Fresh Start

Pistons start road through deeper East at vastly improved Indiana

Rodney Stuckey and the Pistons kick off a new season and a new era tonight in Indiana.
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The Pistons could be a better team this year and not have any more to show for it. It’s as heavy at the top as it’s been of late with Miami, Chicago, Boston, New York and perhaps Orlando still harboring legitimate title hopes, but much stronger in the middle. The days of two or three sub-.500 teams cracking the playoff field in the East are probably history.

Nobody looks more certain to be improved than Indiana, which hosts the Pistons to open the 2011-12 season Monday night.

“We’ve watched their (preseason) games, went through their playoff games from the year before – they’ve got great depth,” Lawrence Frank said of the Pacers, who pushed East finalist Chicago in each of the first four games of its opening-round playoff series before losing in five last spring. “They’re playing 10 guys.”

In addition to the core that played well enough under interim coach Frank Vogel to win him the full-time gig, Indiana traded for San Antonio’s George Hill and signed New Orleans power forward David West, a Pistons killer, in free agency.

“(Tyler) Hansbrough has been off the charts,” Frank said. “Hill and West are great additions. (Lance) Stephenson is getting an opportunity. (Danny) Granger, obviously, is a prolific scorer with range and Paul George grew to 6-10, really took a leap in the playoffs. They probably have the tallest wings in the league, great length. (Roy) Hibbert at 7-2, his development last year and continued development, and (Darren) Collison is a floor general, so they have a very good group.”

The Pacers appear to be solidly in the mix for one of the bottom-four playoff berths in the East, along with Atlanta, Philadelphia – a team that last season took the step Indiana hopes to take this time – and Milwaukee, which gets a healthy Andrew Bogut back and added Stephen Jackson over the off-season. The Pistons have to beat out a few of those teams in order to get back to the playoffs for the first time since 2009.

Frank has been in the East since coming to New Jersey from Vancouver as an assistant coach in 1999 and he thinks the East hasn’t been quite as downtrodden as perception has it in recent years.

“I always think the East is tough,” he said. “There is probably a little more bias where more people say the West is tougher, but having been in the East, I think the East is extremely tough. Philly basically has their same nine, New York obviously added (Tyson) Chandler and gets a full training camp with Carmelo (Anthony) and Amare (Stoudemire), but you never know. Every team is one injury away, one break away. When they have all these preseason predictions, it’s the only time they put a number on you without it having any merit or earning. We’ll see.”

It starts tonight, and Frank said he’ll probably be ready to reveal his starting lineup at Monday morning’s shootaround. The best guess is Rodney Stuckey and Ben Gordon in the backcourt, Tayshaun Prince and Jonas Jerebko at forward and Greg Monroe at center. If it indeed is Stuckey and Gordon the backcourt, the Pistons could be looking at cross-matching so Stuckey, at 6-foot-5 matches up with George while Gordon checks Collison.

Charlie Villanueva might have pushed Jerebko for the starting job at small forward, but he must sit out the season’s first three games due to the suspension incurred in the final week of last season. The NBA on Friday knocked one game off of Villanueva’s penalty.

“Great news,” Villanueva said. “I didn’t expect it. Appreciate it. I’ll take it. Now I can come back a game earlier than I expected and help this team out.”

Without Villanueva, Frank will mix and match at the frontcourt spot next to Monroe, he said.

“It could be matchup based, performance based, defense based,” Frank said. “Also, it could be based on, second unit, what parts fit better than others. All those things come into play in terms of having a good balance on both units.”

Austin Daye opened last season as the starter at power forward, of course, and could also be a factor there this season. But Frank has used Daye at shooting guard and small forward in the preseason, so the likelier candidate behind Jerebko is Jason Maxiell.

“We’ve got to get back to defending and rebounding,” Frank said, so whatever helps us in that area. “But in different situations (Daye) gives us flexibility. Right now we’ve got to establish a basic foundation and down the line we can get into the tricks.”