Are the Pistons a playoff team? It starts with a healthy Jackson

AUBURN HILLS – And so it’s about at this point every summer – after the draft, after the dam bursts on free agency, after the flurry of trades engaged in by teams left with needs not met by those first two windows of opportunity – when I am inevitably asked, in various ways and countless times: “Are the Pistons a playoff team?”

Which is sort of like asking “is that a big tree?” when there’s no forest available to compare and contrast. A 60-foot maple is a big tree when it’s blocking your driveway, but a flyspeck when it’s growing amid a grove of native redwoods.

The Pistons were a playoff team in 2015-16 and not in 2016-17. They made the playoffs two seasons ago as the No. 8 seed with 44 wins. That would have gotten them the No. 5 seed last season. Seven teams won between 36 and 43 games last season. That’s a razor-thin margin between a seed good enough to yield a winnable playoff series and a trip to the lottery.

If all goes reasonably well for the Pistons in 2017-18, yeah, they’re a playoff team. “Reasonably well” mostly means staying healthy. The Pistons didn’t last season. If you’re Stan Van Gundy and Jeff Bower, you try to be assess the season independently of Reggie Jackson’s absence first and diminished state second, but that’s like splitting the atom.

You couldn’t come up with five teams more dependent on one person to generate offense than the Pistons of the past two seasons were on Jackson. It’s something Van Gundy and Bower prioritized and addressed in their off-season moves, adding three players – Avery Bradley, Langston Galloway and Luke Kennard – who can serve as secondary ballhandlers next to Jackson and Ish Smith and spread out the burden of creating scoring opportunities incrementally.

The Pistons were a top-10 defensive team for much of last season before the stress of carrying a bottom-five offense and the frustration of a season gone off the rails late skewed the numbers and left them at 11th. There’s a perception among the fan base the Pistons are a lousy defensive team. They’re not – and the expectation inside the walls out at Six Championship Drive is that they’ll be a better defensive team this time around.

Bradley is a big part of that. He was a first-team All-Defense pick in 2015-16 and would’ve been again had he not missed 27 games. The Pistons expect Stanley Johnson to play a bigger role and Van Gundy sees a potentially elite perimeter defender in the 21-year-old. Andre Drummond, 24 and entering his sixth season, will come to camp in better shape after an off-season surgery to clear an air passage that affected him last year. Galloway gives the Pistons another hard-nosed perimeter defender.

But the Pistons have even greater opportunity for improvement at the other end. They were 25h in offensive rating last season a year after finishing 15th. The easy culprit to indict was their 28th-place ranking in 3-point accuracy coupled with a 26th-place finish in 3-point attempts. That’s a lethal combination in an era where the 3-point shot has an outsized impact on outcomes.

If the Pistons had brought back the same team, it would have been a pretty good bet that they’d have improved on last season’s 33 percent 3-point percentage. Almost all of their perimeter players saw year-over-year declines in accuracy.

Some of that is random, but when it happens across the board you look for other reasons. I’d go with Jackson’s inability to create space and scoring chances off the dribble as exhibit A. If he’s able to hit his passing gear again – and everybody, Jackson most critically, is convinced he’ll be back to 2015-16 form when he hits training camp – shooters should have a critical extra split-second of open space to load and launch.

But the Pistons didn’t bring back the same roster. Bradley and Galloway were 39 percent 3-point shooters last season. Anthony Tolliver is a proven stretch-four sniper. Reggie Bullock, a 44 percent shooter two years ago and the team leader last season, has a real chance at a broader role. Kennard is destined to be a top-tier shooter, maybe not immediately but eventually.

So there’s a lot to like there. Whether they’re a playoff team depends to some degree on how the journey unfolds for their 14 Eastern Conference competitors. We’ll get into that a little more next week. But it’s fair to say Van Gundy and Bower came about as close as they realistically could have expected in satisfying their off-season checklist to add shooting, perimeter defenders and secondary ballhandlers.

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