Fresh Start

Joe D's peers undoubtedly wary of Wilcox signing

Chris Wilcox
Ned Dishman (NBAE/Getty)
A few dozen of Joe Dumars’ peers around the NBA furrowed their brows over the weekend with the news that Chris Wilcox was about to become a Piston, a signing that multiple media reports say is due this week. Are they sure Wilcox is about to realize the tantalizing potential they first saw in him as a sophomore at Maryland, when he helped carry the Terps to the 2002 NCAA title and became the eighth pick in that year’s draft as a teenager?

Nope. If they were sure, Wilcox would have been snatched up as quickly as the other recent lottery pick big man the Pistons signed this month, Charlie Villanueva, who struck a deal on the first day of free agency.

But the fact Joe D identified Wilcox as part of his summer makeover of the Pistons is enough to make them ask themselves: Should we have signed this guy?

Only a few teams in the league cause such a reaction, San Antonio foremost among them. When you pluck Chauncey Billups and Ben Wallace off the scrap heap and they become All-Stars, when you trade a volume scorer like Jerry Stackhouse for a Rip Hamilton about whom there were many doubts and he too becomes an All-Star, when you draft Tayshaun Prince down in the 20s of a weak draft and watch him outperform all but a handful of those taken ahead of him, that’s the rep you earn.

Wilcox carries something of an underachiever label with him to Detroit, which explains why he was still available more than two weeks into free agency and why the Pistons got him for $6 million over two years, if the commonly reported details of their agreement are accurate, which is slightly better than 50 percent of the average salary and represents minimal risk for the Pistons.

But like so many of the players Joe D has picked up in the past and watched thrive in the environment he’s painstakingly created with the Pistons, Wilcox has been mired in situations that would have had to improve by half to be considered mediocre. Consider this: In seven seasons in the NBA, he’s yet to finish one of them with a winning team. The Clippers won 27, 28 and 37 games in his first three seasons, then traded him midway through the next year to Seattle, which won 35, 31 and 20 in his three seasons there. Last season was split between the relocated Thunder and the woebegone Knicks, both of them speeding toward the lottery.

Not only has Wilcox never appeared in a playoff game, he’s never been on a team that threw it up on opening night dreaming the playoffs were a possibility.

Now, it’s fair to say Wilcox, as a part of all those bad teams, bears some responsibility for those records. Some. But Ray Allen was a part of those miserable Seattle teams, too, and he seemed to turn out OK when dropped into a winning environment. The Clippers carry a legacy of losing that has overwhelmed everyone who’s donned the uniform.

When he was with Seattle, Wilcox played well against the Pistons, able to score inside against the veterans who anchored one of the NBA’s toughest defenses of their era. He gives them another frontcourt scorer to go with Villanueva, and a guy who’ll do most of his scoring around the basket. That ability to score – Wilcox averaged better than 13 points for the three years he spent in Seattle – means John Kuester will be able to use Wilcox with any of the other big men on his roster.

Wilcox, curiously, saw his role reduced last season in Oklahoma City. The Thunder first tried to trade him to New Orleans in the deal for Tyson Chandler that OKC’s medical staff aborted, then dumped him to the Knicks for a washed-up Malik Rose at the trade deadline. He played little in New York, averaging 13 minutes a game, apparently not a fit with Mike D’Antoni’s offense.

Whatever soured his career with the Sonics/Thunder, the Pistons should have insider knowledge. Joe D’s No. 2, vice president Scott Perry, spent a year as Seattle’s assistant GM before returning to Detroit to fill the vacancy created by John Hammond’s departure for Milwaukee’s top job. For the Pistons to have used their last significant chunk of cap space on him, you can bet Perry gave the thumbs up on whatever the back story was on the career turn Wilcox took as a 26-year-old.

And you can bet Joe D’s peers around the NBA have had that same thought in the 48 hours since news began leaking that Chris Wilcox was headed to the Pistons, the 13th spot committed to a roster whose average age has now plunged to 25. And they’re wondering if passing on a young big man about to enter the prime of his career will haunt them in the same way many of them were left to wonder how they passed on the chance to add Chauncey Billups, Ben Wallace, Rip Hamilton or Tayshaun Prince.