By Will Burchfield
The Detroit Pistons squeezed into the playoffs last season as the eight seed in the Eastern Conference and were swept in the first round by the Cleveland Cavaliers.
But at least one member of the team believes the Pistons are on the cusp of contending for a championship.
“We’re right there. I’m not being facetious, I’m not being crazy when I say this, but we have a really, really good chance to be champions,” said Ish Smith at Pistons media day on Monday. “I know people might think I’m crazy but I mean that.”
Smith signed with the Pistons in the offseason and figures to be their backup point guard. A journeyman who has played for 11 different teams over a six-year career, Smith said he was intrigued by the Pistons’ potential after playing against them last year as a member of the Philadelphia 76ers.
Having spent the summer training with his new teammates, his sense of optimism in the team continues to grow.
“It’s so much better than I thought. When I was in Philadelphia we played you guys three or four times and so you see it from the outside looking in and you know the team is right there. Then you actually get there and see the hard work that everybody puts in, see the dedication they have to win, and it grows,” Smith said.
The Pistons are a noticeably young team, with not a single player over the age of 28. (Smith, 28, laughed and called himself “the elder statesman.”) Their roster features a number of players on the rise, many of whom will come off the bench. In Smith’s mind, this combination of youth and depth, when harnessed by coach Stan Van Gundy, will make the Pistons a force to be reckoned with.
“We’re all young, but we’ve got experience. Everybody has four, five, six, seven years under their belt of playing in the NBA, and we have depth and then we have the coach to push us,” said Smith. “So when you have all those pieces of being young and deep and then you got the right coach to push the right buttons, it’s a recipe for a great year.”
All-Star center Andre Drummond echoed this sentiment, stressing the importance of the Pistons’ improved depth.
“I really love this team because – not to knock the other teams that I’ve played for – but I think our bench is really, really good this year. We have a lot of guys that can come off and give us really huge minutes. Not that the guys previously couldn’t have done that, but I think that we have a lot of guys who are younger that are able to do those things now,” he said.
After the Pistons met last season’s goal of making the playoffs, Van Gundy wouldn’t declare a new one for this year’s team. But he agreed that expectations are on the rise.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt about it. What you don’t want to do is have a ceiling on this group,” he said.
Then the coach slapped a simple slogan on the 2016 Pistons.
“Quite honestly, I look at it and say, ‘Why not us? Why not?’
“I mean, if we’re willing to do what it takes and people will make a step forward and we commit more defensively, why not us? Why does there have to be a ceiling on us? Why can’t we be that team and contender? So that’s my outlook on it and I certainly think guys have high expectations,” Van Gundy said.