ProBasketballTalk 2014-15 Preview: Detroit Pistons

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Last season: The Pistons’ two big offseason acquisitions, Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings, flopped. Detroit fired Maurice Cheeks mid-season, but he wasn’t the only problem, and the losing continued.

The Pistons finished 29-53 and missed the playoffs for the fifth straight season – extending their longest postseason drought since before the Bad Boys.

On the bright side, Andre Drummond established himself as the NBA’s top young big-man prospect behind Anthony Davis.

Signature highlight from last season: Drummond has quick hands runs the floor really well, and Jennings is foolish fun:

Key offseason moves:

Keys to the Pistons season:

Stan Van Gundy cleaning up this mess: If Stan Van Gundy simply stops playing Josh Smith, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond together – and he’s indicated that experiment is finished – the Pistons’ new coach will do wonders. That trio was simply abysmal last season.

But Van Gundy can and should do more. One of the NBA’s best coaches, he negotiated the position of president and gave himself more job security. He has the freedom to do as he pleases.

Get tough with Brandon Jennings. Teach Josh Smith to play smarter. Demand Greg Monroe plays defense.

The Pistons have talent, but their glaring flaws made a bigger mark last year. Van Gundy is charged with reversing that.

Making the most of Greg Monroe: Monroe will be an unrestricted free agent next summer, and he can veto any trades.

He’s also the Pistons’ second-most valuable player behind Drummond.

Van Gundy, as coach and president, must get the most from Monroe on the court and figure out Monroe’s long-term situation in Detroit. Would he stay next summer? How much would it cost? What trades would he accept?

The roster-management aspects with Monroe are much trickier, but it’s not as if making the most of him on the court will be easy. Monroe excels near the basket on a team that also features Drummond and Smith, and Monroe’s defense has been lackluster to date.

The better Monroe plays, the more options he’ll have – and the more the Pistons will, too.

Getting Drummond to the next level: Drummond moved from rookie reserve to starting sophomore and maintained his incredible per-minute production. That’s no easy task. Many players falter as they handle more minutes against tougher competition.

Now, it’s time for Drummond to take the next step.

He makes an argument as the NBA’s best rebounder, and his pick-and-roll finishing is excellent. He must improve his defensive awareness, though. Drummond has all the raw tools to contend for Defensive Player of the Year, and he’s already blocking shots a high rate. But too often, he gets lost and is not positioned to protect the rim. A few post moves would help on the other end, but the Pistons have a greater need for him to serve as their defensive anchor.

Encouragingly, Van Gundy has a strong track record, having helped turn Dwight Howard into a superstar. Drummond has that same potential. Can Van Gundy help get another young center to the next level – and how quickly can he do it?

Why you should watch: Drummond is a beast. He’ll be an All-Star soon, and in the meantime, he’ll make some incredible plays that don’t seem reasonable for a man his size.

Oh, and Van Gundy might attack Jennings or Smith at any moment.

Prediction: 41-41. The Pistons shouldn’t have been as bad as they looked last season. It became quickly evident that the team’s defining three-man lineup – Smith, Monroe and Drummond – didn’t work. But the Pistons stuck with it. Why? Stubbornness? Stupidity? Tanking?

No matter the reason, it’s in the past. Van Gundy will fix that fatal flaw, giving Detroit a chance. Many questions remain – how Van Gundy will use the big three, whether Jennings can competently lead a team, just how good Drummond will be – but there will be room to explore them.

The Pistons should contend for a playoff spot, but the East is better and deeper this season. I have them just outside the postseason and looking in, but they easily could fall on the other side of that line.

Are plans for a play-in tournament just to get Zion Williamson in the bubble?

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The cleanest, most straightforward, fewest extra people in the “bubble” way for the NBA to return to play is to invite the 16 teams already in the playoffs — eight from each conference — and skip right to the postseason.

However, there is a lot of momentum around the league for a play-in tournament with 20 teams (or more). Specifically, one that brings in the four teams in the West clumped three-and-a-half to four games behind Memphis for the last playoff spot (Portland, New Orleans, Sacramento, and San Antonio).

Why those teams? Because they had a real chance to catch the Grizzlies if play had not stopped?

Or, is it because the league wants Zion Williamson — its bright young star who spiked ratings and interest when he returned from injury mid-season — in the bubble? On ESPN’s Hoop Collective podcast, Brian Windhorst said some other teams seem to think the play-in plan is all about Williamson.

“Let me just say how do you get to 20 [teams in the bubble] though? Because if you just go by the straight records, because to me, this is what I’ve already heard, alright. I’ve already heard people in this league say this is an elaborate game to get Zion Williamson into this bubble…

“I’m not saying the NBA is going this route, I’m just saying I’ve already heard this scenario that no matter what happens, the cutoff line will be the Pelicans. They’ll be in.”

Windhorst is very well connected and I don’t know who his sources were for this, but if you’re with the Wizards or Hornets (or maybe even Bulls and Knicks), you would push for the nine and 10 seed in each conference to be in the bubble, not the next four best records (which are all in the West).

The NBA is a star-based league, of course getting its hottest new property into more televised games is a discussion taking place. You’d be naive to think otherwise. Whether Zion and the Pelicans end up in Orlando ultimately is another question.

All the lobbying and leaking of restart plans to the media — and even the pronouncements of Damian Lillard saying he will play if there’s no shot at the postseason — are spin. This is teams lobbying for what is best for them and their chances. Elite teams like the Lakers and Bucks want no part of a soccer-style group stage that is more likely to produce upsets, they want something more traditional. The Bucks are no fans of 1-16 seedings because then they would have to go through both the Clippers and Lakers to win it all (while the Lakers should love that plan, it sets up perfectly for LeBron James and company). Teams back different play-in plans that better lineup for them. It’s all politicking.

This Friday, in a conference call with owners, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver is going to lay out a series of return-to-play options. A week or two after that, the owners will get on a conference call again and vote. Until then, everyone is going to lobby for their own self-interest.

That restart likely has teams reporting to Orlando for training camps in mid-July with games starting in late July or early August. How long the season runs depends on the format chosen. Next season almost certainly will start around Christmas (or maybe a week or two earlier, at most).

When a retired Michael Jordan showed up, dominated a Warriors practice

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It was the winter of 1995, major league baseball was on strike and Michael Jordan — at that time still a member of the Chicago White Sox organization — refused to be a scab and cross the picket lines.

“Mike was thinking about coming back (to the NBA), he was getting that itch again, it was a lockout in baseball, and he just wanted to play some basketball,” NBA legend Tim Hardaway told NBC Sports.

The Last Dance documentary covered how Jordan was secretly taking part in Bulls’ practices at that time. What it didn’t cover was the time Jordan flew out to California to see his friend, Rod Higgins (a Warriors assistant coach), and absolutely dominated a Warriors practice.

“It was kind of embarrassing for a guy to take that many months off then to come into our practice and dominate the way he did,” Hardaway said. “But of course, he’s MJ.”

Warriors players tell the story on The Sports Uncovered podcast, which launched today by NBC and takes a unique look at some of the most significant moments in sports. Like Jordan saying, “I’m back.” You can listen to the podcast below or download it at Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your pods.

Jordan was always looking for a test, and the Warriors at the time provided one: Hardaway was one of the game’s great scorers (but was still coming off a torn ACL) and trash talkers, and Golden State had the game’s “it” up-and-coming player in Latrell Sprewell.

Hardaway takes the story from there.

“[Jordan] and [then Warriors assistant coach] Rod Higgins are really good friends, he just came to visit Rod and said, ‘Hey, Rod, you think [Don Nelson] would let me just come to practice and with y’all?’ And Rod asked him and coach was like, ‘s ***, why not, of course.’

“He just wanted to see where he was at, where his skills was at — and of course they was still there. The same skills, without much rust, that he left with. He was practicing with us, and I came up and was egging him on, ‘Let’s see what you got, s***, let’s see it.’ He said, ‘Alright, now, I’m still MJ.’ And I was like, ‘You had guys throwing balls at you, you been out two years, I heard you been shooting around but this here, this is the real deal now, you got to come and lace your s*** up.”

“It was him, Rony Seikaly, Chris Mullin, some other point guard, against me, Sprewell, some other guys, and man, we was playing for like two hours, and I wanted to go some more because he was bustin’ our a**. He wouldn’t let Sprewell dribble the ball at all — he kinda knew exactly what Sprewell could do, what he couldn’t do, his weaknesses and his strengths.

“It was like he never missed a beat, man. He was out there shooting fadeaways, dunking, playing defense, getting through screens, denying, jumping through passing lanes. It was a little rust, of course, but once he got going each game he got stronger and stronger, his timing got better, you could just tell. He was kinda tired at the end, but it was something to see.”

Hardaway, always the competitor, didn’t want to stop.

“I was kinda upset because I think his team took it more seriously than our team,” Hardaway said. “But he came in and put on a show in practice…

“He said ‘I can play all night, but you all have a game tomorrow and I don’t want to wear you out.’ I was not playing that much anyway so I wanted to get as much run as I can.”

Find out more about that legendary practice, and Jordan’s return, on The Sports Uncovered podcast.

 

NBA veteran Jason Terry takes job as assistant coach at Arizona

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Jason Terry played four years for the legendary Lute Olsen at Arizona, winning a national championship in 1997 and averaging 21.9 points a game his senior year. The Jet went on from there to play 19 years in the NBA, winning a Sixth Man of the Year award in 2009, and he was part of the 2011 Dallas Mavericks championship team.

Terry had moved into the front office side of the business and was serving as the assistant GM of the Texas Legends, Dallas’ G-League affiliate. Now, however, he is jumping back to his alma mater, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

This is a smart hire by Arizona and head coach Sean Miller. High schoolers going to a major D-1 school all have NBA dreams and having a respected NBA veteran who can say “this is what it takes” on staff is a big plus. Besides, Terry was a smart player who knows the game and had a mentality suited to coaching.

For Terry, he’s back in a place he likes, he’s young (42) and has a world of options ahead of him.

Scott Foster says it’s going to be different officiating without fans in building

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The noise from 18,000 people can cover up a lot of sounds in an NBA arena. So when a back-bench assistant coach yells “bulls****” after a call he doesn’t like, the official never hears it and the game moves on.

Not when NBA games restart in fan-less facilities in Orlando in a couple of months. Without those fans, referees are going to get to hear that coach. And a whole lot more.

It’s going to be weird for referees in Orlando, just like for players, veteran official Scott Foster said recently on NBA TV.

I know I don’t want everything that we normally say to each other going out. But normally we’re all in a professional manner out there. But it is going to be different. There’s going to be some assistant coaches that we haven’t really heard from before sitting in the second row that we’ll be able to hear now, so there’s going to be some adjustment there. And then I think we’re going to need to really talk about and analyze what is OK for the public to hear and how we’re going to go about our business.

But it’s definitely going to be a different thing. I’m definitely looking forward to it. I think it’s going to be a really unique experience for the referees, players, coaches, everybody who’s going to go through this.”

It is going to be unique. Everybody is going to hear everything, and that is going to be very different from most nights when coaches have to go to hand signals because it’s too loud just to call out a play. It’s going to lead to some awkward and tense moments.

Everyone is going to have to adjust to the new reality, and that includes the referees, too.