AUBURN HILLS – The questioner asked Stan Van Gundy what was new or exciting about this year’s Pistons and the answer, well, take a seat. It took a minute. Or five.
And as it was winding to its conclusion on media day to launch another season, the Pistons coach – among the world leaders in self awareness – grinned a little sheepishly at the breadth of his oratory.
“Sorry for the answer to be so long,” he said, “but it was a question on optimism and there’s a lot of reasons I’m excited.”
He enumerated them – getting Reggie Jackson back healthy; the promise of the last three No. 1 picks: Stanley Johnson, Henry Ellenson, Luke Kennard; the 3-point shooting added in Avery Bradley, Langston Galloway and Anthony Tolliver; and the “wild card” of Boban Marjanovic, who could be “one of the most indefensible offensive forces in the game” – and we’ll get to all of those topics over the course of training camp.
Last season was a missed opportunity for the Pistons. They exited 2015-16 with a stiff wind at their backs, snapping a playoff drought and pushing Cleveland hard despite a four-game sweep in the first round while returning the great bulk of a young core and adding two important rotation pieces, Jon Leuer and Ish Smith, to complete a solid bench unit.
What happened? Jackson’s injury happened. Simple as that. They weathered the storm every bit as well as they could have hoped, going 11-10 despite a loaded early schedule, while Jackson sat for the first five weeks of the regular season. And if Jackson had returned whole, all those giddy expectations expressed at last season’s media day – “Why not us?” the bold message – might well have been realized.
But he didn’t. And Van Gundy learned a lesson, he says.
“There’s more than the injury healing when guys are coming back,” he said. “There’s a lot more to it.”
Jackson had two practices last season and was thrown into the fire. Pretty much all of the attendant offensive issues that resulted in a 25th-place ranking in efficiency flowed from Jackson’s diminished state and how his return threw team equilibrium out of whack.
This year, Van Gundy says a Jackson return won’t happen until Jackson – who just started playing some limited five-on-five for the first time late last week as part of the three weeks of voluntary group workouts at the Pistons practice facility – can go through a full week of activity without exception.
“We won’t throw him out in a regular-season game until he’s ready to go through everything for a week,” Van Gundy said. “We want to get to where he can go out there every day, do everything, feel fine, have confidence, know he’s in a rhythm and be out there with his teammates to develop a rhythm. We didn’t do that last year. That’s on me.”
Jackson has been buoyant over the summer as his rehabilitation regimen has yielded the desired results. Up and down the roster, the players the Pistons need to hit their mark are striking a serious pose.
Ish Smith captured it well: “We did a lot of talking last year, did a lot of ‘Why not us?’ Big expectations. So now, we’ve got nothing to lose. What we’ve got to do is take it personally, go out there and play the game, have fun with the game, compete. Why will it be different? We’ll see. It starts tomorrow. Each day, we have to grow.”
Tobias Harris, asked about all the star defections from the East and whether it opened a path to the All-Star game, turned the question sideways and responded, “I’m only focused on one thing and that’s winning. Getting back to the playoffs and being a team that has home-court advantage in the playoffs. If that’s to be done, everything else will handle itself.”
Andre Drummond admitted a greater sense of maturity and, with it, a greater focus on winning and taking accountability for his role in that pursuit.
“I’m 24 now. Been in the league for six years. Over time, you’re going to mature and become more serious. I was a kid coming into a lot of money, having fun playing baskeball. But at the end of the day, this is a business and maturity is something that was necessary. I feel this year is a good year to really lock in and be a professional.”
Nasal surgery to alleviate breathing difficulties , a better diet and an arduous off-season routine have left Drummond 35 pounds lighter, he said.
“When he plays with great energy, everything else takes care of itself,” Van Gundy said. “And if he does that, he’s going to have a great, great year.”
Van Gundy came to town insisting any team with realistic title aspirations had to start by fielding a top-10 defense. He hasn’t changed that view, despite the dramatic shift toward offense in today’s game. And this year he’s got a team that’s parroting his philosophy before camp even starts.
Harris, who’s always hung his hat on his scoring, talked about taking pride in improved defensive rating last year and a summer focus on accelerating that trend. The excitement to play with Avery Bradley, the big off-season addition, is clear in the tone of every teammate’s remarks. There is a rare level of confidence that Johnson is indeed about to bust out and fulfill his rookie-year promise.
So, sorry if this got to be a little rambling. But there seemed a lot of reasons in evidence on media day as to why the Pistons – even if they’re not saying nearly as much about it this year – expect to bury last season’s disappointment in success for their debut season at Little Caesars Arena.