It seems as if the common strategy for most NBA teams today is if they can’t win right away, it’s time to start over. Teams begin to throw out all contracts that are deemed as poorly constructed. All players on the current roster are traded for draft picks and hopefully those draft picks turn out to be good assets for a team. Management creates a massive amount of salary cap space in hopes of luring star talent. Well, for most, that tends to be the strategy. However, there is one team whose trend seems to center around a few years of putting all assets and money on the line in hopes of building a championship contending team for a few years, rebuild for a few, then spend away on players who are good enough to take a team from the bottom of the standings to the middle, but not any higher. This team would be the Detroit Pistons.
It was 2009 when the Pistons decided it was time to part with its championship core from 2004. Chauncey Billups was dealt at the trade deadline for Allen Iverson; Ben Wallace left in the offseason for Chicago; and Rasheed Wallace, Richard Hamilton, and Tayshaun Prince were next on the chopping block. To the Pistons’ credit, rebuilding was the right direction. It was just how they went about it that made it wrong.
The first mistake was in trading Billups for Iverson. There isn’t much room to debate that. Although Iverson was and always will be one of the best players to handle the ball, his skill set did not mesh well with the rest of the “team concept” of the Pistons. The Pistons’ players were known for their unselfishness and deference to one another, and that made the team good from 2004-2008. Iverson did not fit in to that team mindset that the Pistons had set.
The second mistake was how the team managed the offseason. With the money the team had saved for years, they decided to throw $35 million for five years at Charlie Villanueva and $55 million for five years at Ben Gordon. Both were good players at the time, but were also undeserving of the contracts handed to them by the Pistons. Yes, Gordon was coming off a season where he was scoring 20 points a game with decent efficiency, but he did little else. Villanueva was coming off of his best season in terms of statistics, putting in 16 points and 7 rebounds a game, so his contract made a little bit more sense than Gordon’s. However, those names are no longer names heard around the NBA. Gordon is now in Charlotte playing for the Bobcats and Villanueva has become nothing more than a bench warmer who rarely sees any playing time.
The Pistons made their share of mistakes, but there is always a chance to reverse those mistakes with time. The Pistons get to start from scratch again after trading Ben Gordon to the Bobcats and being put in the lower lottery twice, landing Greg Monroe in 2011 and Andre Drummond in 2012. Both are up-and-coming players who have shown flashes of stardom. The Pistons were on track once more to become relevant in the NBA. But once again, the Pistons were put in a free agent market with money to spend that could potentially compliment the likes of Monroe and Drummond. However, they ultimately decided to throw money at Josh Smith and a sign-and-trade deal with Brandon Jennings. Those signings look vaguely familiar to that of 2009, except that Josh Smith can’t shoot and Brandon Jennings isn’t as efficient as Ben Gordon was.
There is no doubt those two signees are talented players in their own right. Jennings is a good scorer on the offensive end; he knows how to (eventually) get the ball in the basket. He’s a decent passer when he’s forced to be, but has always been a gambler in the passing lanes on the defensive end, picking up steals, although at the expense of the rest of the team. Smith has always been an intimidating defender given his size and speed. He’s a threat to the defense when he attacks the basket because his athletic ability allows him to change his shot in mid-air, but when he begins taking shots farther and farther away from the basket, he becomes a liability.
The only solution, then, is to get Smith closer to the basket, meaning that Drummond or Monroe will be relegated to the bench. Or, they can allow Smith to play small forward alongside Drummond and Monroe, giving Smith a green light to fire away every time he gets the ball. Sooner or later, one of the three will join the bench because the coaching staff will quickly realize that they cannot all share the court at the same time. As for Jennings, there is no question that he will be the new starting point guard of this roster. It remains to be seen what we will see out of him. He has moments where he shows the flamboyant nature of Iverson, when he plays the passing lanes and creates shots with his dribble, but he also has a tendency to be a Ben Gordon, launching (bad) shots every time he has the ball.
Although Jennings will never replace Gordon or Iverson and Smith is not Villanueva, it seems clear that the Pistons do not plan to change their strategy of rebuilding as quickly as possible. The Pistons tried rebuilding by signing good players in the past to build “win now” teams, but it hasn’t worked. They weren’t bad enough to get high lottery picks, so they had to settle for lower picks. Then when it seemed like the Pistons were back on track, they decided they couldn’t wait anymore. Two years in the lottery was too much. It seemed it was time to revert back to the old way of doing things by rushing in during a weak free agent class and paying (very) good players the money that should be reserved for star caliber players.
There is no doubt that the Pistons are more than capable of securing a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference given the team that is on paper, but then again, the same thought was assumed in 2009.