As opener nears, here’s a capsule look at season ahead for Pistons
Who’s New? – The Pistons have five rookies and one trade acquisition amid a full roster of 15 players.
They drafted Andre Drummond with the No. 9 pick after he spent just one season at Connecticut. Drummond, 19, was fourth on the team in scoring (9.0), second in rebounding (5.9) and first in blocked shots (1.4) in eight preseason games despite being ninth on the team in minutes per game. Drummond doesn’t come to the NBA as polished as Greg Monroe and Brandon Knight, No. 1 picks in the two preceding seasons, and management and coaches are prepared to be patient. Drummond, though, enters the season firmly in the playing rotation.
Kyle Singler, their 2011 No. 2 pick who played in Spain last year due to the lockout, also had a strong preseason. Khris Middleton and Kim English, taken 39th and 44th last June, join Singler to bring elements of size, shooting and athleticism to the perimeter.
The fifth rookie is Slava Kravtsov, a 7-footer from Ukraine who – much like Drummond – brings tremendous athleticism and shot-blocking potential to the frontcourt. The Pistons wanted to get bigger and more athletic up front; Drummond and Kravtsov allowed them to do so dramatically.
The other newcomer is Corey Maggette. The Pistons traded Ben Gordon to Charlotte last June to get him. The deal was motivated not only by Maggette’s aggressive scoring mentality that has had him among the NBA’s free-throws leaders for the past decade, but also by the fact Maggette’s expiring contract will allow the Pistons to have as much as $25 million in cap space next July.
Who’s Gone? – The biggest absence from last season, besides the departed Gordon, is Ben Wallace. He emphatically stated the 2011-12 season would be his last in the NBA, but softened his stance by late in the season. The Pistons, after drafting Drummond and signing Kravtsov, no longer had a void in their frontcourt. And after signing Singler, English and Middleton, they had 15 guaranteed contracts – a full roster.
The frontcourt restocking also pushed out Vernon Macklin, who signed to play in Turkey. Veteran Damien Wilkins signed with Philadelphia as a free agent. Walker Russell Jr., signed by the Pistons out of the D-League last January when injuries washed over their backcourt, was cut coming out of camp by Oklahoma City.
Who’s Playing? – The starting five throughout the preseason was the same as the group that went 21-21 down the stretch last season: Greg Monroe, Jason Maxiell, Tayshaun Prince, Rodney Stuckey and Brandon Knight.
Lawrence Frank proclaimed all jobs open when camp began, but the only race that didn’t have a heavy favorite was at power forward. Maxiell solidified the rotation when Frank turned to him last February, though, and reported to camp in tip-top shape. The most physical Piston, Maxiell is a defensive anchor whose refinement of the 15-foot jump shot has made him a scoring threat, as well.
The substitutes most certain to be rotation staples at this point are Will Bynum in the backcourt and Jonas Jerebko, who is likely to virtually split time with Maxiell. Drummond’s strong preseason makes him the odds-on choice to be Monroe’s backup at center, but Frank believes Kravtsov will make a run at playing time as his cultural adjustment kicks in. Singler, a heady player whose hustle plays affect outcomes more than box scores, appears very likely to grab minutes available behind Prince at small forward.
English, whose perimeter shooting and defensive tenacity are his tickets to playing time, figures to play on nights Frank opens the rotation to a fourth guard. Stuckey’s ability to play point guard could give English a greater opportunity for minutes if his play warrants such consideration.
Maggette is the wild card. He’s missed the past two weeks with a left calf strain. When he’s cleared to return, he’ll be an option behind both Prince and Stuckey.
Who’s the Competition? – Frank doesn’t predict how many wins his team will rack up or dabble in playoff prognostication, focusing only on the next practice or game and making certain the collective work habits stay on course.
If the Pistons can maintain the .500 pace they played at over the final two-thirds of last season, though, they’ll stay in the playoff race down to the wire.
In their own division, reigning power Chicago must deal not only with the prolonged absence of Derrick Rose – the devastating knee injury suffered in last spring’s playoffs will keep him out for a major chunk, if not all, of this season – but also the almost complete revamping of perhaps the league’s best bench. Indiana is poised to break through and could be the dark horse to challenge defending NBA champion Miami in the East.
The Atlantic Division is loaded. Boston, Philadelphia, New York and Brooklyn all have lofty expectations, though age and injury concerns are very real in both Boston and New York, while the 76ers open the season with Andrew Bynum – acquired over the summer in the three-team deal that saw Dwight Howard land with the Los Angeles Lakers – sidelined with another knee issue.
The one playoff team in the East from a year ago unlikely to return is Orlando, rebuilding from the ground up after the Howard deal. Atlanta traded Joe Johnson to Brooklyn but still returns Al Horford and Josh Smith.
That makes eight teams that feel strongly they will be in the playoffs. The Pistons will have to beat out one of them to crack the field.
One major challenge in that quest: the schedule. After opening at home, the Pistons head out for the season’s longest road trip, 10 days and six games.
It all starts at The Palace on Wednesday against Houston. See you there.