Posted Mar 16 2010 10:00AM
The team has a losing record, the playoffs are a dream, the arena's half empty, there's no passion in the air and the franchise could be sold and/or possibly moved.
Who would've thought the Pistons would ever fit that description?
In better days, when owner Bill Davidson was alive and the economy was humming, there weren't many NBA teams healthier or more successful. Over the last decade and a half, the Pistons were a model of efficiency, unlike other products that roll off the assembly line in Detroit.
They reeked of stability, leadership and organization and were a proud symbol of what was right about the NBA during the Golden Age. They built a pristine arena in the suburbs and became the first to travel exclusively by private jet. They drafted well, traded well and were well-coached. And they won, quite regularly, with eight straight playoff appearances, the third longest streak in the NBA (after the Spurs and Mavs) entering this season. Revenue and results were strong all around.
The only thing more startling than their demise is how swiftly the crash arrived. They must feel like they just ran into a Rick Mahorn pick. Just a few years ago the Pistons were regulars in the Eastern Conference finals and the Palace was, as usual, sold out. Now, they're guaranteed a second straight losing season, the Palace is rife with no-shows and the roster lacks an All-Star or even a bubbling young talent in the Kevin Durant/Tyreke Evans mold. Also, Karen Davidson, the widow of Mr. D, has said she's actively looking for a buyer.
What happened? Well, circumstances both within and beyond their control have doomed the Pistons. The collapse of the regional economy hit them harder than any NBA team. That's because Detroit and the surrounding 'burbs are dealing with a triple-whammy: loss of the main industry, jobs and homes. That's had a direct effect on attendance, which is down roughly 16 percent, easily the biggest drop in the NBA. There was a six-year stretch last decade where the Pistons led the NBA in attendance five times. Put it this way: the playful voice of public-address announcer John Mason ("Deeeee-troit basket-ball!") now carries a longer echo than normal.
Also, when Davidson died, the Pistons lost their anchor. Davidson belongs on the Mount Rushmore of modern-day NBA owners because of the profitable and smart way he ran the business. The Pistons generated millions and the privately owned Palace was paid for just a few years after it opened. Davidson also kept Tom Wilson as president with Jack McCloskey and later Joe Dumars as general managers. He had the right people in the right places. He was a true visionary and loved the Pistons, but treated them as a business, not a plaything. The economy tanking and Davidson passing, almost simultaneously, were unfortunate setbacks for the club.
Injuries also piled up for the Pistons this year, but even when healthy, the Pistons haven't been productive. Most of their key players are shooting or scoring at or near career lows.
Plus, some key decisions made by Dumars backfired. Passing up Carmelo Anthony for Darko Milicic, no big deal at the time because the Pistons won the 2004 title, is haunting them now. Trading Chauncey Billups for cap space and Allen Iverson, and then the strategy of spending heavily last summer on Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva hasn't turned the Pistons into winners. Those "thank-you" contracts given to Rip Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince during the prosperous years are preventing the Pistons from trading either player. At least for quality assets.
After winning for a decade, it's quite understandable the Pistons had to enter a rebuilding process. A team must be extremely lucky, especially in this free-agent era, to string together so many winning seasons and trips to the conference finals. In that regard, maybe the real issue is how the Pistons remarkably kept churning out playoff appearances without, until now, paying the price for it.
The off-the-court issues are steep. Finding a buyer in this market, in this economy, might be a challenge for Mrs. Davidson. And there's a civic tug-of-war brewing at the moment. Detroit mayor Dave Bing is actively trying to get the Pistons back downtown, in a proposed shared new arena with the Red Wings (curiously, the man behind the new building is Tom Wilson, the former Pistons president). That idea was met with a stinging rebuttal from Oakland County executive Brooks Patterson, saying it's the Red Wings who should move from Detroit and share the Palace with the Pistons.
The immediate goal is to bring back the buzz. That search will lead to the Draft, where Dumars must find another Tayshaun. Not the next Darko. Then pray that Gordon's first year in town was just a one-time hiccup.
Hope isn't lost. Fortunes can change in the NBA with work. Nobody knows that better than the Pistons. They opened the last decade by trading Grant Hill for Ben Wallace and signing Billups from the discount bin to fuel a long and satisfying run. They closed the decade by growing old overnight.
From old to bold. Sounds like a plan.
Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. You can e-mail him here.
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