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After Rosterpocalypse, Pistons eye more than first-round exit

Mar 21, 2017; Brooklyn, NY, USA; Detroit Pistons head coach Stan Van Gundy coaches against the Brooklyn Nets during the first quarter at Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The Detroit Pistons won the NBA trade wars with their recent acquisition of Blake Griffin but they were far from finished wheeling-and-dealing despite a 5-game winning streak, four of which featured their newly-acquired 5-time All-Star. In their latest moves, Detroit sent away both pieces that came with Griffin; Brice Johnson and Willie Reed, for players who can impact the team immediately (both Johnson and Reed were playing in Grand Rapids for the Pistons’ G-League affiliate, Grand Rapids Drive). The Pistons sent Willie Reed down the road to Chicago for Jameer Nelson and sent Brice Johnson and a draft pick down to Memphis for James Ennis.

At the start of the season, the Pistons had a starting unit of Reggie Jackson, Avery Bradley, Stanley Johnson, Tobias Harris, and Andre Drummond. Only Harris and Drummond have been consistent contributors this season. Johnson has been up and down (mostly down but better as of late), Bradley was streaky-at-best before being shipped to Los Angeles for Blake Griffin, and Jackson has been out with an ankle injury for well over a month. With Harris also being shipped out in the package for Griffin, only Drummond is left standing.

Detroit’s roster has seen eight (8!) players shipped away or acquired via trade in this recent flurry with Brice Johnson and Willie Reed each being dealt twice. With such a comprehensive roster overhaul, who and what do we have as a team now?

Meet the New Guys

Jameer Nelson

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Jameer Nelson is a name most basketball fans should know. The 35-year-old point guard out of St. Joe’s spent 10 seasons with the Orlando Magic, averaging over 12 points and five assists during his time down there, before spending the last three years bouncing between Dallas, Boston, Denver, New Orleans, a coffee break in Chicago, and now, here to the Motor City. Nelson gives the Pistons some much-needed depth at the point guard position as Detroit has relied on Ish Smith and literally no one else since Reggie Jackson’s ankle injury many weeks ago.

While Nelson is definitely a smaller point guard (he’s 6-foot on a good day), he’s a sure-hand with the basketball (averages just two turnovers a game), a smart defender (averages around two fouls per game), and an efficient scorer (shoots at a 48% rate). He’s also experienced in post-season basketball, making the playoffs six times during his Orlando years, where his scoring went up compared to the regular season, and his shooting percentages increased as well.

James Ennis

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James Ennis is a 6-foot-7 small forward who has bounced around the league in his short four-year career: drafted by Miami in 2014, traded to Memphis in 2015, then New Orleans that same year, before going back to Memphis these last two years. There’s nothing eye-popping about his game offensively, as he only averages around six points in about 20 minutes per contest. However, in his short time in the Big Easy, Ennis played over 30 minutes per game and averaged 16 points and four rebounds on 50% shooting from two and a ridiculous 48% from three.

He’s got a decent career field goal percentage of over 48 and can knock down his free throws when he gets to the line (80+%). Defensively he is able to guard the wing better than most, and his presence alone gives Detroit depth at the wing position, as both Johnson and Reggie Bullock have been relied on heavily with the departure of Harris and Bradley.

Blake Superior Griffin

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If you’re reading this, you know who Blake freaking Griffin is. He’s only a five-time All-Star power forward who can handle the rock, dish it, dunk it, block it, rebound it, and has improved his shooting year after year. The only knock on Blake is his health or lack thereof, but until he misses time due to injury, there’s no reason to fear his availability.

With all due respect to Andre Drummond, Griffin is the true star in his prime that Detroit hasn’t had this millennium. Not even the 2004 NBA Champions had a player like Griffin. He brings a whole new offensive dynamic and a beyond intriguing partnership with Drummond to the table while stretching the floor at the four or five as needed. And did I mention he can dunk? Sign me up for that.

Rosterpocalypse

Detroit’s 2017-18 moves have brought in Avery Bradley, Blake Griffin, Jameer Nelson, James Ennis, Willie Reed, Brice Johnson, Kay Felder, Dwight Buycks, Anthony Tolliver, Langston Galloway, Eric Moreland, and Luke Kennard.  In turn, they’ve sent Avery Bradley, Tobias Harris, Willie Reed, Brice Johnson, Boban Marjanovic, and quite a few draft picks packing.

With all of these moves, it can be confusing as to what type of lineup Stan Van Gundy envisions for the future, but I can harbor a guess for you. For the time-being, Ish Smith is your starting point guard (you already knew that), with Jameer the primary back-up well ahead of Felder or Buycks. When Reggie Jackson returns, it becomes his team again with Smith and Nelson taking turns filling in. At the 2-guard, it becomes confusing as the Pistons don’t really have a hot-hand to rely on, so they move small forwards around like Stanley Johnson and Reggie Bullock (both of whom currently start), as well as bringing guys like Luke Kennard and Langston Galloway off the bench. Your starters down low are obvious: Griffin and Drummond, but when they need a breather, it’s Tolliver for now. But that’s nowhere near enough, and Detroit needs more from the likes of Henry Ellenson and Eric Moreland. Depth at the center position is now Detroit’s biggest weakness (it was tied with point guard but Nelson fills that hole), and the Pistons will need to figure that problem out to make a run at the playoffs.

The Pistons’ 5-game winning streak has them at 27-26 on the year, tied with Philadelphia for the 8-seed, yet just four games back of Cleveland for the 3-seed. Everything is well within their collective grasps as far as the NBA postseason is concerned. The NBA All-Star weekend is quickly approaching, which gives all teams a much-needed break, and for Stan Van Gundy this break is perfect timing to find ways to mesh the new guys with the Motown vets. Obviously, Griffin is already working out fine, but guys like Jameer and Ennis will need time to find their roles, and SVG needs time to figure out how to work them into the lineup.

There’s been an identity crisis in the D, as sometimes the team looks great defensively, I mean 2004-Going-To-Work-Pistons great, and sometimes more like they can’t spell “defense”. Sometimes they look Golden State-Esq offensively, and sometimes they look Lions-Esq offensively (sorry, not sorry). It’s up to SVG to figure out the new lineups, both starting and bench units, to give this team not only an identity, but a gameplan to keep the winning-streaks plentiful and the losing-streaks to a minimum.

The team has played much better as of late, seemingly energized by the Griffin acquisition. These recent moves have only added to the depth and overall talent level of this Detroit team. Much different than a few short weeks ago, the Pistons look like a team capable of not only making the playoffs but making some noise once there. That would be a welcome change and maybe even fill some of those empty downtown seats.

You have to give it up for Stan the Man, he’s doing everything he can to try and bring a winner to Detroit. And just like the glory days of “Trader Jack” McCloskey, Van Gundy’s made some big moves to try and win now, as he sees a wide-open Eastern Conference that could be Detroit’s for the taking.

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