Something to Prove

New Pistons all come with fire to prove doubters wrong

Joe Dumars
Joe Dumars got the athleticism, shooting and perimeter size he wanted via the draft, free agency and trade.
Allen Einstein (NBAE/Getty)

Joe Dumars had a checklist of attributes he hoped to add with a lottery pick and more than $20 million in cap space. He added athleticism with Josh Smith, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Tony Mitchell. He injected perimeter shooting with Chauncey Billups, Gigi Datome and Caldwell-Pope. He got bigger on the wings with Smith and Caldwell-Pope.

The lottery pick expended, the cap space allocated, he then looked at the roster, figured he had a team ready not only to make a playoff push but perhaps to arrive at mid-April making a high seed very uncomfortable with the idea of a first-round matchup against the Detroit Pistons, and decided to seize the opportunity to land a point guard closer to being ready to lead that charge.

Brandon Jennings arrives in Detroit feeling on the one hand liberated, his trying experience with the quirks of restricted free agency finally behind him, and on the other hand, no doubt, feeling a little agitated that among the many point guards from the landmark 2009 draft class who’ve already signed lucrative extensions with their original teams or are in line to do so – Steph Curry, Jrue Holiday, Ty Lawson, Ricky Rubio – he was overlooked.

If there’s a chip on his shoulder, he’ll have to make room in a locker room that figures to be crowded by newcomers with similar motivational impetus.

And, my hunch is, Joe Dumars is A-OK with all of that. It’s going to make for an interesting stew of personalities, not unlike the assorted parts he assembled a decade ago: Chauncey Billups went begging for a mid-level exception deal; Ben Wallace came as the afterthought in the Grant Hill sign-and-trade; Rip Hamilton was shipped out of Washington when Michael Jordan questioned his mettle; Tayshaun Prince spent four years starting for a blueblood program but went 23rd in a weak draft.

There was an unbelievable chemistry that evolved between those players – and, later, with Rasheed Wallace, another outcast – in large part because of their shared tribulations. Something similar could be afoot for the 2013-14 Pistons and beyond.

Smith, Dumars observed, seemed particularly enthused about proving he could thrive outside the shadow of Atlanta, where he grew up and was drafted by the hometown Hawks out of high school in 2004. It figures he’ll want to prove to Dumars he was the right choice for the lion’s share of the free-agent hoard the Pistons had amassed – and prove to the rest of the league that the free agent pool ran deeper than Dwight Howard and Chris Paul.

He’s never been an All-Star. He’ll want to change that, too. Motivation, it seems, will not be in short supply for one Josh Smith.

Ditto for Datome, who arrives from Italy after going undrafted, unlike lottery pick countrymen Andre Bargnani and Danilo Gallinari. It’s still so exceedingly rare for Italians to make it to the NBA that it’s a huge point of national pride when one does. Datome knows he’s carrying the Italian flag with him to the NBA, just as he will for the national team later this summer in Eurobasket competition. But it goes beyond national pride. His desire to prove he belongs in the NBA struck Pistons brass when he visited Auburn Hills for several days in late June.

Caldwell-Pope didn’t grasp the uproar around greater Detroit and throughout Michigan when the Pistons passed on local hero Trey Burke with the No. 8 pick in the June draft. But it didn’t take long. He’s been asked about it enough in the ensuing month. Caldwell-Pope doesn’t waste words, but he also showed in Orlando Summer League – after a dreadful first few shooting games didn’t faze him in the least – a surprising resolve for a rookie first dipping his toe into NBA waters. He won’t be running from the Burke comparisons, that’s for sure.

Even Mr. Big Shot comes back with a purpose. He’s serious when he says he wants to leave the Pistons in a better place, and, no, Pistons fans won’t ever forget or allow the memory of his 2004 Finals MVP performance to be diminished. In that sense, he has nothing to prove. But he wants to go out showing that even if he can’t do it for 35 minutes a night any longer, he can still do the things that made him special – the things that earned him the nickname. He doesn’t want the end to be nothing but ceremony.

Jennings, Smith, Datome, Caldwell-Pope, Billups. All of them will be blowing hot oxygen into the fire burning at the center of Maurice Cheeks’ locker room. It can’t help but ratchet up the competitive edge that becomes the byproduct of team chemistry. It can’t help but force the holdovers to push their own boundaries a step beyond.

The roster hasn’t been merely upgraded with talent but infused with individuals inclined to understand that whatever questions followed them to Detroit can best be answered by team success – by putting the Pistons back in the playoffs and scaring the bejabbers out of all comers.

The Pistons are poised to be an aesthetic, crowd-pleasing delight this season, with everything from Jennings’ blinding speed to all the 3-point artistry of Billups, Datome and Caldwell-Pope added to the lobs that Andre Drummond and Smith will happily convert into dunks. They also stand a significantly improved chance to be a bottom-line smash, winning games not only on talent but on the heat from inner fires stoked by a smorgasbord of snubs and challenges.