Pedal to the Medal
Pistons fans: This may not be your year.
Not just yet.
It may be easy to look at one of the most exciting young cores in the NBA, along with the additions a of a versatile scoring guard in Purdue’s Jaden Ivey, a former 247 Sports five-star prospect in center Jalen Duren and center Nerlens Noel and guard Alec Burks to provide more depth and veteran experience to the fourth-youngest team in the league and see at least a play-in spot. But despite all the Pistons have built, they will likely have to wait until the near future, and the regression of some of their most powerful foes in the Eastern conference, to leap at the opportunity for a playoff spot.
Detroit will have to put the pedal to the medal against an ever-strengthening Eastern Conference featuring young and blossoming stars across a multitude of teams if they want to make their first run for a playoff appearance since the 2018-19 season. Though they have a large assortment of players with a higher ceiling than their last playoff team, the Pistons will have to take on the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo, DeMar DeRozan, Zach LaVine and Tyrese Haliburton for a total of 16 of their 82 matchups, as well as a multitude of other competitive and championship-caliber Eastern Conference teams.
That certainly doesn’t mean the Pistons don’t stand at least a chance at the postseason.
If every one of Detroit’s young options are able to fulfill their sky-high potential under a veteran coaching staff with playoff experience and its veterans are able to create the team chemistry needed to provide the right environment for Ivey, guard Cade Cunningham and forward Saddiq Bey, it may just be able to push past some of the less-established teams in the NBA for a spot in the play-in.
Will the Pistons make it to the finish line in time to continue their path toward consistently watchable basketball in Detroit? All can, and likely will, be answered after another round of 82 hard-fought battles on basketball’s biggest stage.
You love it when a plan comes together.
It took four years, but the Pistons finally seem to have the stability at the point guard spot they so desperately needed since the departure of scoring guard Reggie Jackson in 2019.
Detroit largely kept the same assortment of guards that proved to be a bright spot for a younger roster. Four of the six listed point guards played at least a handful of games for the Pistons last year, scoring just above 36% of Detroit’s 104.8 points per game and just under 39% of their rebounds.
From the outside looking in, the Pistons do not have the surefire veteran playmaker needed to give their biggest scoring options the open shots needed to score: Cunningham almost led the team with 5.4 assists per game last season. Detroit placed 24th in the NBA with 23.5 assists per game, a stat they will look to their recent signees and draftees to improve upon.
Expect Cunningham to continue to be a heavily-involved playmaker for the Pistons, whether that be finding open teammates with a well-placed pass or using his size against other point guards to score easy baskets.
Though Ivey and Burks will likely spend a majority of their time at the shooting guard spot, Ivey’s experience handling playmaking duties for the Boilermakers and ability to create a flashy pass if a shot opportunity collapses will allow him to play reps at the point guard spot if need be.
After juggling an assortment of Southeastern Conference and Big 12 talent, the Big Ten, particularly Purdue, will finally represent the Pistons in its biggest way yet.
The Pistons spent heavily on strengthening the overall depth of the shooting guard in this year’s draft to pair with their top young talent at the one and the three spots.
Though some expected the Pistons to replace forward Jerami Grant with a conference competitor in Iowa forward Keegan Murray, they took one of Purdue’s top scoring guards since Carsen Edwards in Ivey with the No. 5 pick and traded for Burks and Noel, as well as two future second-round picks and cash considerations, in exchange for the draft rights for Serbian guard Nikola Radičević and a protected 2025 second round pick.
Ivey, who scored 17.3 points per game last season for a Boilermaker squad that reached the No. 1 spot in the Associated Press polls for the first time in program history, proved to be a key factor in Purdue’s ability to advance to the Big Ten tournament finals against a Keegan Murray-led Iowa team. Expect Ivey to continue the fearless scoring drives that defined his Purdue career, pairing alongside Cunningham and forward Saddiq Bey to create a reliable young scoring trio for the Pistons.
Even with the depth the Pistons boast at the shooting guard spot, Detroit will likely not have to break the bank to keep their guard options this season. The Pistons have two shooting guards who are still on their rookie deals, three if Cunningham plays in the rotation, and not a single guard contract above $11 million. Detroit will still have to pay for guard Kemba Walker, who it acquired in a trade with the New York Knicks on draft night, but the Pistons will still likely not have to spend a king’s ransom on what is arguably their deepest rotation.
Bey, who placed third on the team in scoring with 16.1 points per game, will continue into the third year of his rookie deal, the first on a team option, after earning a spot on the all-rookie first team after playing in all 82 games for the Pistons and scoring a 50-point game against the Orlando Magic in mid-March.
Though not known for the same scoring prowess as the former Vanderbilt star, Detroit’s small forward options include an assortment of athletic options who will pair well with the speed of its backcourt. A fellow SEC standout in guard Hamidou Diallo will likely take the lead bench role for the Pistons after providing a solid 11 points per game and 4.8 rebounds as a reliever in Detroit last season, scoring 55% of his 2-point shots on 7.5 attempts per game.
After spending 17 games in Atlanta, forward Kevin Knox Jr. will fight for his third opportunity to break an NBA rotation and build his way back up to the promise the New York Knicks hoped he would show during his rookie season. Second-round pick and former Michigan forward Isaiah Livers, who has so far spent the entirety of his basketball career in the state of Michigan, will fight for the backup spot at either forward positions even as he recovers from the foot surgery he received in April.
“From Kalamazoo to Ann Arbor to Detroit, Isaiah Livers has always been a calming presence on the basketball court,” Detroit Bad Boys writer Matt Way said in a mid-July article. “His game doesn’t always jump off the screen, but he’s nearly always a positive factor as someone who enhances his teammates’ games.
Here’s where things get interesting.
Just like last year, the Pistons will likely continue to embrace both small and tall-ball lineups at the power forward position.
From the 6-foot-7-inch Stewart to a 6-foot-11-inch shooting forward in Kelly Olynyk, the Pistons have a variety of shooting and rebounding specialists to compliment their backcourt. Though the power forwards may not be as involved on the scoring end as Detroit’s guards, they will certainly play an important role in finding open shots on the perimeter and grabbing boards when the Pistons’ undersized centers find themselves overpowered by the Eastern Conference’s biggest forwards and centers.
With the departure of forward Jerami Grant to Portland from a handful of future draft picks, Detroit will likely have to fully rely on forward Marvin Bagley for rebounding and interior scoring duties next to Isaiah Stewart with the hopes of showing flashes of the potential he showed when the Sacramento Kings selected him with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2018 NBA draft.
Expect Livers and Knox to take over the complimentary rebounding duties off the bench, while the Pistons use Olynyk to knock down shots from the perimeter should they need an extra shooting punch.
The Pistons’ biggest position battle will likely happen with their centers as Stewart and Noel fight for the starting spot alongside Bagley. Though Stewart will likely win the starting spot after starting 71 games for Detroit last year, Noel’s skillset as a modern big, as well as his seven years in the NBA, will make him a worthy opponent for Stewart at the start of training camp.
The Pistons have majorly invested in bigger, more dominant centers over the past couple of years, likely finalizing their center rotation with a big-bodied center in Duren. Described as a “man amongst boys” by NBA Draft Room, Duren scored 12 points and grabbed 8.1 rebounds per game on a Memphis team featuring six other freshmen and eight total underclassmen, leading the Tigers to their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2014. Duren’s Tigers made it to the American Athletic Conference finals before falling to the first-seeded and 29-win Houston Cougars. The freshman center scored 10 points and grabbed 14 rebounds in the losing effort.
Though Duren may not initially break the rotation for Detroit, he could certainly earn his fair share of minutes should he build off an impressive summer league campaign and prove himself against his veteran counterparts and the Pistons decide to shift Stewart to the four spot if need be.
Critical Question: “How close are we?”
To put it simply, the Pistons are close, but not close enough.
The Pistons may have the talent to make a real run for the play-in tournament, and likely even a playoff spot, but it will take everything the Pistons have, including the guidance of a former Coach of the Year in Dwayne Casey, if they want to speed up their rebuilding process enough for a spot in the postseason.
Detroit is largely set with the veteran options off the bench needed to give enough of a foundation under its younger stars to provide a set team identity and start guiding the Pistons towards consistent playoff appearances, but it will take time for Cunningham, Bey, Ivey and Stewart to completely settle in to the NBA and learn how to play off of one another for the considerable future.
Should the Pistons not find the spark they need to start their playoff engines, they look primed to find the postseason within the next few. If the Bulls or the Bucks, who sport one of the oldest lineups in the NBA, start to show signs of slowing down in the future, and some of their Eastern Conference rivals continue to unravel and prepare for rebuilds of their own, Detroit will have one of the biggest windows in recent memory to snatch what can hopefully be one of many playoff appearances with their new-look lineup.
The Pistons look to start their playoff journey against the Orlando Magic on Oct. 19 at 7 p.m. in Little Ceasar’s Arena. Broadcast information has not yet been released.
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