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Best Case, Worst Case: Detroit Pistons

Andre Drummond is promising to be better than he was in last season’s disastrous campaign. Can the Pistons’ star big man lift the rest of the team up, or is it time to pull the curtains on this era of Detroit basketball?

Andre Drummond and Avery Bradley Getty Images/Ringer illustration

NBA back! To prepare for a new season, we’re breaking down one team per day, each day, until tipoff on October 17.

Team: Detroit Pistons

Coach: Stan Van Gundy (fourth year)

Last Season: 37-45 (10th in Eastern Conference)

Notable Additions: Avery Bradley (trade), Luke Kennard (draft)

Notable Subtractions: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (free agency), Marcus Morris (trade), Aron Baynes (free agency)

Vegas Over/Under: 38.5

Best-Case Scenario: In the depleted Eastern Conference, several lackluster teams will eke their way into a playoff berth. That, my friends, could be Detroit’s in.

NBA Preview 2017

A rebound year for the Pistons will depend heavily on (coincidentally enough) their top rebounder. Andre Drummond is not oblivious to his underwhelming performance on the court last season; the 24-year-old center told reporters this summer, “I wasn't playing the way I was supposed to play. … I wasn't playing up to my potential.” Detroit needs its max player to improve defensively and from the line to have any chance at being competitive; last season, he averaged just 13.6 points, 13.8 rebounds, and, thanks to Hack-A-Dre, 29.7 minutes.

Drummond’s limited time on the court was also the result of breathing issues; after getting surgery this summer to fix a deviated septum that was affecting his air intake, the big man is expecting the kind of uptick in production that Stan Van Gundy and the Pistons are contingent on.

Beginning the year with a healthy Reggie Jackson should help. The team stumbled last season after Jackson returned from a 21-game absence due to tendinitis in his left knee; backup Ish Smith’s caretaker style of play made Reggie’s score-first mentality a jarring contrast with the rest of the team. Jackson has been perceived as a “get mine” type of teammate since his days in Oklahoma City, but this season, the point guard seems intent on learning to share: “I have to stand side by side with my man Dre and understand this team is going to go as far as we take them,” he said in September at a team dinner, also telling Drummond it was his team to control.

“When you have a couple of alphas on your team,” Anthony Tolliver added, “and it’s never really established whose team it is, there can be some tension. [Jackson] came out and said, ‘This is [Drummond’s] team.’”

Acquiring veteran Avery Bradley this summer is another step toward a positive locker room culture (if the NBA had yearbooks, Bradley’s would be the one with page-long letters saying goodbye; Jackson’s would have a bunch that read Stay cool). Just one year older than Tobias Harris at 26, Bradley’s long-reported maturity and support for teammates will be as beneficial for Detroit as what he’ll bring on the court. (The Pistons will need that, though, too). With Kentavious Caldwell-Pope gone, Bradley’s elite perimeter defense arrived at the perfect time; his reliable deep shooting will give Detroit something it didn’t have before on the wings, as it finished third worst in the league in 3-point percentage.

Harris’s underrated offense last season—leading the Pistons in scoring (16.1 points) despite fluctuating between starting and coming off the bench—could also shine in 2017-18. Detroit’s offense was generally better when Harris played with Smith; if Jackson does buy into ball sharing, this could be the season 25-year-old Harris makes the leap.

Worst-Case Scenario: Detroit will fail to make the playoffs for the third time in SVG’s four-year tenure.

Fixing an alpha-dog problem in the locker room will not automatically assuage Detroit’s on-court beef with perimeter shooting. Van Gundy’s offense calls for a big man down low and four threats outside; despite the president-coach hybrid’s best efforts by snagging Bradley and drafting Luke Kennard, who shot 44 percent from deep for Duke, Detroit could easily fall back into the swampy, 3-pointless waters it’s been stuck in since SVG arrived.

Harris regressed from the arc last season, shooting 34.7 percent, but was still better than Jackson (a career 32.1 percent 3-point shooter) and Stanley Johnson, who sophomore-slumped himself all the way to 29.2 percent from deep. (Based on their 3-point attempts last season, a lineup of Jackson-Bradley-Johnson-Harris-Drummond would have taken an average of 14.4 3-point shots a game, finishing 25th in the league among starters.)

The team’s stagnant offense is cause for concern, but the team also lost key defenders in the offseason, most notably KCP after Detroit renounced his rights in July. But Aron Baynes will also be missed. The Pistons’ main rotation had its best defensive rating when Baynes subbed in for Drummond, allowing just 98.5 points per possession, and, alternatively, were close to their worst with Drummond on the floor (allowing 108.9 points per possession). A lack of communication on the defensive end was one of Drummond’s biggest faults last season, and his respiratory struggles likely played into that. But as recently as this September, Drummond’s teammates were still asking him to be more vocal. “I told [Drummond] the other day,” Harris said last month, “even if he just says a couple of words defensively, talk a little bit louder—you might not even be saying the right things—people are going to listen.”

TL;DR: Everyone—Reggie, Andre, Stanley, even Stan—needs a rebound year, or these Pistons will finish where they ended last season: as one of the worst offensive teams in the league, watching the postseason from home. Separately.