Pistons and Stuckey: Win-Win

His contract done, Stuckey should thrive under Frank

Rodney Stuckey should thrive under Lawrence Frank.
Jesse D. Garrabrant /NBAE/Getty Images
To a degree not often realized when pride gets in the way of contract negotiations, common sense won the day in the dance between the Pistons and Rodney Stuckey. Stuckey, a restricted free agent, re-signed with the Pistons on Saturday, by numerous accounts a three-year deal in the ballpark of $25 million.

That alone – a three-year deal – makes it unique. Stuckey’s 25, has and will continue to log 30-plus minutes a night, and last year led the Pistons in scoring and assists. But Stuckey, undeniably, has been erratic. At his best, he shows the ability to be a certifiable All-Star. He’s got great size for a guard, great strength, great straight-line speed and good quickness for his size. Over the last month or so of last season, he was very good, and over the last five games, he was better than that, averaging 25 points and nine assists and shooting 50 percent.

That’s the Stuckey that Lawrence Frank believes he can get 100 percent of the time.

“We think he has huge upside,” Frank said after Saturday’s practice, which started with a one-hour video review of Friday’s preseason opener with Cleveland that helped Stuckey start catching up to speed. “We think there’s a lot more to his game as the years evolve.”

Stuckey spent last season visibly frustrated. He had plenty of company. Players react in any number of ways to frustration. A common one is to throw up one’s hands and embrace the excuses made plentiful by the sources of the frustration. Stuckey, understandably, did some of that in a year that overwhelmed many. But down the stretch of 2010-11, he channeled it into a focused aggression that unleashed the best of Rodney Stuckey.

Recapturing that focused aggression will be the key to Stuckey’s productivity going forward. Which is where Lawrence Frank comes in, and why I think this coach – the fourth for Stuckey, heading into his fifth season, has played for – is going to be the best thing that’s happened for Rodney Stuckey’s career.

Stuckey certainly seems to be open to Frank’s brand of coaching coming in. Stuckey is tight with both Ben Gordon and Will Bynum, two players who spent the first week of camp giving high praise to both Frank’s system and his demeanor. Stuckey had gotten their feedback, and after one day, he was coming to the same conclusions about his new coach.

“He’s straightforward,” Stuckey said, the last one off the court after going through drills with assistant coach Dee Brown. “He pretty much tells it like it is. Doesn’t matter who you are and that’s what I like. He’s pretty much just being real to people and that’s what you’ve got to do.”

I’m not sure there’s been a successful NBA player who didn’t perform better for a coach who imposes discipline and structure, but some are better than others at imposing their own structure and self-discipline to make up for a coach’s shortfall in that area, shutting out the collateral damage around them. I don’t think it was coincidence that Stuckey’s brilliant final five games followed John Kuester’s disciplining of him after Stuckey famously refused to re-enter the April 1 game late against Chicago. Similarly, Stuckey played with that same focused aggression after earlier dustups with Kuester.

But you can’t always play to prove somebody wrong. The pursuit of excellence is the only motivation that has any permanence to it. Sustaining that level of play over the course of 82 games, finding a motivation that has legs, is the next hurdle for Stuckey. Frank’s relentless daily monitoring of every aspect of the things under his control, based on what we know about Frank from his days in New Jersey and what he’s shown Pistons management since his hiring in early August, screams that the communications breakdowns at the root of last season’s dysfunction are only remotely possible this time around.

Maybe that was part of the motivation on Stuckey’s behalf for OKing the shorter contract. The two likeliest outcomes for a restricted free agent who can command a salary north of the mid-level exception are a long-term deal or a one-year qualifying offer that gets him to unrestricted free agency. Gordon, for one relevant example, took Chicago’s one-year qualifying offer when he and the Bulls couldn’t find a mutually agreeable number on a six-year contract two summers ago.

The middle ground that the Pistons and Stuckey struck has great potential to be a win-win for both sides. If you buy that Frank is going to be good for Stuckey, then Stuckey will be a free agent at 28, certain to get a full-term deal; it’s better to be a free agent at 28 than 30, to be sure. If he outperforms his contract, he doesn’t have to do it for five years. If he continues playing as he has – brilliant some nights, average on others – it’s easier to tolerate and to move the contract if the situation requires it when the expiration date is no more than three years out. And if he outperforms the contract and the Pistons have to pay more to retain him in average salary for what would have been the fourth and fifth years of the deal he signed Saturday … well, that’s not a bad problem to have: holding Bird rights to a player worth more than $8 million on the open market.

For whatever angst a week away from training camp produced, the outcome made it a worthwhile exercise. The Pistons still might be a rugged post player away from full-blown playoff threat, but Frank is now armed with a young and versatile backcourt and a frontcourt anchored by 21-year-old Greg Monroe and bolstered by the return of Jonas Jerebko. Brandon Knight’s promising first week strongly suggests he’s ready for an immediate role, and the predraft questions about his merits as a point guard so far seem silly.

Knight’s readiness frees Stuckey to soak up all the minutes at shooting guard that Ben Gordon doesn’t claim and Frank made note within the past week of Stuckey’s effectiveness during a stretch last season when he played off the ball. Frank has considered every possibility. Rest assured playing Stuckey off the ball is one of them.

Wherever he plays, Stuckey sounds eager to play for Frank – at both ends. Stuckey’s ears perked up during the Cleveland video review when “he was getting on us for not pushing the ball. But the one thing I like about him is defense – defense is first. That’s what we’ve been doing the whole practice. However long it takes to get it right, that’s what it’s going to be. He just gets on everybody. If you make a mistake, you do it all over again until you get it right. That’s what I like about him.”

Frank said earlier this summer that every future Hall of Famer he’s ever been around – guys like Jason Kidd and Vince Carter, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen – has wanted to be coached. Rodney Stuckey sure sounds like he wants that, too. He’s going to get a full dose of it this season. My guess is it’s going to be the best thing for his career.