Steve Blake

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51Q: How big a next step forward can the Detroit Pistons take?

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We continue PBT’s 2016-17 NBA preview series, 51 Questions. Between now and the start of the NBA season we will tackle 51 questions we cannot wait to see answered during the upcoming NBA season. We will delve into one almost every day between now and the start of the season (we’re taking some weekends off).

How to rebuild without trying in six simple steps: Lose, lose, lose, lose, lose, lose.

That was the dirty secret to Detroit’s breakthrough last season. Though the Pistons never set out to tank, they built a solid young core by drafting in the top 10 five of the previous six years. The only year Detroit didn’t pick in the top 10 was because it traded the No. 8 pick in a disastrous salary dump that led to signing Josh Smith – whom the Pistons expected to jumpstart their rise.

But it still happened eventually. Lose enough in the NBA, and it’s hard to remain bad – especially when you draft well (which Joe Dumars did in this era) and trade well (which Stan Van Gundy has done). In the last six years, the Pistons have drafted:

Suddenly, Detroit had a bright future. Its first playoff appearance in seven years, even if it ended in a first-round sweep to the Cavaliers, was exceedingly welcomed.

What now?

The Pistons should be done with top-10 picks for a while, so they can no longer back their way up the standings. They’ll have to earn the rest of their ascension.

That starts with internal growth. Not only were the Pistons’ the youngest team in last year’s playoffs (weighted by minutes played), they were the seventh-youngest all-time:

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Drummond (23), Caldwell-Pope (23), Harris (24), Jackson (26) and Johnson (20) will continue developing, and that alone will make Detroit better.

But Van Gundy didn’t stop there.

The Pistons signed Ish Smith and Jon Leuer to relatively hefty contracts, hoping to address holes in the bench.

After trading Jennings at mid-season, Detroit was left with Steve Blake as backup point guard. The 36-year-old was a liability on both ends of the floor. For $18 million over three years, Smith provides an upgrade.

The Pistons had a couple burlier centers in Drummond and Aron Baynes. Marcus Morris, Tobias Harris and the since-departed Anthony Tolliver could play stretch four against other combo forwards. But against a legitimately sized power forward with 3-point range, Detroit was in trouble. Enter Leuer, who at 6-foot-10, will play both big-man positions and receive $41 million over the next four years.

The Pistons built their young core. They signed veteran reinforcements. They even added Henry Ellenson and Boban Marjanovic with an eye toward the future.

But they’re unlikely to draft high again anytime soon. They’re capped out and will be limited in free agency.

Forming this team came at a cost.

Detroit should take a step forward – but far enough to justify the years of losing and pricey backups? Van Gundy is just trying to win as much as he can, but that question looms over the Pistons’ accomplishments.

Report: Pistons signing Ish Smith to three-year, $18 million contract

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The Pistons badly needed a backup point guard.

They outscored opponents by 1.6 points per 100 possessions with Reggie Jackson on the floor and got outscored by 3.7 per 100 with Steve Blake, the second-string point guard after Detroit traded Brandon Jennings.

Enter Ish Smith.

Keith Pompey of The Inquirer:

Smith is an immediate upgrade. He uses his speed well to create scoring and passing opportunities. Defense is a bigger question, but beggars can’t be choosers.

This is also a fair price in this cap environment. There aren’t many decent point guards available, and the Pistons pounced on one they think fits.

Detroit has about $20 million left for other upgrades — another big man or two, a scoring wing. This is the luxury Andre Drummond delaying his deal affords.

The Pistons’ bigger dream of Al Horford looks far less likely now. They already needed to clear a little cap space to offer his max, and now Smith’s salary also stands in the way. Either Detroit knew Horford was unlikely to sign, or there’s a plan to clear room if Horford shows interest.

Cavaliers get hot from outside, eventually cool off Pistons in Game 2 win

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LeBron James rebounded the Pistons’ airball, tore through the defense and made a layup while fouled. He high-fived his teammates and grinned – one of multiple smiles he’d flash during the fourth quarter.

Though LeBron failed to convert the old-fashioned three-point play, the Cavaliers nailed plenty of the new kind.

Cleveland made an NBA-playoff-record 20 3-pointers in a 107-90 win over Detroit on Wednesday. The Cavaliers lead the first-round series 2-0 – a reason to beam after Detroit pushed them so hard in Game 1 and into the second half tonight.

Teams leading a best-of-seven series 2-0 after two home games have won 94% of the time. No. 1, 2 and 3 seeds – like the top-seeded Cavs – are 48-0 in the first round.

The Cavaliers trailed by 10 in the first quarter and five in the third. But once they got going, Detroit couldn’t keep up.

J.R. Smith (7-for-11), Kyrie Irving (4-for-7), Kevin Love (3-for-7) and LeBron (2-for-4) led Cleveland’s 3-point onslaught. The Cavaliers’ 20 3s – on 38 attempts (53%) – tied the 2015 Warriors, 2011 Mavericks and 1996 Sonics for most in a postseason game.

Cleveland also made hay when the teams went to their bench, especially behind Matthew Dellavedova (eight points and nine assists).

And of course, LeBron was LeBron. While his teammates were bombing from outside, LeBron (27 points, six rebounds, three assists and three steals) bullied the Pistons inside.

Detroit did better offensively with Love at center, Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond attacking the lack of rim protection. The Pistons scored 35 points in the 12 minutes Love played center. But Cleveland continued to take advantage of Love pulling Drummond from the rim on the other end, scoring 29 points of its own.

Still, outscoring the Cavs by six with Love at center is a big swing from Game 1, when that lineup gave Cleveland a 13-point advantage. But there were just too many times the Pistons had no answer – like when Drummond was at the free-throw line (4-for-16) or Steve Blake was in the game (-20 in 10 minutes with no points, one assist and two turnovers).

Stan Van Gundy will keep tinkering, and maybe Detroit will still notch its first playoff win since 2008. But the Cavaliers continue to show why they’re overwhelming favorites to advance.

Cavaliers-Pistons, Raptors-Pacers set as first-round playoff matchups

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The Pistons’ loss to the Heat on Tuesday sealed Detroit as the eighth-seeded team in the Eastern Conference, setting up a matchup with the top-seeded Cavaliers.

The Pacers, who beat the Knicks earlier in the night, also locked in the seventh seed and a first-round series against the second-seeded Raptors.

Dwyane Wade got off to his slowest start offensively in a decade and finished with 14 points, helping the Heat to a 99-93 win.

Miami will win the Southeast Division and earn home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs if it closes the regular season Wednesday night by beating Boston on the road.

Wade didn’t score until there was 4:14 left in the first half. He had not been scoreless that long at the start of a game since March 17, 2006, against Charlotte, according to STATS. Wade broke his scoreless start with a three-point play and had seven points in a 50-second stretch.

Joe Johnson scored 25 points, including consecutive 3-pointers to help the Heat take a seven-point lead midway through the fourth. He made another shot from beyond the arc with 46.5 seconds left to put them up by seven again.

Miami’s Goran Dragic scored 16 points, Hassan Whiteside had 14 points and nine rebounds while Luol Deng had 17 points and 10 rebounds.

The Pistons were without their leading scorer, Reggie Jackson, who missed the game with an abdominal strain.

Detroit’s Kentavious Caldwell-Pope scored 17 points, Marcus Morris and Tobias Harris each scored 16. Steve Blake scored 10, starting in Jackson’s place. Andre Drummond had nine points and 18 rebounds.

Paul George and George Hill each scored 19 points for the Pacers, who beat New York 102-90 to win their final home game of the regular season.

Trailing 64-62, the Pacers (44-37) finished the final seven minutes of the third quarter with a 17-6 run that gave Indiana a 79-70 lead heading into the final period.

New York (32-50) led at the end of the first and second quarters before the Pacers rallied in the third quarter.

Report: Pistons interested in trading for guard, maybe D.J. Augustin

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The Pistons just traded for Tobias Harris – a great deal for Detroit getting a young and talented forward who’s locked up long-term.

But the trade could set back the Pistons in the short term.

They lose the comfort of Ersan Ilyasova‘s 3-point shooting as a stretch four and Brandon Jennings‘ playmaking off the bench. Anthony Tolliver, a quality outside-shooting power forward, can step up to fill that essential role in Stan Van Gundy’s system when Harris’ or Marcus Morris‘ shots aren’t falling. But what about a lead reserve guard? Steve Blake and Spencer Dinwiddie are clear downgrades in a role that’s more important with Jodie Meeks injured.

That’s a problem for a team that very badly wants to make the playoffs this year.

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports:

Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free Press:

A Blake-for-D.J. Augustin trade could make sense for both sides.

Blake and Augustin have played at a similar level this season, but Augustin far surpassed it last season while playing with Detroit. If the Pistons – who traded Augustin to the Thunder in last year’s Reggie Jackson deal – believe Augustin would return to form in their system, swapping the point guards would help Detroit. Both are on expiring contracts, so this season would be the priority.

The Thunder would stand to save $2,073,838 in luxury-tax payments with the trade. Considering rookie Cameron Payne has supplanted Augustin as Oklahoma City’s second point guard behind Russell Westbrook, the Thunder might prefer the money – especially if they believe Augustin doesn’t fit.

Even if this isn’t the particular trade the Pistons make, this is probably the scope of a deal they’re eying. They’ve already traded three future second-round picks, though could deal another for the right player. But I’d guess they’d prefer the best veteran they can get by re-shuffling the bottom of their roster.