AUBURN HILLS – The Pistons had a relatively stable off-season, returning three starters and six of the top nine in minutes played in 2016-17. Compare that to the team pegged as Cleveland’s top challenger in the East, the Boston Celtics, who return only two of their top seven in minutes played.
Another way to drive home the transitory nature of NBA rosters: Anthony Tolliver spent just one season away from the Pistons, yet returns to find only five teammates still here from the 2015-16 group he helped lead to the playoffs.
“It’s a new team, definitely,” he said. “There’s familiarity around here with (coaches and staff), with some of the main players and, shoot, outside of that, it’s pretty thin for guys I’ve played with. Everybody else is new.”
Even among those who return – and the entire list is Andre Drummond, Reggie Jackson, Reggie Bullock, Stanley Johnson and Tobias Harris, who joined the Pistons for the final 27 games of 2015-16 – Tolliver sees differences in focus and sense of urgency.
“I know that talking with Andre throughout the summer, he’s focused. He’s ready to go,” Tolliver said. “He’s approaching this thing with a lot more of a veteran-like thought process instead of just kind of going with the motions. I think that it starts with him. His attitude on a daily basis, his commitment on a daily basis is what’s going to carry our team to whatever level we go to.”
Tolliver sensed it even before the Pistons gathered in Auburn Hills after Labor Day for daily voluntary workouts leading to training camp’s opening next week, but especially so since then. He hasn’t spent quite as much time with Jackson, who has refrained from full-court scrimmages as he continues to rehabilitate from last season’s debilitating bout of tendinosis in his left knee, but he’s witnessed enough to gauge Jackson’s mindset.
“I feel like, obviously, he knows this is a huge year for him, as well, to be able to go out and produce. Otherwise, there’s going to be a lot of change this year.”
The starkest difference he sees, probably not surprisingly, comes in the player who was 19 throughout Tolliver’s last season with the Pistons.
“Honestly, the biggest change out of the guys I’ve played with in the past has been Stan. He’s been on a different level of focus. He knows that, once again, all these guys, they know that this is a big year for them. Individually, but as a team, we know that what really matters in this league is winning. Even if you don’t have as good of an individual year, if your team is winning, you’re going to be rewarded for it.
“I think guys are starting to realize that and starting to take that to heart and really focus on themselves, but then also knowing that moving forward, as a team, if we win everybody will be taken care of.”
Leadership comes easily to Tolliver – “I naturally take a leadership role; I like to get things done,” he says – and as the only 30-and-over player on the roster, that’s even more the case in this stint with the Pistons. It became a running gag in the 2015-16 season when Tolliver’s acquisition coincided with the Pistons reversing course after a 5-23 start that saw them waive Josh Smith just prior to the deal with Phoenix for Tolliver. In fact, he jokingly dubbed it the “Tolliver effect,” but there was no dispute that he quickly became a respected voice in the locker room.
Some groups are easier to lead than others, but since a team bonding week spent in Las Vegas early last month Tolliver has sensed a unity of spirit with the newly reconstituted roster assembled by Stan Van Gundy and general manager Jeff Bower. Avery Bradley, Tolliver feels, is a newcomer who’ll emerge as a leader based solely, if not exclusively, on his work ethic and dedication to defense.
“This dude, he is legit on the defensive end and, obviously, he’s no slouch on the offensive end, either,” Tolliver said. “He hasn’t really said much yet and I don’t know if he’s much of a talker, but he doesn’t have to be. A lot of people don’t realize how much you can be a true leader without saying a word. That’s how I feel like Avery’s going to be. He’s going to be one of our best leaders, but he’s going to be a leader by example. He’s going to be one of the hardest-working guys on the team and really set a big-time tone on the defensive end.”
Partly because of Bradley, partly because of Drummond’s sharper focus, partly because of the greater diversity of the roster, Tolliver thinks the Pistons have a chance to be among the league’s best defensive teams this season. After playing for nine franchises in his nine NBA seasons, Tolliver has come to see a correlation between strong defensive teams and those with great camaraderie – a chicken-or-the-egg equation.
He rejoined the Pistons after hearing Van Gundy’s pitch, which emphasized Tolliver’s value for what he could contribute as a player every bit as much as for what Van Gundy knew he’d bring as a leader.
“I’m a vocal guy as well as a lead-by-example guy, so I fit the role really well,” Tolliver said. “Kind of seen it all at this point. Been with all different types of teams – really good teams and really bad teams. I know what it takes to be successful in this league, so guys are really looking up to me and really looking to me for guidance. It’s up to me to make sure that I’m guiding them in the right direction.”