History’s Lessons

No franchises stay on top forever; Pistons history says they won’t be down long

The Pistons' future looks bright despite current struggles.
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images
If you follow NBA history and care about the league, as I do, you know how inevitable the cycle of success and failure historically has been. Even the greatest franchises aren’t immune. Teams on top eventually find themselves in the lower echelon, at least for a few seasons. There’s really no getting around it.

The great Celtics dynasty of the ’60s with Bill Russell ended and they fell on hard times until Larry Bird arrived, and then it was more than 20 years between titles again for Boston. Turn the page even to the Lakers. After the Showtime era, they really struggled until they found Kobe. The Bulls won six titles with Michael Jordan and then went almost a decade with some of the worst teams in the league.

It’s pretty obvious that you have to go through lean times occasionally in this league. That’s why we have a draft and the teams with the worst records get the highest picks and you end up with a LeBron James if you’re Cleveland and a Derrick Rose if you’re the Chicago Bulls and a Patrick Ewing, back in the day, if you’re the Knicks. Those were lucky drafts for those teams. Cleveland, unfortunately, wasn’t able to keep LeBron, but he did wonders for the franchise when he was there.

When the Bad Boys finally ran their course, the Pistons certainly struggled. They had a brief renaissance under Doug Collins, who frankly is a genius as he’s proving again with Philadelphia. Then it took some masterful dealings and signings by Joe Dumars to almost immediately resurrect the team early in the last decade. I’ve always said Joe does not get enough credit for what he did to bring the Pistons all the way back to being the Pistons again.

When Joe took the job, remember, it was at one of the lowest points for the franchise. Grant Hill was leaving in free agency and so many hopes had been pinned on Grant that it felt like the Pistons were headed for some long, dark days. But three years after Joe was named president of basketball operations by Mr. Davidson, the Pistons were in the Eastern Conference finals – and just one year later, they were NBA champions again.

So good things can happen. And sometimes in a hurry. But there’s no getting around it. No matter who you are or where you play, especially in this day of the salary cap and all of that, teams that are at or near the top, when it’s finally over, you’re going to suffer a big and deep drop. The Pistons have been fighting to get out of that spot the past few years. And, frankly, despite what we’re seeing so far this season, I think they’re pointed in the right direction.

I’ve long felt – and I got this from one of my most respected analysts on Pistons telecasts some years back, Dick Motta – that the hardest positions to fill in the NBA are center and point guard. Dick said when he came into the league in the ’60s, there were about five good centers and five good point guards. And when he was doing games with me in the ’80s, he said, “George, there’s still about five good centers and five good point guards.”

They’re scarce. You always need to put a premium on guys who play those positions and here the Pistons have found two in the lottery in the last two years. I’d like to think they’ve found themselves a center for the future and he’s already playing like a standout, close to a star even now, in Greg Monroe. And they have a young point guard who has all the tools and all the intelligence that it takes to run an offense in this league.

Brandon Knight, to me, was a steal in the draft. It’s going to be hard for Brandon, when you have a team that is searching for an identity and trying to learn a new system, to be the savoir in the first 10 or 20 games of his career. But, believe me, he’s going to be a very good point guard in this league. And I don’t think it’s going to take two or three seasons, either. I think before this season is over, we’ll see a lot more. We’ve already seen it in stretches. It’s going to be fun to watch those two young guys, especially, to see how quickly they become the players I think they will become – and to see how fast they are able to get the Pistons back to being the Pistons again.