Solving Problems: Rebuilding The Pistons
The Detroit Pistons were one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference from 2003 to 2008. They made six straight Eastern Conference Finals appearances and won a championship in 2004. Before the start of the 2008-2009 season, the Pistons traded away all-star point guard Chauncey Billups, which should have been the start of a rebuilding process.
Instead, President of Basketball Operations Joe Dumars tried to mix his aging core of veterans with several younger free agents. The results haven’t been good. The Pistons signed Charlie Villanueva and Ben Gordon in the summer of 2009 and have failed to make the playoffs since.
Last season, the team struggle not only on the court, but off the court as well. First there was the reported feud between Richard Hamilton and head coach John Kuester. Then several players missed practice in what was rumored to be a boycott of Kuester and how he handed out playing time.
This friction led to the Pistons missing the playoffs for a second straight year and winning only 30 games. It has become clear that the Pistons need to clean house and start rebuilding their franchise. They have a new owner and a new coach, what they need now is a team on the way up, instead of on the way down.
There won’t be very many trade options available to the Pistons that will help them in the short-term. What the Pistons need to be thinking about is trying to trade away their big, long-term contracts for expiring contracts, draft picks, or young players.
Right now, the Pistons should be focusing on their young core of 2011 NBA Draft lottery pick Brandon Knight, 2011 NBA All-Rookie Second Team member Greg Monroe, and 2009 first round pick Austin Daye. Everyone else on the team should be on the trading block.
Richard Hamilton, Gordon and Villanueva are not playing up to their contracts and are the obvious choices to be moved. The Pistons have been rumored in several deals involving Hamilton, but it appears unlikely the team will be able to trade him because of the size of his deal per season. If the new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) has an amnesty clause, Hamilton’s contract is the most likely to be bought out.
Gordon has the longest and richest contract on the team and he still has one very valuable NBA skill: he can score at an elite level. There could be several teams throughout the league that would be willing to take on Gordon’ contract (assuming they can under the new CBA) for either late draft picks or expiring contracts.
The Atlanta Hawks are likely losing former NBA Sixth Man of the Year award winner Jamal Crawford to free agency. If the Hawks are serious about contending they will need a new sixth man and Gordon could fill that role.
The Los Angeles Lakers are in desperate need of a backcourt running mate for Kobe Bryant and while it’s unlikely they would trade any of their big men, they do have some smaller shorter contracts that could work. Luke Walton is on the books for less money over fewer years than Gordon, as is Derek Fisher. Throw in a few draft picks from the Lakers and the Pistons could be out from under Gordon’s contract.
Boston, Orlando, New York, San Antonio, and New Orleans could all use a player like Gordon. The Pistons may not be able to get much for the former Sixth Man of the Year and NBA Rookie of the Year award winner, but getting out from under his contract should be the goal.
Villanueva might be a bit tougher to trade than Gordon despite his contract being significantly smaller. Villanueva is a power forward that plays like a guard, but doesn’t have the same explosive scoring ability that Gordon does. During his career with the Pistons, he’s averaged fewer than five rebounds a game and has taken more three pointers than free throws.
It’s unlikely the Pistons could trade Villanueva for expiring contracts, but anything that saves the Pistons money and cap space over the length of his contract should be considered a good thing.
Free Agency Options
Depending on the new CBA, the Pistons could have some significant money to spend in free agency this offseason. Currently the Pistons are committed to just under $48 million in salary for next season, assuming they renounce the rights to unrestricted free agent Tayshuan Prince and can sign restricted free agent Rodney Stuckey to reasonable deal.
There is one free agent in particular who would be a perfect fit for the Pistons. Unfortunately, he will be one of the most sought after players in free agency, making it unlikely that the Pistons could either afford him or convince him to choose Detroit.
Marc Gasol is one of the prize centers of this offseason and would compliment Monroe perfectly on the Pistons front line. He is big, athletic and only 26 years old. Gasol is going to be looking for his first big payday, so the Pistons would have to offer him the maximum amount they have under the cap. It’s usually not a good idea to offer huge contracts when a team is rebuilding, but Gasol’s age and skill set make him a risk worth taking.
If/when the Pistons miss out on Gasol, they would be wise to save their free agent dollars for another offseason. They’ve already blown it once in free agency recently and the worst thing this team could do is cap themselves out while they are trying to rebuild.
The draft is where the Pistons need to make a big splash. They’ve done well recently with Monroe and Daye and time will tell on Knight, but the 2012 draft is loaded with potential franchise cornerstones. If the Pistons continue unloading contracts and let the young guys play, their record is likely to get worse, which could be a good thing.
Harrison Barnes, Andre Drummond and Anthony Davis are three of the names that could headline the class of 2012, and this class is projected to be loaded with franchise players throughout the lottery. It’s imperative that wherever the Pistons are drafting they land a player they can build around.
This is difficult for the franchise and the fans to accept, but the Pistons need to bottom out and they need to do it this year. Unless they shock the world and somehow convince Marc Gasol to come to Detroit, the Pistons are headed for the lottery.
It’s better they clear as much cap room as possible, play their young guys, and end up with a top five pick, instead of keeping the veterans around and winning just enough games to end up outside of the top ten in the lottery. If the ping-pong balls bounce the right way they could be back in the playoffs in just a year or two.
However, if they hang onto their veterans and use valuable minutes on players that won’t be a part of their future like they did last season with Tayshaun Prince and Tracy McGrady, the Pistons could end up being a mainstay in the lottery for the next four or five seasons because they won’t be able to add a franchise player.
The Pistons need to follow the blueprint of the Oklahoma City Thunder: Bottom out, draft well, and keep their cap space available for trades and bargain free agent signings. It’s not the easiest plan to sell to a fan base, but it’s the best course of action for the Detroit Pistons.