December 19, 2011
Usually NBA season previews are best read in October, back when football games hardly mattered, Midnight Madness was a few weeks away, and baseball was winding down. Perhaps with the last of the offseason's iced tea in hand, as you whiled away on a too-warm-for-the-season afternoon.
Well, pour yourself a glass of bull shot and tighten those mittens, because it's mid-December and the NBA decided to have a season this year. As such, the exegetes at Ball Don't Lie are previewing the 2011-12 campaign in a mad rush, as if you or we would have it any other way. So put down the shovel long enough to listen to Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine and Eric Freeman as they break down each of the NBA's 29 teams, plus Toronto.
This time? It's the Detroit Pistons.
Kelly Dwyer's Reasons to be Cheerful
No, I cannot understand going over the cap for this lot. The individual signings in a vacuum? Sure. Rodney Stuckey is worth his deal, Tayshaun Prince's contract makes sense (and it is quite tradeable), and Jonas Jerebko should earn his keep assuming he continues on the path he established during his 2009-10 rookie season. Taken as a whole, added to this lot with Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva already on board? Confusing, as the last half-decade of Joe Dumars' era has been.
There was that proud first half-decade of Joe's term, though. Forget that he was somewhat in charge of the Mateen Cleaves draft in 2000 and focus on what started in 2001 when he officially took over, with the former Piston great clearing cap space while adding lower-rung and cheap additions to a Piston team featuring the smartly-hired Rick Carlisle running things. The ahead-of-their-time moves that allowed the Pistons to, frankly, take advantage of incredible luck while winning a deserved ring in 2004.
(Pistons fans hate me for this, and while I think the 2004 template can win a ring again, they have to remember just how great the Timberwolves -- who lost their second-best player in the third round -- were. That team beat the Kings, a squad that was nearly as good, in seven games. On the other side of the Western bracket, the Lakers beat what was probably a superior Spurs team that was disheartened by the Derek Fisher buzzer beater. And, while the Lakers were taking advantage of a newly-not-so-great Timberwolves team in the next round, Karl Malone went down with injury. The Pistons were championship-caliber and they looked great down the stretch of the regular season that year. But boy howdy were they lucky.)
Yes, Dumars' made the major misstep in 2003 by taking Darko Milicic with the second overall pick, but that was a selection that a majority of other GMs would have taken in that situation regardless of whether or not they had Tayshaun Prince on their roster. The hype was that strong, his workouts were that good. Don't believe the revisionist hype.
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So, with a new owner, new facilities, and a coach that won't be terrible? Who is to say that Dumars can't get his house in order? That he won't find a home for Prince or possibly Ben Gordon? He'll likely dump Charlie Villanueva next year, he can't exactly build around Greg Monroe but he can delineate trading situations with the best of them. This is someone, in spite of a half-decade of poorly-conceived moves and rash decisions, that can turn a franchise around.
He's done it before, and after walking into a situation in 2001 that was not unlike this one. Joe Dumars is worth giving another chance to.
Dan Devine Has Feelings about Your Team: Detroit Pistons
I'm so excited for you!
There weren't very many bright spots for the Pistons in a 2010-11 season that saw them lose nearly 64 percent of their games amid locker room rancor that left Richard Hamilton looking for an exit and John Kuester looking at the want ads, but rookie big man Greg Monroe was certainly one of them.
After a rough couple of months coming off the bench to start his NBA career, the light came on for Monroe in January. He started attacking the offensive glass with abandon, ripping off four straight double-doubles in the first two weeks of 2011 and showing the offensive versatility that made him such an intriguing commodity coming out of Georgetown.
At season's end, Monroe had put up 12.2 points, 9.7 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 1.5 steals and just under a block per 36 minutes of run, according to Basketball-Reference, and ranked among the NBA's top 10 in field goal percentage, offensive efficiency, total offensive rebounds and offensive rebound percentage. And yet, because most fans and even some media types had already tuned out Detroit by the time Monroe started making his strides -- when he started putting up double-doubles, the Pistons were 11-21, already 11.5 games behind a Chicago Bulls team running away with the Central, and they weren't playing very viewer-friendly basketball -- relatively few people actually saw how well he was playing, or seemed to care.
Can you announce your presence with authority if there's nobody around? Are you just one day, all of a sudden, here?
It's unlikely that Monroe will get much attention this year, either. The Pistons are only slated to play two nationally televised games, and meetings with the Atlanta Hawks on NBA TV and the Milwaukee Bucks on ESPN on consecutive Friday nights in April probably won't deliver giant ratings shares. But finding out whether or not such a stellar young talent is, in fact, "here" -- if a full season of unquestioned starter's minutes will spur him on or slow him down, if he'll start Hoovering the defensive boards as well, if he can get comfortable from mid-range, if he really can become a leader and develop into a centerpiece around whom a winner can be built ... for a certain brand of NBA obsessive, that's one of the more exciting storylines in the league.
I'm so worried for you!
The worry is that, despite hitting on 2010 first-rounder Monroe and early reports suggesting that he may have hit on 2011 first-rounder Brandon Knight, Detroit president of basketball operations Joe Dumars doesn't actually have a plan for rebuilding the Pistons. The worry is that maybe Joe D's organizational philosophy is to pursue positional versatility whenever possible, at whatever cost.
Think about it: What logic justifies re-signing longtime Pistons swingman Tayshaun Prince, 31, to a four-year, $30 million deal in the same week that you also re-up Swedish swing forward Jonas Jerebko, 24, to a four-year, $18 million deal, all while you've also got 6-foot-11 tweener Austin Daye, 23, getting $9 million over the next three years?
The only thing I can think of is that Dumars (himself a former combo guard) likes the concept of mutable, a la carte lineups, so he goes out and gets guys who can (at least theoretically) do a few different things, all in the name of positional versatility. Tay can play small forward, defend multiple positions and handle it some -- sign me up, even if I'm paying for ages 31 through 35. Daye and Jerebko can play both the three and the four, which gives coaches more lineup flexibility. My guards share similar strengths and skill sets, so if one piece goes down, I just plug another one in.
That "maximum flexibility" theory only works, though, when you're paying for productive talent.
In the Prince/Jerebko/Daye glut, the Pistons are now paying a combined $54 million over the next four years for, at best, slightly-above-average redundancy at small forward and, based on 82games.com's positional stats, subpar duplication when Jerebko and Daye play power forward.
Wanting more options at the four spot beyond the underperforming Charlie Villanueva and Jason Maxiell makes sense, but without production to match, this seems like throwing good money after ... I don't know, familiarity?
(It's worth noting that Villanueva is a hybrid forward who has vastly underperformed since Dumars signed him to a five-year, $37.7 million deal in 2009, and that Maxiell is an undersized power forward burly enough to play center whom Dumars rewarded for a solid 2007-08 season with a four-year, $20 million extension, and has declined since.)
When the Pistons wake up Christmas morning, they'll be coming off a 30-win season and staring up from at or near the bottom of their division. To compete, they must accurately evaluate talent (including their own), spend wisely and, if they think the kids will be worth it, build carefully around the inexpensive 21-year-old center and 20-year-old point guard they've got in hand. They need a plan, and with the Bulls running the Central and the Pacers nipping at their heels, they need one soon.
I have no idea what to make of you!
It wasn't that long ago -- just three springs ago, in fact -- that Ben Gordon was the dude dropping 24 a night on the Boston Celtics defense in the playoffs, going toe-to-toe with Paul Pierce and Ray Allen late in the fourth and in overtime, and generally striking fear into the hearts of opposing fans whenever he'd raise up to let one fly. Now, two years and one big contract later, at the should-be-prime age of 28, he's maybe the fourth-most interesting guy on a team headed for its third consecutive lottery.
With Hamilton getting cozy in Gordon's old United Center digs and restricted free agent Rodney Stuckey's contract situation still up in the air, Gordon looked poised to enter the season as the Pistons' starting shooting guard and once again receive starter's minutes, a workload he's only seen sparingly over the past two seasons. But Stuckey signing a new three-year, $25 million contract again muddies Detroit's backcourt rotation. While Lawrence Frank has said he doesn't "want to throw too much too soon" at the just-returned Stuckey, you have to assume Detroit's first-year coach will look to get last year's leading scorer involved quickly, and likely at the expense of a significant increase in Gordon's role.
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Given increased floor time and a more significant responsibility for providing Detroit's offensive punch, we could see Gordon's shooting stroke and scoring swagger return. But after two years of reduced minutes, instability and withering on the vine, could more of the same sour the former UConn star for good?
Eric Freeman's Culture Club
The worlds of the NBA and popular culture intersect often. Actors and musicians show up at games, players cameo in their shows and movies and make appearances at their concerts. Yet the connections go deeper than these simple relationships — a work of art can often explain the situation of an NBA team. Eric Freeman's Culture Club makes these comparisons explicit. In each installment, we'll assign one movie, TV show, album, song, novel, short story, or filmstrip to the previewed team.
DETROIT PISTONS: Neil Young, "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere"
The Detroit Pistons aren't the NBA's worst team, but they're quite easily the most depressing. Playing in an economically downtrodden city, they have a roster with high-priced, low-producing veterans and young player who seem to fit in more as quality pieces than future stars. It's a little unclear what they're building towards, let alone who will get them there.
In other words, it's an NBA purgatory, a place people would rather avoid or leave. Neil Young once wrote about such a town on the title track of his landmark album "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere." Listen above and enjoy. It'll be more fun than anything the Pistons do this year.