Four years is a helluva long time. In early 2008, Hillary Clinton was the front runner to become President of the United States. The American economy was fine if for a few seemingly routine storm clouds on the horizon. Lana Del Rey was just Lizzy Grant of Lake Placid, New York. And in the NBA the Eastern Conference Finals were sometimes referred to my Motor City hoops fans as the Auburn Hills Invitational. And why not, the Pistons made the Conference Finals six straight seasons from 2003-2008, and they ran their offense with such precision that it seemed like they’d be able to play solid ball even if the Wallaces needed walkers and Hamilton came off of screens in a wheelchair.
As it turned out, 2008 was the last time the Pistons won a playoff game and they have been in an inexhorable decline that is nearing rock bottom now. The Pistons are 4-20, they have lost ten of their last 11. They are being outscored by a whopping 10.8 points per contest (just for reference the losingest team in NBA history, the ’72-’73 Philadelphia 76ers were outscored by 12.1 points per game en route to a memorable 9-73 mark). Before last night’s squeaker against New Jersey, they had lost their last three games by a total of 69 points.
Yet, the Pistons are a couple of significant tweaks from being on the right track. Turning the Pistons around theoretically at least, is one of the easier armchair gigs in sports right now, and it doesn’t involve some hypothetical Dwight Howard for Will Bynum deal.
1. The Pistons need to stop worshipping at the altar of their recent titles and build a conventional basketball team. This is significant because Pistons Team President Joe Dumars starred on the ’89 and ’90 title teams and he assembled the ’04 champion. The ’90s team was built around combo guards who liked to shoot. The current Pistons roster has a bevvy of them: Rodney Stuckey, Brandon Knight, Will Bynum and Ben Gordon all have some point guard skills but they like to dominate the ball and look to score.
The Pistons title team of ’04 lacked a conventional center. Ben Wallace, who played the pivot for that team and does for this one too, is listed at 6’9″ which is small for a center, and few people believe that he’s even that tall. Not that it mattered; in his prime, Wallace outworked the other nine players on the floor. He’s a four time Defensive Player of the Year and should be voted into the Hall of Fame the moment he’s eligible. The Pistons made up for Wallace’s lack of height by assembling a very long limbed front line. That worked fine but the current Pistons front line has lots of long armed players such as Austin Daye, Jonas Jerebko, and Charlie Villanueva as well as one holdover from the championship era, Tayshaun Prince who at 31 isn’t the player he once was. The problem is that none of these players are equal to the players who manned the paint in the middle of the last decade. Those Pistons routinely were among the league leaders in Defensive Efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions); these Pistons are 29th, allowing 110.1 points per 100 possessions (the league average is 102.6). The Pistons need a real center, a superstar would be nice, but a Brook Lopez, or (ahem) Chris Kaman type, would do fine. They need someone to protect the rim, even getting lucky in the lottery and snaring Anthony Davis would be fine.
The second thing that the Pistons need to do is invest in talent development. The title team of the Bush I era were veteran laden crews and back then college developed your talent. Aside from Prince, the ’04 Pistons were a veteran team again. Several players on this Detroit roster, most notably Daye, Jerebko, and Stuckey have seen their development stagnate or progress more slowly than forecast. The Pistons inability to identify talent, develop it, or break out of the mode of their previous championship roster modes, led them to let Arron Afflalo leave. He’d be an optimal two guard to pair a shoot happy point, but he’s happily starting for the Denver Nuggets.
Both of these changes are agenda items for the Pistons front office. I doubt Dumars, given his stature is going anywhere soon, but with his team en route to an 11-55 season (and I haven’t gone into how hard they are on the eyes, the Pistons run a slow, inefficient, ineffective offense), he will have to recognize that a change in organizational culture is urgently necessary.
The good news is that the Pistons have three players, Stuckey, Knight, and forward/center Greg Monroe that you could build a playoff perennial around. But they won’t be able to build the rest of the franchise unless they stop trying to duplicate previous Pistons successes and think in terms of building a winning team. They need to stop collecting combo guards, find a conventional pivotman, and start developing the young talent on the roster (which should mean a new coach and commitment to teaching). It won’t be easy, but the long march back from a season like this never is.