Eleven summers ago, Joe Dumars used every available avenue to overhaul a Pistons roster in need of a transfusion. He drafted Tayshaun Prince, signed Chauncey Billups as a free agent and traded for Rip Hamilton.
He didn’t rub his hands and proclaim the Pistons championship worthy after all of that, and Wednesday's trade that brings Brandon Jennings on board from Milwaukee might not provide the final piece to an overhaul that includes the recent free-agent acquisition of Josh Smith and the drafting of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
Then again, the 2002 Pistons were short one building block up front to pair with Ben Wallace, and the 2013 Pistons start with Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond – players whose promise was recognized by USA Basketball with their invitation to last week’s minicamp in Las Vegas.
Adding Jennings surely ups their firepower. A four-year veteran, Jennings averaged 17.4 points per game last season, when he shared Milwaukee’s backcourt with Monta Ellis. He averaged 19.5 the previous season, when Ellis was acquired midway through the season.
The cost was Brandon Knight, at 21 two years younger than Jennings. It’s no secret the Pistons are gunning for the playoffs in 2014, and after not only signing a talent the caliber of Smith but adding Chauncey Billups and Italian league MVP Gigi Datome, the two-year gap in both age and NBA experience makes Jennings the likelier candidate to lead that charge.
Jennings comes to the Pistons three years younger than Billups was when he arrived in 2002, but just one year behind him in NBA experience. The parallel runs a little deeper, though. Pistons fans might not remember it quite this way – not after growing so fond of what Billups became – but there was a reason he was an unrestricted free agent who settled for a mid-level exception deal that summer. People saw him as a shoot-first guard more than a playmaker – many believed Jeff McInnis, another available free agent that summer, was the better prospect to slot at point guard – and that’s in line with the perception of Jennings today.
But coming out of high school, before an underwhelming season in Italy where he was teammates with Datome for Virtus Roma on his way to becoming Milwaukee’s pick at No. 10 in the 2009 draft, Jennings was viewed as a breathtaking playmaker with extraordinary vision, just as what stamped Billups as special before his arrival in the NBA was his playmaking ability. Jennings made his mark initially as a scorer in Milwaukee, averaging 15.5 points and 5.7 rebounds as a 20-year-old rookie, largely out of necessity.
He’s not had the array of options in Milwaukee he’ll have in Detroit with a frontcourt of Smith, Monroe and Drummond to go with the 3-point shooting the Pistons have amassed over the past month. As much as Jennings makes the Pistons better, the big men and shooters the Pistons can surround him with figure to draw out the best in Jennings, too.
He averaged 6.5 assists to Knight’s 4.0 last season despite essentially sharing ballhandling duties with Ellis, yet he committed fewer turnovers than Knight (2.5 to 2.7) in four more minutes per game. He’s a more frequent 3-point shooter (5.8 to 4.4 tries per game), shooting slightly better a year ago (37.5 percent to 36.7). He’s a mercurial scorer who can carry an offense for long stretches, but the Pistons don’t figure to be in position to require that of him consistently.
Jennings comes with playoff experience, the Bucks losing in the first round in both his rookie and most recent seasons. He entered the summer a restricted free agent, always a tough market. As teams around the league filled their point guard openings without having to deal with the vagaries of restricted free agency, the market squeezed Jennings out of any easy avenue away from Milwaukee, where he had rejected overtures for a return.
Just as the Pistons believed Maurice Cheeks would help speed Knight’s development as a point guard, so should he benefit Jennings as he learns how and when to give up the ball to Monroe in the post, Drummond on the lob, Smith at the elbows or shooters on the wings.
Jennings is a handful in transition, a blur, and turns the corner on the pick and roll with the best of them, not a trifling consideration for a lineup that will feature Drummond setting screens and crashing to the rim. If the Pistons are going to get out and run more – and that surely will be the intention with Drummond and Smith up front and Rodney Stuckey or the athletic Caldwell-Pope, perhaps, at shooting guard – then Jennings surely will be happy to oblige a faster tempo.
To make the trade work under the salary cap, the Pistons sent second-year players Khris Middleton and Slava Kravtsov to the Bucks, as well. The move leaves the Pistons with 13 players under contract, including draft picks Caldwell-Pope and second-rounder Tony Mitchell. Peyton Siva, the No. 56 pick, has yet to sign a contract but there’s now a roster spot to accommodate him if the two sides agree to move forward.
The more pressing need, though, is probably a big man to fill Kravtsov’s role – not someone who figures to crack the rotation, but a solid pro who can step up in case of injury or foul trouble. They probably won’t rush into any more moves, though, because having two open roster spots with two months to go before training camp gives them flexibility. Teams with roster or salary-cap crunches could be shedding players who might be upgrades and bargains compared to what’s left now in free agency.