Playoffs? SVG won’t touch it, but Pistons better positioned for a run in his second go-around

Stanley Johnson
Dynamic rookie Stanley Johnson is one of what could be five new rotation pieces the Pistons added over the off-season.
Fernando Medina (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

One of the inevitable questions Stan Van Gundy will field a little more than three weeks from now when training camp opens will be his expectation for making the playoffs this season.

Just as inevitable will be his answer, which goes something like this: “Our goal isn’t to make the playoffs; our goal is to start work tomorrow and get a little better every day. There are so many things you can’t control. We’ll focus on the things we can.”

But it won’t stop the question from being asked or debated or thoroughly aired on talk radio.

There’s a case to be made that the Pistons are better positioned for a playoff run this season than any time since the breakup of the Goin’ to Work Pistons who posted seven straight 50-win seasons and made six straight trips to the Eastern Conference finals or beyond.

It goes something like this: The Pistons went 27-27 last season – a pace that’s been good enough for a playoff berth in the East over the past nine 82-game seasons – after their 5-23 start last season.

And that 27-27 included two traumatic interludes during which the Pistons were 0-13 – 0-3 when they had to play three games in four nights starting less than 24 hours after the Brandon Jennings injury, 0-10 after disrupting their chemistry and gutting their depth with the trade-deadline deal, made in response to the Jennings injury, to land Reggie Jackson.

They’ve restored their depth in an off-season in which they landed as many as five new rotation pieces – Ersan Ilyasova, Marcus Morris, Aron Baynes, dynamic rookie Stanley Johnson and maybe Steve Blake – and done it with a roster that figures to be far more compatible than the transitional team Van Gundy put together in his first season as president of basketball operations.

The Pistons won’t be making their playoff push in a vacuum, of course. In order to move up into the East’s top eight, somebody has to move out.

The top four seeds last season were Atlanta, Cleveland, Toronto and Chicago. Neither Toronto nor Atlanta finished the season strong and both had shaky playoff runs. They could be in line for steps back, but it’s a stretch to see them falling out of the field. Washington, the No. 5 seed, should be relatively strong again.

Milwaukee, the No. 6 seed, added Greg Monroe and could be in line for a step forward. But the Bucks finished 10-18 last season after their own trade-deadline dealing. They aren’t without questions. Ditto Boston, which has admirable depth but lacks the high-end potential of a roster with players like Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson. Brooklyn made the playoffs despite a minus-2.8 points per game differential – the Pistons finished at minus-1.0 – and could take a dramatic step back this season after losing Deron Williams among other pieces.

The Pistons aren’t the only 2015 lottery team anticipating a playoff run, though. Charlotte made the 2014 playoffs and upgraded its perimeter with the trade for Nicholas Batum. But the Hornets need a healthy season from Al Jefferson, who has a lot of wear on his tires. Miami’s in similar straits, dependent on stars Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade’s tenuous health.

Orlando has a lot of young talent but the future probably isn’t now for the Magic. Indiana’s retooling added Monta Ellis, but the viability of the Pacers really comes down to how close Paul George gets to his pre-injury form. The Knicks and 76ers are solid bets to be lottery teams again.

Avoiding anything close to last year’s disastrous start is paramount for the Pistons, of course. Despite all the new faces, it’s fair to guess Van Gundy has a much clearer sense of this edition’s identity than he did a year ago. It won’t make him any more eager to discuss playoff probability on media day later this month, but it’s a far more realistic scenario the second time around.

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