What We Learned About the Detroit Pistons During the 2014-15 NBA SeasonMay 8, 2015
The Detroit Pistons failed to reach the playoffs yet again in 2014-15, and the season shed some light on the direction of the franchise.
First-year coach and team president Stan Van Gundy was unable to keep the Pistons from missing the postseason for the sixth consecutive year, though their 32 wins topped any of the previous five campaigns. And without some major obstacles, this is a roster that could have contended for the No. 8 seed.
Detroit started the season without its biggest free-agent acquisition, Jodie Meeks, who missed nearly two months with a back injury. It started 5-23 before releasing its highest-paid player, Josh Smith, which opened up the offense. The Pistons won 12 of their next 15 games before losing point guard Brandon Jennings for the year with a torn Achilles.
A trade-deadline deal for Oklahoma City Thunder guard Reggie Jackson brought hope that a playoff berth could still be salvaged, but a 10-game losing streak while Jackson struggled to mesh with his new teammates ended those possibilities. Though it was too late, they eventually figured things out and won nine of their final 16 games.
That inconsistency led to plenty of questions about the roster, and it is far from a certainty that the Pistons can be a playoff team in 2015-16. But there are still several things to take away from the 2014-15 season.
Van Gundy's Pistons Will Live Beyond the Arc
In 2013-14, outside shooting was perhaps the Pistons' biggest weakness. They hit a mere 32.1 percent of their three-point attempts, good for No. 29 in the NBA. Their 19.3 attempts per game put them in the bottom third of the league.
Van Gundy's biggest objective in free agency last summer was to add players who could fill it up from long range. He signed Meeks, Caron Butler, D.J. Augustin and Cartier Martin to fill the void. And those moves, as well as in-season trades for Anthony Tolliver and Tayshaun Prince, transformed the Pistons offense.
This season, they averaged 24.9 three-point attempts per game, which put them at No. 11 in the NBA, and they hit 34.4 percent of those looks. As an emphasis on outside shooting continues to grow league-wide, Van Gundy has implemented a more modern offense in Detroit.
While the four offseason signings certainly bolstered the Pistons' perimeter game, Van Gundy really showed off his offensive plans when he traded for Tolliver.
In what seemed at the time to be little more than a footnote in the NBA transactions log, he acquired Tolliver (immediately after waiving Smith) for the price of former second-round pick Tony Mitchell. While everyone focused on the release of Detroit's highest-paid player, Tolliver quickly became a reliable rotation player.
Van Gundy used him as a stretch 4, and the space he vacated in the paint benefited everyone else on the court. Instead of using Smith, who was a 24.3 percent three-point shooter, Tolliver took a good chunk of those minutes and hit 36 percent of his triples.
The Pistons still were far from an elite offense, and Van Gundy will continue to mold the roster to his liking this offseason. But it is clear that they will continue to make their living offensively from the three-point line.
Drummond and Monroe Do Not Fit Together
The Pistons have two of the NBA's best young big men in Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe. Few teams can match up with their size on the inside. Yet, three coaches (Van Gundy, Maurice Cheeks and John Loyer) have tried to build a team around the duo, and it just has not worked.
At a very shallow level, they seem like a good pairing: Monroe is the low-post scorer, and Drummond is the rim protector. Unfortunately, it just isn't a versatile big-man combination.
Offensively, both players are anchored to the paint; 29.3 percent of Monroe's and 23.9 percent of Drummond's shots came from beyond four feet of the rim, per NBA.com/Stats. Neither can hit even a mid-range jumper, let alone a three, and spacing suffers when they share the court.
On the other end, Drummond's shot-blocking talent can make up for Monroe, but both guys are naturally centers. Monroe has a big body, but he lacks the lateral quickness to stay in front of athletic bigs, and he rarely blocks shots. He's an enormous liability when asked to cover perimeter-oriented 4s, and moving Drummond onto such a player takes away one of his biggest strengths.
The NBA as a whole is becoming more perimeter-oriented, though teams like the Chicago Bulls and Memphis Grizzlies have created successful offenses around two post players. But both of those teams feature elite passing bigs: Joakim Noah, Marc Gasol and Pau Gasol are among the best passers at their respective positions. And the Gasol brothers both have strong mid-range games, something neither Monroe nor Drummond has.
Monroe is an above-average passer, but he is not elite. Drummond has shown little in that area thus far. And their lack of shooting ability cuts down passing lanes.
It is unfortunate to give up on such a promising low-post partnership, but Drummond and Monroe do not have complementary skill sets. And with Monroe as an unrestricted free agent this summer, he's almost certainly out the door.
Van Gundy Is the Right Coach to Build a Contender
In his time with the Orlando Magic, Van Gundy proved that he was one of the NBA's top coaches, leading them to an NBA Finals appearance in 2009. But that 5-23 start led him to second-guess his potential to do the same with the Pistons.
"I was questioning, not my decision (to coach Detroit), but my own ability,” Van Gundy said to Dave Pemberton of The Oakland Press. “I’m being honest. You’re going through and you’re not getting the team to play the way that you thought they were capable of, there is no question that I questioned my ability a little bit."
He showed that he did still have it after Smith's release, with Tolliver on board and Meeks healthy; the Pistons looked like a team that nobody would want to see in the first round before Jennings got hurt.
The 10-game losing streak after trading for Jackson was tough, but Van Gundy found a way to get the roster to mesh and have a winning record over those final 16 games. With a second training camp and a continued relationship with many core players, it is reasonable to expect more improvement heading into 2015-16.
Van Gundy reworked the offense to feature outside shooting and utilize the strengths of his point guards and low-post scorers. He also took a defense that allowed 107.3 points per 100 possessions in 2013-14 (No. 26) to 104.2 points per 100 possessions (No. 21). Without adding many defensive-minded rotation players, he found a way to make a big improvement on that side of the ball.
Van Gundy won with both the Magic and the Miami Heat, and he looks poised to do it again with the Pistons. He has his "young nucleus" to build around, an upcoming top-10 draft pick and serious potential cap space.
For the first time in too long, there appears to be a plan for long-term success in the Pistons organization.
Jakub Rudnik covers the Detroit Pistons as a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.