players from the last two seasons returning, it's make-or-break time for the Pistons. Either they figure things out and get back into the playoff picture, or changes need to happen next summer in the Motor City. If they struggle through another mediocre season, they simply cannot run things back again with this group next season.
The Pistons, of course, would prefer the path where they make the playoffs. But also because they're too good to be one of the worst teams in the league, so missing the postseason wouldn't get them a shot at a Luka Doncic or Michael Porter-type player. Plus, there's the simple fact that having to make a bunch of changes and pretty much restart a rebuild is never an inspiring prospect.
So, what does a path to the playoffs look like in Detroit? Well, playing in the Eastern Conference is a great start, as it figures to be in the group of third-tier teams fighting for the last few postseason berths, and their challengers -- the Miami Heat, Charlotte Hornets, Indiana Pacers -- aren't exactly the greatest teams of all time. Backing into the playoffs because of the incompetence of other teams, however, is not the way the Pistons want to get in.
Two seasons ago, Drummond made the All-Star Game, led the league in rebounding and looked like the best young big man in the league. Just one season can make a big difference, however, as Drummond, following a lackluster 2016-17, is now almost an afterthought in the discussion about young big men.
Symptoms related to a deviated septum definitely had an impact on Drummond last season, and he had offseason surgery to address that issue, which is good news, because being able to breath more easily is definitely helpful when you're running 94 feet up and down the court every night. But being healthy won't be enough for Drummond. He'll have to improve his play, especially on the defensive end, where he's not quite the rim protector he could be for the Pistons. Improving, even just slightly, at the free-throw line would be big as well, as the Pistons had trouble keeping him on the floor last season because of how poorly he shot from the line.
Like Drummond, Jackson's performance last season was a far cry from 2015-16. Jackson missed more than a month of the season, and never really got into the swing of things, shooting an abysmal 41.9 percent from the field. At times, he even feuded with Van Gundy, which, along with his poor play, earned him a benching at the end of the season.
If Jackson can't get healthy and recapture his form from two seasons ago, the Pistons are going to struggle. There's no two ways around it. Unfortunately, he's already dealing with a groin injury during preseason, which is not a good sign on that front.
Aside from Drummond and Jackson, the addition of Avery Bradley will help. He's a menace on the defensive end on the perimeter, and has turned into a really solid 3-point shooter. Plus, he's a veteran with plenty of experience winning in the postseason, and should be a steadying presence in this locker room.
Outside of those three and Tobias Harris -- who will give you his usual 15 points and around five rebounds -- the Pistons just have too many question marks and not enough talent. Stanley Johnson, Henry Ellenson and Luke Kennard are all too young; Jon Leuer, Ish Smith and Langston Galloway are fine bench players, but they certainly aren't carrying a team if Drummond and Jackson falter.
Thus, the future of the Pistons falls on the broad shoulders of Drummond, and the slightly smaller ones of Jackson. The Pistons will go as far as they carry them, and if they can't handle the load, it's time for the Pistons to turn around and go another way.
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