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Best Case, Worst Case: Detroit Pistons

The no. 18 team in The Ringer’s preseason rankings has star power, a complementary supporting cast, and the reigning Coach of the Year at the helm. So why does this season feel confined to mediocrity before it’s even started?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Break out your Ben Simmons hand trackers—the NBA is back. We’re counting down the days until the 2018-19 season tips off on October 16 by taking a hard look at the floor and ceiling of every team in the league. This year, each Best Case, Worst Case capsule is also accompanied by The Ringer’s preseason ranking, our staff’s best guess about where that team will finish this season. We look forward to your emotionless, considered responses.

Ringer Preseason Ranking: 18

Last Season: 39-43

Notable Additions: Glenn Robinson III (free agency), Bruce Brown (draft), Khyri Thomas (draft), head coach Dwane Casey (hired)

Notable Subtractions: Anthony Tolliver (free agency), head coach/president Stan Van Gundy (fired)

Vegas Over/Under: 37.5

Team MVP: Blake Griffin

Best-Case Scenario: Reggie Jackson and Griffin stay healthy for the first time in years, and with Andre Drummond form a three-headed lob-dunking machine that Casey molds into a legitimate problem for the East’s contenders.

Last season started swimmingly for the lowly Pistons. By the end of November, Detroit was 14-6 and sitting atop the Central Division. Even after a prolonged losing streak, the Pistons were 22-18 in mid-January and comfortably in a playoff position. But it’s been years since good things lasted in Detroit, and it wasn’t long into the hot start that things went wonky. Point guard Jackson went down with an ankle sprain, Van Gundy got desperate and traded the farm for Griffin, and the Pistons limped their way out of the playoff hunt.

But Van Gundy’s last big move before his ouster raised the team’s ceiling higher than it’s been since Ben Wallace and Rip Hamilton ruled the Palace of Auburn Hills. In Griffin and Drummond, the Pistons have a dynamic duo that should be able to overpower almost any frontcourt in the Eastern Conference. Drummond has spent the past three years of his career flirting with stardom, while Griffin has used that time trying to reclaim his own. Blake’s numbers in Detroit were a step back from what he’d produced in Los Angeles, but much of that can be chalked up to a rough transition under an outgoing coach. Even still, he put up 19.8 points, 6.6 rebounds, and 6.2 assists per game in the Motor City, all while attempting almost three times as many 3s per game as he did the season prior, and 18 times as many as when he entered the league.

It wasn’t all good. At times, he looked lost sharing the floor with Drummond, seemingly longing for DeAndre Jordan, the other enormous board-gobbler he spent time with who dunks and does little to nothing else as a scorer. Still, the numbers suggest that the Pistons were better when their two stars shared the floor than when one rode the pine. In 594 minutes together, the team had a defensive rating of 102.8—which would be fifth best in the league over the whole season—and had a net rating of plus-3.0. When Griffin sat and Drummond manned the post solo, that fell to 108.3 and minus-1.8.

Things got interesting when Jackson joined the mix. The guard missed 37 games last year, and struggled when he returned, shooting just 38 percent from the field and 22.2 percent from 3, compared to 44.6 percent and 33.9 percent before he went down. But in limited time with his new twin towers—and I mean limited, as they played just 44 minutes together—the Pistons had an offensive rating that, extrapolated to a full season, would’ve been the best by any team since 1996-97, when the earliest data is available. Small sample size be damned! This team has promise! With any luck, Brown and Thomas will turn into second-round steals, and the Pistons won’t dump them like they did Spencer Dinwiddie and Khris Middleton. Jon Leuer will return from injury ready to help stretch the floor at a forward spot, and Detroit’s key trio—Drummond, Griffin, and Jackson—will be healthy enough to end the Pistons’ seemingly never-ending sorrows. Or maybe they’ll trade all their young’uns and a pick or two for Jimmy Butler and ride a real Big Three to the top tier in the conference.

Casey has had success guiding a roster built for the mid-aughts to victory a decade later. He was named Coach of the Year for his efforts last season. Now he has lesser, older talents in a smaller city with less cap space and equally frigid temperatures. Poor shooting and a serious injury bug has plagued the franchise for a handful of seasons, and very little has suggested that will change this fall. But if there’s anyone fans should trust to boost their morale, it’s the man who helped turn DeMar DeRozan into a pick-and-roll threat and found value in the deepest characters on his bench. Turning this Pistons team into a winner would be the greatest accomplishment of Casey’s career. And if everything falls into place, he might just do it.

Worst-Case Scenario: Injuries derail another year of Motown hoops. Reggie and Blake don’t play 82 combined games, Drummond struggles without anyone else to create their own shots, and the team finishes just outside of the playoffs yet again.

While most of the league has self-segregated into contending or rebuilding teams, Detroit has split the difference, going boldly where no team should: unescapable mediocrity. In four years under Van Gundy, the Pistons finished ninth, 10th, eighth, and 12th in the Eastern Conference. Going back to the 2008-09 season, when former general manager Joe Dumars’s trade sending Chauncey Billups to Denver for Allen Iverson capped the modern Golden Era of Pistons basketball, the results get even more bleak. A few more 11th-place finishes, a 12th-place finish, and an eighth-place result during that transition season meant Detroit was never good enough to be competitive, but never bad enough to earn a good draft pick.

Some of that has to do with injuries (Jackson has missed 67 games over the past two seasons, and before that, Brandon Jennings tore his Achilles), but more can be traced to roster building. Drummond, Griffin, and Jackson will make a combined $74.6 million this season. None is projected to be among the best at his position this fall. Overspending isn’t just a top-of-the-rotation problem, either. Further down the bench, Leuer, Langston Galloway, and Ish Smith will take home $23 million total to represent Detroit. And because the Pistons haven’t drafted higher than seventh since 2003; didn’t have first-round picks in 2014 or 2018; and passed on players like Donovan Mitchell for Luke Kennard, and CJ McCollum for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, it hasn’t had the luxury of top-tier talent at bargain-bin prices.

All of that is to say the margin for error is nonexistent. If the development of youngsters like Stanley Johnson or Kennard stalls, or Brown and Thomas join 2016 first-round pick Henry Ellenson as draft busts and likely offseason castaways, the Pistons could bottom out. If Jackson or Griffin get injured once again, the Pistons could bottom out. If Drummond doesn’t make the leap his champions have been begging for over the past few seasons, the Pistons could bottom out. Casey’s arrival suggests a reinvigorated team, unlike the one that gave up on Van Gundy as last year came to a close. But if Detroit suffers any major injuries between October and April, or if the remaining healthy players don’t fully buy in, it could be another long season.

On the bright side, Josh Smith is collecting checks for only two more seasons.

TL;DR: If the Pistons stay healthy, they could log their second winning season in 11 years. If not, well, they’re paying their “big three” only a combined $74.6 million to miss the playoffs.