For the first time in two years we'll have an orthodox, full-length NBA season to look forward to. No lockout nonsense, and precious little obsession as to whether or not LeBron James will ever win the big one. He's won it, already, and our sanity as NBA followers is probably better off as a result. However big that shred of sanity is remains to be seen, following yet another offseason that once again proved that the NBA is full of Crazy McCrazytons that appear to take great delight in messing with us continually.
As a result of that offseason, and the impending regular season, why not mess with Ball Don't Lie's triptych of Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine and Eric Freeman as they preview the 2012-13 season with alacrity, good cheer, and bad jokes.
We continue with the slowly-moving Detroit Pistons.
Kelly Dwyer's Kilt-Straightener
We're all well-aware of the fact that the 2011-12 Pistons finished their season on a strong note, working well down the stretch to right the wrongs and make their way toward a winning percentage that would have resulted in 31 wins were it spread out over an 82-game season. And we're also aware that the team is relying on the internal development of several young players in order to improve beyond that, and that even the most careless of young players can't help but improve and provide better production as they grow more experienced. And we've unending respect for Lawrence Frank's talents as a coach.
This is still a team moving into 2012-13 without having made a major upgrade, and while the Pistons games we deigned to watch as the lockout season rounded off last spring were few, we did notice that the boys were doing their work mostly against a cast of don't-cares. Not dismissing the midseason improvement, but reminding that the Pistons probably should have been playing 31-win basketball all along.
This is an odd rebuilding project, dating back years. The Pistons seemed to embark on the dang thing when Joe Dumars traded for Allen Iverson's expiring contract in 2008; but then we learned that Dumars actually traded for Allen Iverson, and not Allen Iverson's expiring contract when he extended Richard Hamilton soon after and signed Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva during the next offseason. Dumars was attempting to keep his team afloat in the wake of the passing of former owner Bill Davidson, and the too-long switch in ownership groups that followed. The problem was that Gordon and CV failed miserably, Hamilton declined, and the Pistons haven't really thrown their weight around much in the year and a half since new owner Tom Gores took over.
Gordon and Villanueva combined to play just 1578 minutes in 2011-12, miserable production for the $19.1 million the Pistons paid for their services last year. Dumars had to pay Charlotte in the form of a potential lottery pick to take the last two years and $25.2 million of his contract on, and Villanueva has looked terrible during the postseason despite an offseason committed to making well-meaning beat reporters look bad. The Pistons used the amnesty clause on neither, oddly, potentially balking at the idea that they'd have to pay another player to take over those 1578 minutes; even if the cuts would aid in creating cap space. This does not inspire me to cheer the first year of the Tom Gores Era.
Gordon was dealt for Corey Maggette, a player whose size and ability to get to the line would seem to be a perfect salve for a Pistons team featuring a litany of undersized shooting guards, if only this were 2008. The 2012 Maggette is coming off a year that saw him shoot just 37.3 percent from the field, which is still somehow better than the 32 percent forward Austin Daye managed last season. Brandon Knight is a comer, but he and Rodney Stuckey still run an uneasy show. Viacheslav Kravtsov may have ended Ben Wallace's playing career. Rookie center Andre Drummond is Neneh Cherry's first album. Even if, holy cow, he has a chance to be absolutely dominant.
There is Greg Monroe, though. Greg Monroe, potential All-Star. Greg Monroe, Scoring Big Man Who Doesn't Make You Cringe Every Time He Lands Hard On His Feet.
Monroe's defensive issues have been well-established by this point, and though we'd be foolish to completely write off his abilities on that end at such an early age, NBA big men don't tend to improve on that end in ways that resemble, say, Albert Pujols turning into a Gold Glove-level first basemen. Little of this currently matters, though, because of Monroe's ability to carry a team at times with his efficient scoring and impressive passing. On a team still stuck in a holding pattern, that work with the ball is desperately needed, and the eventual pairing with Drummond could be a franchise-changer.
Nothing's changed, though. All of this movement is still a while away, while Frank and Dumars figure out who sticks, and before all that 2013 cap space hits. Frank's abilities and Monroe's ascension could have our guess at the won/loss total looking foolish by February; but this still feels like a team that is going to lose far more than it wins in 2012-13.
The corner has been turned, though. Now it's up to Dumars to not replicate 2009 some four frustrating years later, next offseason.
Projected record: 31-51
Fear Itself with Dan Devine
It is tonally appropriate that the NBA season tips off just before Halloween -- because on any given night, each and every one of the league's 30 teams can look downright frightening. Sometimes, that means your favorite team will act as their opposition's personal Freddy Krueger; sometimes, you will be the one suffering through the living nightmare. In preparation for Opening Night, BDL's Dan Devine considers what makes your team scary and what should make you scared.
What Makes You Scary: Greg Monroe's development into a legitimate All-Star reaching " build around me" status. Heading into last season, I suggested that seeing how Monroe followed up a quietly excellent rookie season for an often-unwatchable Pistons team would be "one of the more exciting storylines in the league." Working again under the relative cover of darkness that comes with playing in the middle of the country on a lottery-bound non-highlight factory, Monroe developed from an interesting prospect into a burgeoning monster who might be the league's best young player that no non-diehard talks about.
The Georgetown product took on a much larger role in the Pistons' offense in his second year, using nearly 24 percent of Detroit's offensive possessions (up from just over 15 percent as a rookie) and showing that he could score, topping 20 points 18 times after managing just five 20-plus-point nights in Year 1. While his field-goal percentage fell from 55.1 percent to (a still very solid) 52.1 percent, he bumped his free-throw percentage up nearly 12 points, helping offset somewhat the dip in his efficiency. And after struggling to score away from the rim as a rookie, he stepped out on the floor more often and with much improved accuracy -- 37.2 percent in the paint outside the restricted area (up from 23.6 as a rook) and 41 percent on midrange attempts (up from 23.1), according to NBA.com's stat tool.
Monroe continued his stellar work on the glass, grabbing the league's sixth-highest share of available offensive rebounds while making a sizable jump on the defensive boards, too -- he turned in the league's eighth-best total rebound percentage, and his 30 double-doubles were ninth-most in the NBA. With 2011 lottery pick Brandon Knight making the difficult adjustment from college freshman to primary NBA facilitator, the deft-passing center also assumed more responsibility as a playmaker, assisting on nearly twice as great a share of teammates' buckets as he did in his first season (though his turnover rate rose, as well).
Drafting 2012 lottery pick Andre Drummond and signing Ukrainian free agent Viacheslav Kravtsov makes it seem like Joe Dumars and Lawrence Frank want to move Monroe to power forward full-time. It remains to be seen how the 6-foot-11, 250-pounder handles opposing fours' quickness, but while by no means an elite defender, Synergy Sports Technology's play-tracking data show Monroe improved virtually across the board on D last year -- he allowed fewer points per possession on isolation plays, post-ups, spot-ups and when defending players rolling to the basket in the pick-and-roll than he did as a rookie.
If Monroe can hold up in space and the rookie bigs can protect the rim, Detroit's defense could crawl out of the NBA's bottom five in defensive efficiency for the first time in four seasons. If Knight can take better care of the ball in his second year (one turnover for every 1.46 assists as a rook) while maintaining his stroke from long range (38 percent on 3-pointers, third-best among rookies behind only Klay Thompson and Kyrie Irving), last season's 28th-ranked offense should tick up, too. Ultimately, though, the onus is on Monroe to establish himself as an All-Star-level centerpiece if Detroit to make a surge this season. If he continues apace, he's not far away.
Last season, at age 21, Monroe averaged 17.6 points, 11 rebounds and 2.3 assists per 36 minutes. According to Basketball-Reference.com's Player Season Finder, only 11 players in NBA history have managed that before their age-22 seasons -- four are in the Hall of Fame (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Charles Barkley, Bob Lanier and Bob Pettit), two will be (Tim Duncan, Shaquille O'Neal), two rank among the 10 best players in today's game (Kevin Love, Blake Griffin) and two were All-Star-caliber talents whose careers were cut short by injury (Marques Johnson and Clark Kellogg). That company might surprise those who still haven't really watched Monroe; by season's end, though, the NBA's best-kept secret should break out.
What Should Make You Scared: Relying on the remnants of the past before the future starts. Detroit's 25-41 record -- its fourth straight sub-.500 mark -- was due in large part to a dismal roster that had a disastrous start to the season. The Pistons dropping 19 of their first 23 games, posting the league's second-worst units on both sides of the ball and getting outscored by an average of 14.6 points per 100 possessions, an efficiency differential even worse than the historically bad Charlotte Bobcats.
(This, of course, means that Frank's crew went 21-22 to finish the season, and while the offense never picked up much, the defense sure did -- Detroit allowed the league's 11th-fewest points per 100 possessions over its final 43 games, a promising finish indicating that defensive-minded coach Frank's teachings had begun to take root and leading some to think Detroit will take a leap this season. OK, back to being scared.)
Six of the 14 Pistons who suited up last year -- Damien Wilkins, Austin Daye, Tayshaun Prince, Jason Maxiell, Walker Russell Jr. and Will Bynum -- performed below replacement level, according to analysis included in the Pro Basketball Prospectus 2012-13. For five, you can make a case that it was the worst year of their careers -- the easiest being Russell, who was a rookie -- while Maxiell's only saving grace is that he struggled even more mightily in 2010-11. That doesn't even account for Ben Wallace's age-induced decline, Knight's rookie growing pains or the maddening performances of the team's leading millstones -- regrettable Dumars legacies Ben Gordon, who continued to underwhelm in his role as designated off-the-bench backcourt scorer, and Charlie Villanueva, whose continual disinterest in defense and 38.5 percent shooting clip left him stapled to Frank's bench despite reportedly getting himself into shape (although, apparently, not good enough shape to represent the Dominican Republic). Basically, when you got past Monroe, shooting guard Rodney Stuckey and forward Jonas Jerebko, Detroit's roster performance got dicey fast.
Some of that could be reversible. Russell, Wilkins and (we think) Wallace will all ply their trade elsewhere this season. Gordon's offseason exit in a trade for Corey Maggette could free Bynum, now reportedly healthy after a foot strain last season, to return to the energetic, pressing role in which he'd previously thrived, and the team seems quite high on second-round shooter Kim English's potential at off-guard. If Drummond and Kravtsov work out, and second-rounder Khris Middleton can chip in some, Frank can rely on Monroe and Jerebko to handle most of the minutes at the four, limiting the amount of damage from Maxiell's decline.
Unfortunately, though, Prince, Villanueva and Daye combine to make more than $17.8 million this year, and in all likelihood, two of these three are going to see chunks of minutes at the forward positions; if the last three years of performance are any indication, they're not going to be especially good minutes. If Maggette doesn't bounce back from a rough all-around 2011-12 season in Charlotte, the Pistons could have one of the league's worst small-forward rotations. (Unless Kyle Singler's actually good enough to make opponents' fans boo him, that is.)
The good news for Pistons fans is that, thanks to the Gordon/Maggette deal, Maxiell's contract coming off the books and the fact that Detroit can elect to let Daye walk after this season, some of the pay and performance issues should clear up nicely after this year -- especially if Dumars actually pulls the amnesty trigger on either Prince (three years and $21.8 million left) or Villanueva (two years, $16.6 million remaining). The bad news is that they'll likely have to watch another year of some strugglin' dudes before getting there.
The worse news, of course, is that the last time they got there, Dumars spent nearly $85 million on Gordon and Villanueva, the unshakeable memory of which must scare Pistons fans at least a little.
Eric Freeman's Identity Crisis
There is no more important asset for a basketball team than talent, and yet the more loaded squad does not always win. What we've seen in recent seasons isn't only that the best team wins, but that the group with the clearest sense of self, from management down through the players, prevails. A team must not only be talented, but sure of its goals, present and future, and the best methods of obtaining them. Most NBA teams have trouble with their identity. Eric Freeman's Identity Crisis is a window into those struggles, the accomplishment of realizing a coherent identity, and the pitfalls of believing these issues to be solved.
With all due respect to the Pistons, they have been a rather dull team for quite some time. Though Greg Monroe has established himself as one of the best young big men in the NBA, Detroit hasn't exactly stood out as an up-and-coming club, or the kind of group bad enough to stand out as a likely lottery winner. Instead, the Pistons are situated firmly in the middle of the lottery, just good enough to be inoffensive and just bad enough not to add the kinds of complicated, uber-talented, work-in-progress players who demand to be seen at all times.
That situation is likely to change this season with the emergence of first-round pick Andre Drummond. A project big man at one point thought to be the second-best player in the draft behind Anthony Davis, Drummond dropped to the Pistons at No. 8 because of perceived immaturity issues, both on the court and off it.
Yet Drummond is incredibly talented, an athletic dynamo with impressive skills and the chance to be a true game-changing player at both ends. He's shown considerable flashes of that ability in the preseason, wowing fans and generally standing out as one of the rookies most worth watching. That's not to say that he's anything close to a finished product. But Drummond clearly has something, an ineffable star quality that helps him prove fascinating even when he's not playing his best. If you're not convinced, just check out some of the highlights from his third preseason game:
Curiously, the Pistons do not seem convinced that he should be allowed to play through all of his problems. Despite the impression that the Pistons are currently nothing like a playoff team, head coach Lawrence Frank has yet to commit to giving Drummond steady playing time. In fact, in Detroit's second exhibition game, he played only six minutes. And, although Drummond and Monroe are clearly the Pistons' best chance for a relevant future, Frank seems wary of playing both at the same time. For that matter, Frank wasn't even particularly willing to play Monroe when he was obviously the squad's best player — he averaged only 31.5 minutes last season.
We should not judge Frank's entire plan for the season by a few meaningless games, but it is still not yet clear exactly what the Pistons hope to accomplish by not playing Drummond. For the time being, they're a largely faceless organization with no apparent direction. While there's no use in exposing Drummond to prolonged failure, he has shown that he has enough talent to handle learning on the job. Give him a shot, or risk further irrelevance.