Taken a step beyond, many Pistons have ample reason to play out the season to the fullest extent of their capacity – and the front office and coaching staffs will focus their full attention on evaluation with a critical off-season a few short months off.
“We have to really, really be committed because it only gets harder,” Frank said after Sunday’s 39-point loss to the Spurs, a team clearly looking to make a statement one game after losing Tony Parker for a month with a sprained ankle. “Not our motivation, but the other teams we’re playing are vying for things. They ain’t messing around and we have to come with that same mentality. If we ever want to be a playoff team, you can’t wait to adopt that mentality.”
Here are a handful of reasons (plus one) for a focused finish:
- Jose Calderon’s future – The Pistons were clear in enunciating their reasons for the late January trade: It wasn’t about clearing further cap space in acquiring Calderon’s expiring contract; it was made with the intention of keeping Calderon around for the long term.
Calderon is likely to have other serious suitors, though, so much like with Rasheed Wallace nine years ago, the final few months of the season are about Calderon evaluating his comfort level with everything that goes into a free agent’s decision. That goes beyond the basketball court, of course. And unlike the Wallace situation, there won’t be an extended playoff run to influence Calderon’s call.
Calderon certainly seems invested. Longtime Pistons staffers say they’ve seen leadership qualities in Calderon – he organized a team dinner on last week’s Charlotte-Indiana road trip, for instance – that remind them of Chauncey Billups. There can’t be much doubt in Calderon’s mind about how the Pistons view him: He’s started since day one, the ball has been put in his hands – a decision which also meant changing the role of a 2011 lottery pick seen as a foundation piece, Brandon Knight – and he’s on the floor to finish games, too.
A spirited finish over the season’s final quarter can only help the Pistons make their best case that Calderon’s remaining prime years would be best spent in Detroit.
- Brandon Knight’s adjustment – The early returns on Knight’s shift to shooting guard have been positive. No question, he has the motor and mental focus required to effectively run his defenders ragged around a maze of baseline screens and the scorer’s mentality – and shooter’s touch – to take advantage of the openings that constant movement invariably creates.
If Knight finishes strong and gives the front office and coaches confidence that Knight at shooting guard will give the Pistons positive production at that position, it will make their decisions on how to spend the considerable resources they’ll have at their fingertips that much clearer in the off-season ahead.
- Andre Drummond’s timeline – There has been nothing but a positive vibe where Drummond’s recovery from the stress fracture of his fifth lumbar vertabra is concerned. There is also nothing new to report on when he might actually be seen in uniform again.
The Pistons have next to zero concerns that the injury portends anything worse than a brief interruption in Drummond’s rather amazing ascendancy. But they’re going to err on the side of caution, twice over, in bringing him back. While they would love to get Drummond another 12 or 15 games of experience, it won’t come at the expense of risking a setback that could wind up costing him the bulk of an off-season that will be critical in allowing him to take another big leap forward for the 2013-14 season.
Best-case scenario: Drummond comes back, doesn’t skip a beat, and finishes the final weeks showing further signs of progress. That would also allow …
- Greg Monroe’s evolution – The long-term plan, of course, calls for Monroe to spend more, if not all, of his time at power forward while Drummond mans the middle. Frank had broadly hinted, in the weeks preceding Drummond’s injury, that it was coming sooner rather than later. To paraphrase, he said the organization wanted to go into the summer knowing, rather than speculating, on the viability of a Drummond-Monroe pairing.
When the Pistons played last week at New Orleans, Monroe’s hometown, Frank reminded local reporters curious about Monroe’s progress that despite the fact Monroe looks older and is in his third NBA season, he’s still just 22 – years removed from when big men typically hit their prime. He’s well ahead of the 19-year-old Drummond developmentally, but still a long way from a finished product.
And as with Knight, the final quarter of the season will give Monroe and Calderon a better chance to get a feel for the other, a process that’s already given each optimism for its potential.
- Rookie roll call – All four rookies not named Andre Drummond still have things they would like to show the Pistons over the final quarter of the season. Kyle Singler has stayed in the starting lineup since making his emergency start for Rodney Stuckey in the season’s ninth game. If Knight convinces the Pistons he should be the starting shooting guard and if Calderon is re-signed, then a high-scoring small forward could be first on the wish list. Or maybe Singler convinces them to spend their resources elsewhere.
Kim English and Khris Middleton have been in the shadows much of the season, but the trade of Tayshaun Prince and Austin Daye opened some opportunities for them. Constant workout partners, the reality is they’re really now in a fight to show who will get first crack at perimeter backup minutes now and into the future.
Slava Kravtsov would love to finish strong to put himself in the plans for next season as more than the emergency big man. If the Drummond-Monroe starting unit comes to fruition, Kravtsov could be in line to back up Drummond. The final quarter of the season is effectively his audition for that 2013-14 spot.
- Veterans showcase – Rodney Stuckey, as has been widely reported, has a partially guaranteed contract for next season. Charlie Villanueva is the only realistic option if the front office decides to exercise the amnesty clause to create further cap space. (Monroe is the only other Piston eligible to be amnestied, and he, obviously, would not be considered.) Will Bynum and Jason Maxiell, like Calderon, are pending unrestricted free agents. Corey Maggette has expressed interest in returning, even if it means another year filling a mentoring role.
For all, the motivation is clear. They’d love to make it impossible for the Pistons to not bring them back, but in any case they understand that there are 29 other employers who all have front offices looking hard at what their best options for next season are.
That’s what at stake over the season final quarter. From the top of the roster to the inactive list, motivation shouldn’t be in short supply.