Enemy Lines: A rival scout sizes up the Pistons
2012-13 Record: 29-53
Coach: Mo Cheeks (first season with Pistons)
The Pistons will be a much better team than last year. They've upgraded the talent, athleticism, shooting and length.
The first issue is point guard, where they brought in Brandon Jennings, who expects to be the starter, and Chauncey Billups, who has said he wants to be a starter and that he didn't like being a 2 with the Clippers. It's going to be interesting to see whether the two will agree to play in the backcourt together.
Jennings is a scoring guard who will have better assist numbers this year because he'll have some guys who can finish in Andre Drummond and Josh Smith. But I don't think of him as a true point guard. I also think he takes poor shots, even though some of that, he says, is because he felt like he had to take those shots [on a Bucks team that lacked scoring options in the frontcourt]. He's a shooting guard in a point guard's body. He's a liability defensively. He has quick hands and he's active, but he's not a stay-in-front player and he's not a strong player.
The Pistons haven't had a leader since Billups left [via trade in 2008]. He's going to be the most influential guy in the locker room, so how he handles the different players is going to be a big thing. He embraces the role of being a leader. With his presence, they'll be better even if he's hurt. But it will help a lot more if he's on the floor. Keeping him healthy is key. They'll make the playoffs if Billups stays healthy. If not, it's up in the air.
Playing him with Jennings is going to be a problem defensively, though Billups is smart enough to make up for some issues. Billups is not going to be great at chasing opponents through screens, but he's crafty defensively and thinks the game well. When Billups doesn't have the ball, the best thing he brings is spot-up shooting. He's not going to come off screens a lot to shoot jump shots.
Overall, their shooting has gotten better. Jennings can stretch the floor. Billups is a very good shooter from deep. Rookies Luigi Datome and rookie Kentavious Caldwell-Pope have reputations as being good shooters, though Caldwell-Pope struggled during the Summer League and early in the preseason.
Smith is just below All-Star level. He has the talent, but his highs are so high and his lows are so low. For every great play, he makes a boneheaded play; for every play that gets the crowd on its feet, he makes another play that deflates it. In the words of Denny Green, Smith is who we thought he was. I don't think his numbers are going to change dramatically from what he did in Atlanta. But I do think he's a guy who needs people to create for him. He's not at his best with a live dribble facing the basket and making a decision. He's a transition player, and you don't want him being a decision maker.
Everyone in the world except Smith knows he's a 4 and not a 3, but they're bringing him in to be the 3. He gives them length and the athleticism they haven't had. But he's inconsistent with his shot beyond 16 feet, and Hawks fans moaned every time he shot a three-pointer. He has enough ball skills on the perimeter that you have to respect him as a driver.
He affects the game defensively. He can shoot the gaps on the wing, get steals and block shots as a weakside defender. He can guard a face-up 4 or a power 4 because of his quickness. But when he has to guard a 3 like Paul Pierce and LeBron James, I don't think he's an effective one-on-one defender. On the ball, especially against a driver, I don't think he's exceptional. Even when he's defending on the ball, it's like he wants every play to be a home run.
Drummond is an intriguing player with great size, feet and athleticism. He is a dunker. He's not a jump shooter or a free-throw shooter. He's a good offensive rebounder. But his skills didn't appear to improve throughout his rookie year. The question is what he does when he plays against guys who are similar to him and he has to make an offensive move. [Assistant coach] Rasheed Wallace will be good for Drummond in a lot of ways. Rasheed was always a smart player. He'll be able to help as long as Drummond works.
Greg Monroe looks like he'll be a 16-and-9 guy for 10 years. Athletically, that's probably his ceiling.
If Smith, Drummond and Monroe play together in a big frontcourt that lacks perimeter shooting, teams can pack the paint defensively and treat Drummond like Dwight Howard and grab him when he's near the basket in order to put him at the free-throw line. Spacing is an issue with that frontcourt, but I don't think they can bring any of those three guys off the bench based on what they've invested in them.
Rodney Stuckey was supposed to be the guy they were investing in when they traded Billups. Now it may be that Stuckey and Charlie Villanueva are going to get traded this year because they have expiring contracts.
Billups, in reality, is going to be the coach for this team because Mo Cheeks and his staff aren't strong. Cheeks [who previously coached the Trail Blazers and 76ers] has never been an X's-and-O's guy or a disciplinarian. When he's had good veteran players, he's had success. But when he's had a young group that looked for leadership, that hasn't been there because he's a quiet guy. By about the 10th game this year, the players from last year's team will realize they had a good coach then [Lawrence Frank] with a creative mind.