The aimless late ’70s Pistons became the Bad Boys under Jack McCloskey because he worked harder and smarter than his peers around the NBA. He found a guard he immediately felt would make an ideal complement to Isiah Thomas at a Las Vegas holiday tournament in December 1984, sitting on his hunch until springing it on Pistons owner Bill Davidson right after Dallas drafted 7-footers Bill Wennington and Uwe Blab with the 16th and 17th picks in the 1985 draft.
It was easier to scout players 15 years later, in 2000, when that guard Trader Jack discovered off the Vegas strip, McNeese State’s Joe Dumars, had succeeded McCloskey and was running his first draft for the Pistons. You could watch players on DVD by then, not catch them on an uncharacteristically good or bad night against questionable competition and be forced to make sweeping conclusions based on sketchy evidence.
But the difference between 2012 and 2000 is every bit as pronounced as it was between 2000 and 1985, the age of technology changing the way teams go about the vetting process.
“Night and day,” Joe D said Thursday with the 2012 draft a week away. “The amount of information you didn’t have 10 years ago is amazing now. I look back on it and think, how did we even make picks 10 years ago?”
Among his staff, Joe D is ribbed for his “addiction” to Synergy, the computer program that enables video scouting at incredibly detailed levels. They crunch the numbers and integrate statistical analysis with what their eyes and ears and gut tell them – the NBA equivalent of the intelligence community’s merging of human intelligence and signal intelligence.
His first draft – historically weak, in which the first three picks were Kenyon Martin, Stromile Swift and Darius Miles – produced Mateen Cleaves, whom Dumars flipped a year later for Jon Barry and a No. 1 pick. Two years later, in a draft nearly as devoid of quality players, Dumars found Tayshaun Prince with the 23rd pick.
Over the last five years, as Dumars and his staff have honed the draft process and made full use of the advanced technology available, they’re really hit their stride in the draft room.
Rodney Stuckey and Arron Afflalo were plucked with the 15th and 27th picks in 2007. On ESPN.com this week, draft analyst Chad Ford suggested a redraft would see Stuckey go No. 5 and Afflalo No. 10.
The Pistons have nothing to show for the 2008 draft, where they went in with the 29th pick in a draft that ran out of steam a few picks before that. Not thrilled with anything available to them, Joe D traded down into the top of the second round and took a shot on Walter Sharpe.
In the three drafts since then, the Pistons have added three players critical to their future: Jonas Jerebko, Greg Monroe and Brandon Knight. Austin Daye, the 15th pick in 2009, still has a shot to join their company. He was trending that way after his second season, but undeniably took a big step back last year, hurt by his decision to go to Russia during the lockout and losing weight he couldn’t afford to lose, caused, he said, by the hassles of finding appealing and nutritious food given the language barrier.
If Ford follows through on his redrafting projects in five-year increments for those drafts, chances are pretty good Jerebko, Monroe and Knight will be slotted ahead of their actual draft position. If Daye gets back on track, he surely could be, as well.
The Pistons have some momentum at their back now. They finished the 2011-12 season 21-21, remarkable given the emotional and physical toll their 4-20 start in a brutally compressed schedule took. Monroe and Knight have star potential. In a deep draft, the Pistons have a shot to add another one of their caliber with the No. 9 pick.
Dumars and his staff fully understand the importance of this draft. They’re considering every contingency: the cost of trading up, the rewards of trading down, the chances that they’ll have to decide between a higher-ranked perimeter player over a big man that fills the greater need.
In every case, their decision will be exquisitely informed by a stream of knowledge unavailable to them a dozen years ago, never mind the days when Trader Jack discovered an obscure guard out of tiny McNeese State by outworking his peers.