Where Do the Pistons Go From Here?
The Detroit Pistons are a weird team. You could split the roster right down the middle and classify half of the guys as “promising young pieces for the future” and “halfway decent veterans playing just enough to take minutes away from those promising young pieces for the future.” The parts NBA scouts like most about this team are the parts that suggest they’re rebuilding, yet the way Joe Dumars has spent the team’s money the last few years suggests otherwise.
This is the result of putting a lot of eggs into one basket, then having that basket completely fall apart. Remember, the Pistons were the big cap space team of the summer of 2009, and Dumars threw the overwhelming majority of it at Ben Gordon (5 years, $55 million) and Charlie Villanueva (5 years, $35 million). The Pistons haven’t made the playoffs in the three years since, and have gone through two head coaches in that time, as well.
2011-12 was hard for everybody with the lack of training camp and that insane condensed schedule, but Detroit was one of the teams hit hardest by it, if only because they’ve come to a crossroads and have to decide which way they’re headed.
So if you want to know where the Pistons go from here, the first question the organization has to answer is who, exactly, this team is going to be.
Good Coaching, No Major Free Agents, and Zero Cap Space
Assuming the plan is to get back to the playoffs and eventually contend for a championship, the most reasonable road is for the Pistons to embrace a full-blown rebuilding effort. Greg Monroe, Brandon Knight, Jonas Jerebko, Austin Daye, and Rodney Stuckey are the kinds of players the Pistons could rebuild around, but the majority of this team is locked in for another season, which means major changes are going to be hard to orchestrate right off the bat.
The only rotation players facing free agency are Damien Wilkins and Russell Walker, and Ben Wallace is likely to retire. Everybody else of note—Gordon, Villanueva, Jason Maxiell, Tayshaun Prince, Will Bynum, and the guys listed above all are under contract for 2012-2013. Only Maxiell and Bynum (and possibly Daye, who should get a qualifying offer from the Pistons that season) come off the books the year after that, which means that, love or hate this roster, it is more or less what we’ll be watching for at least another year or two.
And maybe another year under head coach Lawrence Frank is what they need. Frank took over a team that completely lost faith in former head coach John Kuester, and he didn’t have a single day of training camp to put his system into place. Having so little practice time all year couldn’t have helped much, either. A full offseason to work with his guys, including summer league and training camp, could inch the Pistons closer to returning to the postseason a year from now
It’s a underwhelming roster, but Frank is a good coach, and we simply haven’t been given ample opportunity to see what he could do with this group if given the proper time and opportunity.
Tapping the Draft To Add To the Young Core
Despite the fact that Detroit has no money to spend, there is one easy way to accrue respectable talent without having to splurge, and that’s the draft. Arguably the team’s two most promising players, Monroe and Knight, were the results of the last two years’ lottery selections, and the team will get another crack at that in this June’s draft.
As it stands now, the Detroit Pistons would have the ninth pick in the 2012 Draft, which historically hasn’t meant a whole lot for the team doing the drafting. The 2008 Chicago Bulls were the only team with the ninth-worst record to ever land the top pick, so Detroit’s chances of bringing Anthony Davis to Auburn Hills are pretty slim.
Despite that, there are a few different players available around that point in the draft that could help Detroit, and the really good news is that applying the “best player available” strategy will be easy to use there since the Pistons don’t really have any daunting positional needs.
The marquee names will be gone by nine, though, leaving a second tier of players likely to include UNC big men John Henson and Tyler Zeller, Baylor forward Perry Jones, Kentucky forward Terrance Jones, and UConn guard Jeremy Lamb. It’s doubtful Harrison Barnes falls that far, but if any of the “top tier” guys could slip, he’d be the one.
From that group, Perry or Terrence Jones (no relation) would probably make the most sense for the Pistons. The team needs some depth in the frontcourt, and both of those players could provide that. Perry is more of a project, but Detroit has enough guys to stick into that rotation in order to bring him along slowly. Terrence, meanwhile, could pay off more quickly, even if he’s got a lower ceiling, and making the right roster cuts could pave the way for him (or any other draft pick) see more floor time.
Using the Amnesty Provision
After the draft, the next step for this team will be deciding what to do with the rest of the roster. Ideally, they’d find ways to set as many vets free as they could, but that could be hard to do with some of the contracts they’ve saddled themselves with, including pricy long-term deals for Ben Gordon, Charlie Villanueva, and Tayshaun Prince. Not a one of those guys should be in the long-term plans for this team, so using the amnesty clause this summer would free up minutes for somebody in the rotation. The question comes down to whether Dumars would rather use it on Ben Gordon or Charlie Villanueva.
Gordon will cost the team about $9 million more to keep over the next two years (assuming both pick up their player options, which they’d be crazy not to do), but Gordon has also been exponentially more productive than Villanueva since signing those huge deals in 2009.
Economically, as far as breaking down dollars in terms of production, it would seem to be wisest to use the amnesty provision on Villanueva, particularly if the summer’s lottery pick is another power forward like the Joneses mentioned above.
That means either living with Gordon (for two more years) and Prince (for three more), or trying to find new homes for them. Trading Gordon would be close to impossible at $12.4 million next season and $13.2 million the year after that, but there might be a place for Prince, who has loads of postseason experience and makes only about $6.75 a season. The right contender might show interest were he made available, and were he made available that could only mean good things for the development of Austin Daye, who could be excellent if given the opportunity.
Unfortunately, trades don’t seem likely for the Pistons, so amnesty is their best bet to clear up some cap space and playing time. Beyond that, they don’t have much choice but to hold the fort, let Gordon’s deal expire in two more years, and allow their promising young talent to play together as much as possible. If they’re lucky, a star will emerge from that group—and Greg Monroe certainly has shown flashes of being exactly that—and the rest of the young pieces will have to fall into place around that star.
The meantime isn’t going to be pretty, but that’s the bed this team has made for itself. Chances are Detroit will look very similar to the current team a year from now, with the most glaring exception being a rookie power forward coming in and Charlie Villanueva heading out. That continuity could be good for the team’s ability to move back towards respectability.
The real hope here rests on all those high draft picks on the roster to work out. To do that, Joe Dumars has to clear out some veterans, but that won’t be easy. Nothing in the NBA ever is, though, and roads to redemption are never without their potholes.
There’s hope in Detroit, it just might be a few years before we see it come to fruition.