Welcome back friends to the third annual installment of my NBA League Pass Rankings. For those new to the process, forget power rankings. Forget Vegas Over-Unders and salary cap gymnastics. Here at Knicks at Night we dive into the teams one by one to answer one simple question. If you’re shelling out the money for a League Pass subscription, which of these teams are worth that top 5 night-in, night-out slot and which of these guys are absolute, unwatchable garbage people?
Full Disclosure – This was written before Reggie Jackson underwent a tendinitis procedure that should keep him sidelined until early December. While not as devastating as some of the other training camp injuries, a huge bummer for an up-and-coming team nonetheless.
I’m not going to be surprised if the fourth youngest team in the NBA makes a huge jump this year, moving up from an easy first-round out to one of the 4 or 5 best squads in the Conference. This is a group that has somehow managed to embrace its young core, while putting together a roster deep enough to compete right away in the baby brother East. The Mo Town Pistons are hungry, and improving, they’re in a stable situation with a dynamite, charismatic coach… Hell, these guys might be my favorite non-Knicks team East of the Mississippi.
One of the things that makes the Pistons so compelling is their versatility. This team has three skilled forwards in Marcus Morris, Tobias Harris, and last year’s rookie Stanley Johnson who can score, handle the ball to create secondary offense, and switch assignments defensively. Morris and Harris both enjoyed career seasons last year in the new Detroit environment while Johnson’s attitude makes me feel like he’s one of the most likely players in the league to take that second year leap. When you combine these guys with the defensive excellence and let-it-fly attitude of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, you have a seriously switchy group, which is perfectly suited for the modern NBA.
And that’s not even mentioning the bread-and-butter of this team that is the Reggie Jackson – Andre Drummond pick and roll. The Thunder stole the disgruntled point guard away from the Oklahoma City Thunder two years ago and he’s quickly developed into one of the most exciting, athletic slashers in the league. Jackson still has a little way to go into becoming a truly reliable outside shooter and a night-in, night-out defensive presence, but his numbers from last year so completely blew away everything he’s done over his entire career that I feel safe in saying he’s found a good home in Detroit. Van Gundy is known for empowering his players and I think Jackson will only become more deadly as the front office has surrounded him with more shooting and offensive weaponry.
This is also a team that did an excellent job of understanding the rapidly evolving salary cap environment. With half the league set to have millions in cap space and Detroit never being known as a free agent (or vacation) destination, this team wisely struck quickly, by inking capable role players to reasonable, long-term deals instead of trying to wait and outbid dozens of other franchises for that one big fish. Van Gundy addressed this team’s two biggest weaknesses in free agency this year, signing Ish Smith and Boban Marjonivich to play backup point guard and center respectively. They brought in Jon Leur to swing between the big spots and provide shooting from the bench and drafted Henry Ellenson in the first round as a stretchy, ball-handling 4. This is one of the deepest teams in the league at power-forward, and should give Van Gundy some pretty interesting small ball center units to run off the bench.
This team will really be looking to Drummond, though, to fully accept the mantle of franchise player. Going into his 5th season now, the 7 footer has continued to improve every year, leading the league in rebounds and coming dangerously close to Dennis Rodman’s 15 per game average. The 23 year old is a devastating finisher in the pick and roll and so good on the offensive glass he turns Jackson’s wild floaters into efficient put-back jams. Still, despite his ludicrous combination of size and speed, the on-off metrics paint him as an average defender and rim-protector at best who has yet to average 2 blocks a game during his career. It might seem obvious to say that Van Gundy is trying to groom this team into the 4 out group he took to the Finals in Orlando, but for these guys to sniff at that level of playoff success, Drummond is going to have to start putting together his best impression of a Dwight Howard defensive performance.
I think he has all the tools to do it. The Pistons are in an enviable place with quality starters at every position, intelligent coaching, and just the right amount of pressure for a talented team to take an incremental step forward. A lot of these guys have the cast-off chip on their shoulder and have really improved playing in Detroit. I’ll be excited to watch all of them continue to develop together, especially Johnson, and if Van Gundy can get a big leap out of one or two of these young bloods, it really wouldn’t be a shock to see these guys hosting a playoff series in April.
Last year’s ranking: 17 (+12)