Posted Aug 13, 2013 10:25 AM
This is the latest in a series of articles on the teams that did not make the playoffs last season, previewing their prospects of making it to the postseason in 2013-14. For a look at other teams in the series, click here.
Four years ago, Detroit team president Joe Dumars had money to burn. And, hoo boy, did he burn it, pushing $95.7 million at free agents Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva, a pair of role players who have come to represent what not to do in free agency.
Gordon and Villanueva are only now reaching their value -- as expiring contracts, maybe -- while Dumars' reputation has taken hits, his job security bandied about through an ownership change and a lot of mediocre basketball.
Now Dumars has landed two more players who come with a little less cash outlay -- point guard Brandon Jennings and forward Josh Smith, on deals totaling $78 million -- but with their own sort of questions. One question applies to both: What will the Pistons get out of these guys who so frustrated their former teams?
Neither the Milwaukee Bucks, in Jennings' case, nor the Atlanta Hawks, in Smith's, lifted a finger to re-sign them. Atlanta let Smith walk for nothing after nine seasons as their most talented performer. Jennings was a restricted free agent whose bosses actually tried to hire Smith's teammate, Jeff Teague, as his replacement.
Both guys, it was said, were due for a change of scenery. Which is sports-ese for those who had worn out their welcomes, plateaued in their abilities or impacts, or otherwise simply frustrated their teams and fans.
Jennings, in four seasons, had failed to live up to the very early potential of his rookie season, wasn't improving on the court and still dealt immaturely with basketball and business challenges. Smith was what he was, self-indulgent of and a little overconfident in his skills while shirking team responsibility.
So what was Dumars thinking? Talent, rather than fit. In a recent interview with Grantland.com's Zach Lowe, Dumars sounded like a man in Phase II of a development plan, with another phase or two to go.
"...That's where Smith and Jennings and KCP [rookie Kentavious Caldwell-Pope] and Chauncey [Billups] come in," the Pistons' boss said. "That was first and foremost -- just to raise the talent level."
So while Andre Iguodala, another free agent who intrigued Dumars, might have filled a roster need (though not as the shooter Detroit still covets), his signing with Golden State made the Smith pursuit a reasonable alternative. So did swapping out one shoot-first point named Brandon [Knight] for another, given Jennings' likely motivation to right things.
What Jennings and Smith don't do now will stick to them. What they do, if done consistently enough, will elevate them, their teammates and the exec who acquired them.
The Pistons had a run better than any team in recent NBA history, with consecutive trips to The Finals (2004, '05) and six straight Eastern Conference finals berths (2003-08). But as they got broken up and older, the twice-proud franchise -- from the Bad Boys editions to the Billups-Ben Wallace-Rip Hamilton permutations -- spiraled downward.
Detroit is the only team beside Charlotte to rank in the bottom third of the league in both offensive and defensive ratings the past two seasons. It has sat for four straight lotteries, a sorry substitute for the sort of springtime excitement it used to offer.
Those trips to Ping-Pong land at least enabled Dumars to seed the system, drafting mid-lottery each time: 7th in 2010 (Greg Monroe), 8th in 2011 (Brandon Knight), 9th in 2012 (Andre Drummond) and 8th in June (Kentavious Caldwell-Pope).
While rounding up that future help, the Pistons struggled last season due to turnover problems, shoddy shooting and a convulsive trade (principally, losing Prince and Austin Daye for Jose Calderon) that left them worse off rather than better (12-25 after the trade vs. 17-28 before it). Unless it was just a whole lot of quitting dragging down a go-nowhere season.
Jennings takes better care of the basketball than Knight, who might not have been reckless as much as he still was learning his capabilities. Jennings is more capable of attacking the rim or pulling up for jump shots and had a stretch in the second half -- a contract drive, it seemed -- in which he averaged 16.0 points and 11.2 assists per game, hitting 45.1 percent of his 3-pointers over nine games.
Smith can be a bear as a defender, works the boards well and loves transition almost as much as he loves jacking up shots from beyond his range. Billups brings pedigree, popularity and help in the locker room. But at 37 by the opening of camp, he will likely have limited minutes.
Detroit's biggest issue will be sorting out whether to stick with both Monroe and Drummond, an XXL option that bears similarities to Memphis. That's hardly bad, and Monroe's instincts for moving the ball could complement Drummond, as long as they don't clog things.
The other option is to move one of them, more likely Monroe, in a deal to upgrade at small forward and/or shooting guard. That would shift Smith to power forward, where he'd be less prone to shoot recklessly. It also would preempt concerns about Monroe's defense of fellow power forwards.
Outside shooting is in short supply. It's something Detroit needs if it wants to go big upfront with Monroe, Drummond and Smith -- and Smith isn't the one who should be outside launching. Caldwell-Pope brings a reputation as a shooter but he's a rookie; Billups won't be counted on for much more than 20-25 minutes.
Dumars and new coach Maurice Cheeks believe they have the depth and personnel to improve defensively this season. Their big frontline has potential for that, though in 2012-13, the Pistons sagged badly later in the season both in defensive rating and opponents' field-goal percentage. As a perimeter defender, Jennings developed some bad reaching habits in Milwaukee. Smith wasn't conscientious at that end, either. So improvement is just talk until they demonstrate a desire there that matches their zeal for the ball.
Boston, Atlanta, Milwaukee and Philadelphia all look to be taking on water, while Detroit, Cleveland and Washington are favored to challenge for the East's Nos. 6-8 spots. That's a realistic goal for the Pistons, though it will hinge on the minutes Monroe and Drummond log together and on some shifting of gears by Jennings and Smith. Change of scenery without a change in either approach or results will be a disappointment that drags down Detroit.
If there is a midseason trade this time, it figures to alleviate some roster and payroll issues. Villanueva finally has achieved value as an expiring contract (Gordon is long gone to Charlotte). Rodney Stuckey, at 28, is the incumbent guard. Like Jennings or Smith, he's a talented individual from whom big things once were expected and who probably has to relocate for a second shot at accomplishing them.
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