The Pistons run, one that saw them appear in an amazing 6 consecutive Eastern Conference Finals, is over. That’s not really news to most people — Detroit’s been sub-.500 the last 4 years and missed the playoffs in 3 straight, and that painful run is likely to continue this year. But the symbolism of the Pistons’ dominance officially withered when GM Joe Dumars shipped Tayshaun Prince to Memphis in a cap-saving move about 2 weeks ago. So the rebuild continues in Detroit or starts over, depending on your perspective, as Dumars starts to shed some of the bad contracts that have hampered his team’s growth since 2009.
There’s still 2 really bad deals on the books for 2013-14 — Rodney Stuckey’s $8.5 million and Charlie Villanueva’s $8.5 million player option, which he’s likely to pick up — but Jose Calderon’s $11+ million per, obtained via the Prince deal, expires this summer, as does Corey Maggette’s $10.9 million and Jason Maxiell’s $5 million. (And, in the Rudy Gay deal, Detroit dumped Prince’s 4-year, $27 million deal in its 2nd year.) Starting in 2014-15, the Pistons only have $1.1 million tied up in Kyle Singler, $3.75 and $2.6 million team options on former lottery picks Brandon Knight and Andre Drummond, respectively, and a $5.5 million qualifying offer on restricted free agent Greg Monroe, in addition to Jonas Jerebko’s $4.5 million player option.
Dumars had made his share of mistakes in transitioning out of the team’s championship era. Chief among those would be trading Chauncey Billups, the team’s emotional leader, for a troubled Allen Iverson, who subsequently struggled to fit into such a team-centric approach, and then handing out a combined $90 million to free agents Ben Gordon, since traded to Charlotte, and Villanueva in the summer of 2009. Then there was the short-lived John Kuester tenure, hired as the team’s head coach in 2009, whose players staged a walkout in the middle of the season.
Back to the team Detroit has on the floor this year. The Pistons, headed into Sunday’s games, are a far-from-terrible 20-32, better than I anticipated months ago, and 4th in the Central Division. Detroit is 6.5 games out of the No. 8 seed, with only the struggling and injury-depleted Philadelphia 76ers between them and Milwaukee. But the more important objective is growth, and the Pistons have succeeded in drafting two frontcourt players, Drummond and Monroe, they can likely hang their hats on for years to come.
Drummond’s 22.53 PER ranks 15th in the NBA and 3rd among Eastern Conference bigs, trailing only Brook Lopez and Amar’e Stoudemire. Drummond, a 19-year-old rookie out of Connecticut, was regarded as a project around draft time, one with a lot of potential but also one who needed refined ball-control skills. He’s averaging 7.3 points, 7.5 rebounds and 1.7 blocks in less than 20 minutes a game; he’s shown he can protect the rim, though needs to work on an interior offensive game — despite his 59% shooting from the field, he’s 36% from the FT line. Monroe, 22, has improved his scoring numbers in each of his 3 seasons and also has a considerably high PER, 19.67. Add those two and a few other pieces, and that’s the league’s 5th-rated rebounding unit.
Sure, Detroit has 2 great centers — one of whom, Monroe, has a developing inside-out game, and both of whom are freakishly athletic — but the other 3 spots are question marks. The biggest concern might be 2nd-year PG Brandon Knight, 21, whose assist numbers — 4.3 a game in 31.7 minutes — are low, especially compared to Calderon’s 7.5 per in 31 minutes (in his first 4 games), as is his 40.6% FG percentage. Knight has shown flashes as a scorer and distributor, though the Pistons are ranked 24th in assists per game — and he was an all-rookie NBA first-teamer (he tied for 5th, but received the least 1st-team votes among the 7) last season — but he pails in comparison to fellow 2011 draftee Kyrie Irving, drafted 7 slots ahead of Knight.
Knight has potential, but maybe he’s not cut out to be a natural point guard, similar to Rodney Stuckey, who struggled to develop as a distributor and has since assumed more of an off-guard role. And even Stuckey’s assist numbers, 3.7 per 28.3 minutes, are on par with Knight’s, as are backup Will Bynum’s, 3.7 per 18.3 minutes. Of the 3, Bynum has the highest PER by a ways, and Knight’s 12.9 rating is well below the league’s 15.0 average. Bynum’s $3.5 million comes off the books this summer, yet it might be worth keeping him around, at the right price, as an explosive 6’0″ combo guard off the bench.
At the 3, the Pistons are a mess. With Prince’s departure, the 6’8″ Kyle Singler makes sense — he shoots a respectable 38% from 3 and demands respect as a scorer in only his first NBA season — but he lacks the lateral quickness and defensive intensity to compete with guys like LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Paul George. Maggette’s an afterthought in a contract year who will be playing for the league minimum next year, if he finds a team interested in his services, and Jerebko, a 4, has seen his numbers drop in each of his 3 NBA seasons. Maxiell, also a 4, has failed to develop in his 7+ years as more than an energy role player with minimal offensive polish.
The bottom line: For Dumars and Lawrence Frank to get this team back on track, there needs to be a few more draft day hits and less money wasted in free agency. Detroit, with only $35 million committed next year, could very well sign a max free agent this offseason, or they could wait it out, be bad for a few years and develop the young guys. The latter option may not be the sexiest, but it is the path they ought to travel.
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