To the Max

Maxiell helped bridge gap as Pistons pass torch to Monroe and Drummond

Jason Maxiell
Jason Maxiell will have served an important function, bridging a gap from one great Pistons generation to the next.
Issac Baldizon (NBAE/Getty)
There could not have been a more intimidating NBA roster on which Jason Maxiell would attempt to make an impression than the 2005-06 Pistons. They were coming off back-to-back NBA Finals appearances, beating the vaunted Lakers in the 2004 “five-game sweep” and pushing the equally star-laden San Antonio Spurs to seven grinding games into late June the next season.

A few days later, the Pistons used the 26th pick of the 2005 draft to select Maxiell, a conventionally undersized post player even by the standards of college basketball. But the Pistons saw in him a certain fearlessness and toughness they instinctively viewed as a fit for grooming behind Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace and Antonio McDyess.

All three of those veterans could spot a phony a mile away. No rookie, no matter how decorated or hyped upon arrival, would win an ounce of their respect until it was earned.

It speaks volumes that all three quickly took Maxiell under their collective wing because they saw in him a kindred spirit, a player who believed the only NBA currency that mattered was tied to work ethic, selflessness and team success.

Monday’s sobering news that Maxiell would miss the rest of the season after undergoing a rushed Sunday surgical procedure to repair a detached retina definitely ends Maxiell’s season and quite possibly brings the curtain down on his eight-year Pistons career.

He’ll be a free agent on July 1 in a year, the kind that comes along maybe once every four or five seasons, when the Pistons will have cap space and options galore. But there is a pecking order to free agency and the Pistons will be in a sprint to check off the items atop their priority list when the clock strikes midnight. With their frontcourt future firmly tied to Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond and their sights fixed on Jose Calderon to run the offense, the Pistons will first attack the chore of filling out their wing positions with some combination of size, athleticism and scoring flair.

That’s a long way of saying that by the time the smoke clears, Jason Maxiell is likely to have sought – and been sought by – other teams without a Monroe and a Drummond around whom to build.

As is nearly inevitable when a team milks the best years of a core group that matures together for all it can yield the way the Pistons maximized the best of the Goin’ to Work group that played in six straight Eastern Conference finals, trying seasons ensue. Maxiell’s misfortune was that his time in the spotlight came only as the veterans who helped mold him faded away.

In better times, he would have been celebrated as a folk hero, not unlike the way Rick Mahorn was for completing the Bad Boys, exuding the qualities of hard work and toughness Pistons fans have long adored.

But no one should forget the catalytic effect he had on the Pistons in the dark days following the end of the 2011 lockout when first-year coach Lawrence Frank was introducing himself to his team one week and coaching them in the fury of an NBA season the next. Twenty-three games into Frank’s tenure, the Pistons had won four games when he went to Maxiell to replace Ben Wallace at power forward next to Greg Monroe. The Pistons played .500 basketball for the rest of the season.

On balance, it’s nothing less than a shame that Maxiell, should he have played his last game as a Piston, will go out not in uniform but in street clothes, the last memory of him coming as he limped off the court with a sprained ankle in last Friday’s loss to Toronto. In some small way, though, it’s in keeping with Maxiell’s career that there will be no fanfare, no spotlight, no grand sendoff.

“I think Max is a guy who defines the statement ‘strictly business,’ ” Pistons assistant general manager George David told me before training camp opened late last summer. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen Maxiell complain about anything since he’s been here – about minutes, about matchups, about anything. That, as much as anything, has really endeared Max to a lot of coaches here. When you play a role like Max does and you’re what I would call a low-maintenance guy, it goes a long way.”

In the NBA, you go from new kid on the block to young veteran to mentor in the blink of an eye. Maxiell spent his past few seasons somewhere between those last two stages, paying forward what three of the league’s most respected big men of their generation – Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace, Antonio McDyess – imparted to him not so long ago.

The Pistons go forward with Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond, players blessed with size and athleticism and skill in degrees that have the franchise poised for a return to the relevance it enjoyed in Maxiell’s early years. If they blossom as Dumars and Frank believe they will, combining those physical gifts with the qualities that have defined the most beloved Pistons – work ethic, selflnessness, devotion to team success – then Jason Maxiell will have served an important function, bridging a gap from one great Pistons generation to the next.