AUBURN HILLS – The rate at which the NBA has changed since the Pistons opened The Palace 29 years ago is jaw dropping. There are a million ways to quantify the difference, but the most graphic – and the one that explains most of the others – is this: The salary cap in 1988-89 was $7.2 million; for the 2017-18 season, when the Pistons will open Little Caesars Arena, it’s $99 million.
Chuck Daly had only recently added a second assistant coach when the Pistons moved to The Palace, going years with just Dick Harter at his side. Now most NBA teams have a half-dozen assistant coaches, video staffs of nearly that size and a small army of physical therapists, massage therapists, strength coaches and trainers.
A general manager’s staff has experienced similarly explosive growth. Most teams now have an analytics staff with a higher head count than Trader Jack McCloskey’s entire front office in building the Bad Boys that christened The Palace with the Pistons first NBA title in 1989.
Another change: Players used to show up a few days before training camp – or a few minutes. Rip Hamilton evaporated when the season ended and reappeared on media day in better condition than anyone else.
Now teams essentially report en masse three or four weeks before camp officially opens. Coaches are limited in how much contact they can have, but are allowed to work with groups of players less than the full team at a time. The Pistons – all but Boban Marjanovic, who wrapped up his summer obligation to the Serbian national team in Sunday’s finale of the EuroBasket tournament – have been going through voluntary workouts at The Palace since Labor Day week.
Here are a few impressions and observations I’ve gleaned over the past three weeks leading to Monday’s media day and Tuesday’s first practice to start Stan Van Gundy’s fourth season as coach and president of basketball operations.
- Last season’s sting remains – It would have been pretty easy for the holdovers from last year’s team to shrug their collective shoulders and write off the seven-win decline from the previous season to Reggie Jackson’s injury and the ripple effects it had. But that’s not the feel. At all. Anthony Tolliver wasn’t here – he spent one season between Pistons stints in Sacramento – but knows the mood well and talked about the change in mindset he sees in players like Andre Drummond and Stanley Johnson. Tobias Harris expressed similar thoughts. Not only has the sting motivated them, it’s done so from the perspective of understanding that team success is the portal through which all individual reward must pass. They had a team bonding week in Las Vegas in early August. It set the tone for the three weeks of voluntary workouts. I’ll have more on that before training camp opens and it’s a window into this team’s psyche.
- Avery Bradley will have a major impact – Stan Van Gundy’s new shooting guard arrives with universal and deep respect from his new teammates. One of the things the Pistons have talked about among themselves is growing into an elite defensive team and they all point to Bradley as a guy who’ll be at the forefront – in establishing that mindset and in execution. The consistency of his effort is something they’ve all cited. He’s also consistently productive offensively and that’s a big deal for a team that finished 25th in offense a year ago.
- Reggie Jackson’s aura has returned – As their point guard struggled to regain peak physical form last year, he became more withdrawn. His voice wasn’t heard nearly as much in the locker room, all understandable for a guy who’d emerged as a top-10 point guard in a golden era of point guards the previous season. His personality has returned, a sign that at least he believes his explosion – the thing that made him one of the NBA’s most dangerous pick-and-roll operators – has also returned, or is on target to do so. Of all the changes over the off-season, nothing will be more meaningful than a healthy Jackson.
- Luke Kennard is winning vets over – He’ll have a challenge earning a regular role with Avery Bradley, Stanley Johnson, Reggie Bullock and Langston Galloway all more established on the wings, but the Duke rookie has impressed the veterans at every turn from Summer League through voluntary workouts. He’s got a full tool belt of offensive skills. It’ll take him time to learn the league and build up his body to fully flower, but there are probably going to be nights this season when he looks like a guy who’ll average 18 points a game someday soon.
- Stanley Johnson is ready for an expanded role – He’s had a big summer and teammates have taken notice of both his physical and emotional maturity. Johnson reported in great shape, lean but still thickly muscled, and he’s struck all as a more focused player. It will help that the roster reshaping figures to allow Johnson to be used in ways that play more to his strengths than a year ago. Nobody on the team has a greater chance to take a big leap forward than 2015’s No. 1 pick, who’ll be 21 for all of his third season.