Sustained Success

Playoffs in ’13? Bigger goal for Pistons is winning future titles

Lawrence Frank and the Pistons are looking at long term goals.
Dan Lippitt (NBAE/Getty)
For no more than a handful of NBA teams, the 2012-13 season will be assessed in the starkest possible terms: championship or bust. Miami, Oklahoma City, the Los Angeles Lakers, Boston and San Antonio fit that profile.

For everybody else, off-season analysis will be a little more painstaking. For many of them, it will be as simple as taking that next step. But toward what? Ask Pistons fans what the next step for their team should be and the answer more often than not comes back, “make the playoffs.”

That’s a worthwhile goal, but it doesn’t go quite far enough. Qualifying for the postseason can’t get in the way of winning championships, yet franchises starved for even modest success often succumb to impatience for just that quest: making the playoffs today. Transactions that provide an immediate boost sometimes come at the expense of sustained success.

Joe Dumars has avoided the quick fix these past few years, resisting any temptation to sink tons of money into a fabulously remodeled kitchen until the foundation was secured. The Pistons are now in position to start talking about various remodeling projects.

When you’ve bottomed out, there’s a tug to swing for the fences. That’s precisely the worst time to do so. The only shot at hitting a home run in those circumstances is capitalizing on lottery luck in a year there’s a franchise-changing player available. Think: Seattle/Oklahoma City and Kevin Durant, perhaps New Orleans and Anthony Davis. Failing such fortune, you keep stringing singles and doubles together until the gap closes sufficiently to put you back in the game.

Over the past five seasons, as their win totals have ticked down and their draft position has gone the other way, the Pistons have used the system to their advantage, grabbing the players who now comprise that foundation: Greg Monroe, Brandon Knight, Jonas Jerebko and Rodney Stuckey, foremost. The Pistons believe Andre Drummond will eventually prove he belongs in the same sentence, perhaps right there with Monroe and Knight at the start of it.

They feel just as confident they’ve started to build depth around that foundation in players like Kyle Singler, Kim English, European 7-footer Slava Kravtsov and, down the road, rookie shooter Khris Middleton.

When an organization has put itself in position to take a meaningful step forward, then it makes sense to start taking the risks necessary to improve as draft position drifts backward from the front of the field.

That’s where the Pistons are at – or, at least, that’s where management now believes they are at.

How do we know? Look at the Ben Gordon trade, in which the Pistons took back Corey Maggette. The Pistons like what Maggette has to offer – his ability to get to the free-throw line, at which he’s long ranked with the NBA’s best, meshes with Lawrence Frank’s attacking mentality – but Joe D was up front in admitting the deal was motivated by the financial flexibility it promises the Pistons next summer.

Listen to what Dumars said in late June, after the trade, when he was asked about the inherent risk involved in attaching a protected No. 1 pick to Gordon.

“The No. 1 thing you’ve got to do is be comfortable with the protection you put on there and then you have to feel as though your team is heading in the right direction where it’s not going to be monumental.”

The Pistons keep the pick next summer if they don’t make the playoffs. Look at how the East sets up. Miami and Boston are playoff locks, barring catastrophic injury. Chicago is a good bet, even with Derrick Rose’s return uncertain. Philadelphia, Indiana, Atlanta and New York were playoff teams last year and won’t be easy to unseat. The Nets, coinciding with their move to Brooklyn, took their big shot at relevance over the summer by spending massively.

There’s another group of five teams – everybody else but Charlotte and Orlando, which dumped Dwight Howard and chose to press the reset button – that includes the Pistons waiting for somebody to unravel and sneak in the postseason’s back door. But 2013-14 – when Monroe will be entering his fourth season, Knight his third, Drummond his second and hopefully ready to blossom – sets up as real opening for the Pistons. If they have to convey their pick to Charlotte then, well, Dumars has reason to be confident it won’t be a haunting concession.

Lopping off the extra year of Gordon’s contract will put the Pistons in position to be players next summer. Whether that means going directly to the free-agent market or using their cap space creatively in trades, the Gordon trade sets the Pistons up for a roll-the-dice off-season that only a team with a solid foundation should ever embark upon. Adding a high-quality veteran or two to that nucleus empowers the Pistons to start skipping ahead two or three paces at a time.

It shapes up as a fascinating 2012-13 season: the steps Monroe and Knight take, how far away Drummond is from becoming a force, the fit of mature rookies like Singler and English and Kravtsov, the career arc of Stuckey coming off the best off-season of his young career, another year out from Achilles surgery for Jonas Jerebko, how much the year Lawrence Frank has under his belt benefits the Pistons … and, yes, seeing whether this team is prepared to make a playoff push.

But the horizon for the Pistons goes well beyond the spring of 2013. The foundation they built during some of the toughest years the franchise has endured ensures that much.