A Second Chance

Reasons aplenty why Pistons season shapes up as one of intrigue

Every now and then, halfway through a Pistons Mailbag answer, it becomes clear that the subject is better addressed in a different forum. So it was the other day while answering a question from Sam of Ann Arbor.

“I used to love the Pistons,” he started, going on to talk about the acquisition of Rasheed Wallace and the magical run through the 2004 playoffs that culminated in the franchise’s third NBA title. He admitted to being a “fair-weather fan” and wanted to know if this was the season he should come back into the fold. And he asked the question that is never far down the list for any Pistons fan: What about the playoffs?

Let’s start with that. Making the playoffs next season is a realistic goal. But there are 15 teams in the Eastern Conference and there are probably 14 of them – all but Charlotte – who believe the same. If everybody stays healthy, if young players make the expected career progressions, if veterans don’t suffer any unexpected or premature regression, if newcomers find a niche without disrupting the equilibrium … yeah, it’s a complex formula, but I don’t think you’ll find anybody conceding the postseason is a pipe dream in early August.

And it would be a great thing for these Pistons to make the playoffs. Even a No. 8 seed that gets its hat handed to it four straight games derives benefit from the experience of making the playoffs. At least if it’s a No. 8 seed made up largely of players the franchise regards as long-term solutions, and the Pistons – armed with an impressive young core of players that starts with but isn’t limited to Greg Monroe, Brandon Knight and Andre Drummond – now comfortably fit that profile. Get swept one year, when you get there again you’ll be that much better for the experience of having played in the playoffs already.

But making the playoffs in and of itself should never supersede the larger mission of contending for and winning NBA championships. And it won’t, not on Joe Dumars’ watch. Make merely qualifying for the playoffs an organizational obsession and you put at grave risk the long-term health of the franchise. There comes a time in every team’s evolution when a general manager must take risks in order to progress. But to rush that process merely to win a few more games now – to go from 38 wins and outside looking in to 42 wins and inside the field, perhaps – when it likely weakens the future is impulsive and foolhardy.

Everything Joe Dumars has done since Tom Gores bought the Pistons loudly suggests they are not tempted in the least to rush the process. The crying need going into the 2011 draft was for a big man; the Pistons drafted Brandon Knight because they felt he was clearly the best value. Andre Drummond was passed on by eight teams to a large degree because they felt he wasn’t ready to help today.

Those moves don’t mean the front office isn’t intent on competing for a playoff spot this season, only that they haven’t lost sight of what really matters: being on a path to win it all when the Pistons are in position to make the playoffs with the regularity they enjoyed in the previous decade.

So, back to Sam’s question. Are there compelling reasons to follow the Pistons this season if you can’t be sure when it tips off that it will end with them in the playoffs?

And, yeah, I don’t qualify as a non-partisan observer here, but I can’t imagine anyone remotely interested in basketball or anyone with so much as a passing interest in the Pistons not being at least mildly intrigued by the possibilities for the season ahead.

Is Rodney Stuckey on the verge of achieving consistency and will that translate into thrusting himself into the conversation for All-Star status after playing at that level for two months last season between injuries?

Can Drummond give them enough of the “wow” plays – the big blocks, dunks, boards, transition chances – to offset the inevitable lapses that come with the growing pains of a teenager?

How much of a jump will Knight take in his second season, this one without any of the handicaps the lockout imposed?

Can Monroe make the same leap from year two to three as he did from year one to two? Is he ready to shoulder the burden of being the focal point of the offense?

What tweaks will Lawrence Frank make to the offense after a year of familiarizing himself with his personnel?

Can Arnie Kander keep Corey Maggette healthy and, if so, in what ways will his unique ability to attack the rim and get to the foul line spill over to help the Pistons in other areas?

Will the impressive Summer League performances of rookies Kyle Singler and Kim English, both of whom gave strong indications they are ready to handle spots in the rotation, carry over to the regular season?

How does the athleticism and size that Ukrainian 7-footer Slava Kravtsov displays on video translate to the NBA and will he overcome the cultural and language barriers to easily integrate himself into the team?

And that’s not a full list. Austin Daye and Charlie Villanueva are both eager to carve out a spot in the rotation. Jonas Jerebko, that much further removed from his Achilles tendon tear, could be ready to assume an even greater role. Jason Maxiell, in a contract year, will be as motivated as ever to prove he belongs in any conversation of the Pistsons’ future. Tayshaun Prince, perhaps for the first time since his rookie season, has real competition for minutes at small forward if Maggette and Singler are as expected. Will Bynum, with Ben Gordon no longer around, is going to go full bore to prove he deserves first crack at filling the role of first guard off the bench.

Frank is going to have a full plate when training camp opens, to be sure. He has infinitely more options to consider this season than last. With some coaches, you might worry about the complexity overwhelming him. Frank will have considered every contingency well before early October arrives and camp opens, if he hasn’t already.

He has a four-day retreat planned for the end of August with his full staff. They’ve each been given a laundry list of projects to research and present. They’ll have plenty to chew on. It’s in all of those things we’ve listed.

So what do you say, Sam? I won’t guarantee the playoffs, but are there not reasons enough to give them another look?