Closing the Gap

6 quick fixes to boost the Pistons back into playoff picture

After finishing the season with identical records, the Pistons and Philadelphia 76ers had to jockey for draft lottery positions.
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images
How wide is the gulf between 30- and 60-win teams in today’s NBA? Maybe not as pronounced as conventional wisdom suggests.

Chicago got to 62 wins this season despite playing large chunks of the schedule without either Joakim Noah or Carlos Boozer. Indiana won 25 fewer games to earn the East’s No. 8 seed. The Bulls are almost certain to win their first-round playoff series after taking a 3-0 lead, but the Pacers could just as easily be up 3-1 instead of down by that count heading to Tuesday’s Game 5.

And even the most pessimistic Pistons fan would concede it’s not a stretch to believe the Pistons could finish ahead of Indiana in next year’s standings.

The new collective bargaining agreement will have much to say about how teams outside the NBA’s most glamorous and advantaged markets compete going forward, but the process of converting the Pistons from what they are today to back on course toward 50-win seasons and unlimited postseason possibilities doesn’t require miraculous intervention.

Give them one or two of the following ingredients and they’ll be a playoff qualifier. Give them three or four on the list and they’ll be next year’s turnaround success. Give them the clean sweep and all bets are off.

  • Greg Monroe picks up where he left off and progresses at the same rate in year two as he did as a rookie.

    Next year, it’s almost a lock that the Pistons design a playbook that includes Monroe as an option. They simply didn’t run plays for him this year. Almost all of his scoring came off of offensive put-backs or Monroe cutting to the basket and positioning himself for scoring chances when plays broke down.

    There surely will be another adjustment period for him when the Pistons design plays that get the ball to Monroe and expect him to create scoring chances for himself or others. He needs to come back with a 15-footer that forces defenses to react and he needs a go-to post move. It’s not a given that increasing Monroe’s responsibility will translate into him not only scoring more but maintaining his efficiency in the process.

    But with everything the Pistons learned about Monroe in a thoroughly encouraging rookie season, it would be a surprise if that isn’t exactly what eventually happens. A Monroe that averages 15-18 points and 10-12 rebounds a game isn’t that far from reality.

  • No matter what position they wind up drafting from or for, landing an impact player.

    The odds, of course, of getting instant help are dramatically better if the Pistons get lucky on May 17, the night of the draft lottery. They have a 15 percent chance of drawing into the top three, where they would be assured of coming away with either: (1) Kyrie Irving, the point guard who draws Chris Paul comparisons and could be the rare NBA player who makes everyone around him more efficient; (2) Derrick Williams, the combo forward with more potential than anyone in this draft to emerge as a dominant NBA scorer; or (3) the athletic big man who would be an ideal complement to Monroe up front, either Enes Kanter or Jonas Valanciunas.

    But as Monroe proved last year, you don’t have to draw into the top three to find a player who radically alters the makeup of the roster. Last year’s draft had more certain things in it than this year’s, perhaps, but every draft is going to have impact players available when you’re picking in the top 10 – the key is identifying which ones have the best chance of tapping into their potential.

  • Getting Jonas Jerebko back as the player he appeared ready to become.

    Nobody got to see much of the progress Jerebko had made following a rookie season notable for how hard and how fearlessly he played, when the Pistons learned everything they needed to know about Jerebko’s character and competitiveness.

    But everybody behind the scenes buzzed about Jerebko’s showing in the early days of training camp, before that first quarter of the first preseason game at Miami when he suffered a season-ending Achilles tear.

    Jerebko can be an impact player without emerging as a 20-point scorer. That probably isn’t in his future. But he gave strong hints that he had much more in him offensively than what he exhibited as a rookie, and with added strength that was the byproduct of sitting out a season – Jerebko is up to 240 after a year spent under Arnie Kander’s watchful eye – he should come back with even greater versatility.

    Whether that translates into emerging as the starting power forward or – perhaps even more ideally – as a high-energy big man off the bench, the Pistons have every reason to believe Jerebko’s impact will significantly improve them.

  • Ben Gordon gets back to the player he was for the Chicago Bulls.

    There is no logical explanation for why Gordon’s production has declined sharply from the player who was a model of consistency in his first five years in the NBA. It might require changes around him and in the way he’s used, but Joe Dumars and his staff still give every indication that they believe Gordon, who just turned 28, is the same player they signed two summers ago.

    What that would mean for the Pistons – a player who shoots 40 percent from the 3-point arc, can create off the dribble and knocks down free throws while giving them 18 to 20 points a game – would be invaluable. Gordon showed when he carried the underdog Bulls to within an eyelash of upending Boston in the postseason two years ago that he can shoulder the burden of leading a playoff team in scoring. If enough else on this list falls into place, the Pistons hope to be saying the same thing a year from now.

  • Rodney Stuckey plays exactly the way he played in the season’s final games.

    The last five games for Stuckey were pretty much what the Pistons envisioned for him all along, from his rookie season as understudy to both Chauncey Billups and Rip Hamilton.

    He averaged 25 points and nine assists, made over half his field-goal tries and got to the line almost 10 times a game. No one will count on that level of production over 82 games – he’d be solidly in the MVP discussion if he did – but if he scores 18 to 20 with seven or eight assists, shoots 45 percent and plays with the aggressiveness that gets him to the line frequently without becoming turnover prone, he’ll be every bit the point guard the Pistons need.

  • Austin Daye wins the starting small forward job and improves as much in year three as he did in year two.

    This one could go either way. Daye is one of the most versatile young scorers in the NBA and there is nothing about his work ethic or character to make the Pistons think he won’t put in the time to realize his potential.

    But Daye’s progess didn’t match Monroe’s this season. While Monroe kept getting better, Daye plateaued. It’s reasonable to believe Daye has several years more ahead of him to get where he’s going as he works to add strength to his rail-thin frame and learns to make do with what he has. He’s proven he’s crafty, adding moves to his repertoire – like Rip Hamilton’s up-and-under swim move to draw fouls or pulling the chair in the defensive post – as the season unfolded.

    He also displayed a penchant for making big shots. So there are lots of good signs from Daye. But it’s a big leap from where he’s at to 30 minutes a night and consistent production. If Daye becomes that next season, another big piece of the puzzle will be in place.