Monday, April 12, 2010

2009-10 NBA Season in Review: Detroit Pistons

Hey, gang!  With the NBA season winding down, I figured it was a great time to update the old sports blog and get you ready for the playoffs while also looking back at the season that was.  Since the first round match-ups aren't set in stone yet, I'm going to start off with a look at those teams that will be sitting at home this spring.  The teams are presented in order of most depressing to most hopeful, with a quick season review and look ahead into the off-season included for each squad.  Today's entry is the Detroit Pistons.  Enjoy.


Season in a Nutshell: After a 5-4 start, the Pistons suffered through losing streaks of 7, 13, and 11 games (as well as two other streaks of five and six straight losses).  Ben Gordon, the free agent prize of the previous summer, averaged a career-low 13.6 points per game while shooting 41% from the field (31% from three).  Charlie Villanueva, the secondary free agent prize of the previous summer, averaged 11.8 points and 4.7 rebounds per game (which is a shocking number considering Villanueva's 6-11 height) while shooting 44% from the field.  Rodney Stuckey failed to become the next Dwyane Wade, and then collapsed on the bench in Cleveland.  First round pick Austin Daye struggled to find the court (13 minutes per game), and Richard Hamilton played in only 46 games.  When Hamilton did play, he averaged an inefficient 18.1 points per game on 40% shooting.  The Pistons as a team shot only 44% (27th in the NBA), and none of their top four shot-takers made more than 43% of their field goals.  Their traditionally staunch defense suffered, as well, slipping to 26th in John Hollinger's defensive efficiency ratings, down from 16th the previous season (and it would have been worse if the corpse of Ben Wallace hadn't been re-animated to lead the team with 4.6 wins share).  New head coach John Kuester struggled to install his offensive system, integrate Gordon into the lineup, or inspire his team (at least until he kicked a ball in practice last week).  Other than that, it was a great first year for him.

On a more positive note, Stuckey apparently didn't have any thing seriously wrong with him following his collapse, Jonas Jerebko (9.3 points, 5.9 rebounds, 48% shooting in 28 minutes per game) looks like a second round steal, and there were no riots at the Palace for the fifth consecutive year.  Also, Will Bynum continued to be one of my favorite crappy players in the league.

Offseason Outlook:  Like every other team in the lottery (except for the Knicks, but we'll get to them later), the Pistons are of course hoping to luck out and land a top 3 pick.  Assuming that doesn't happen (and that none of the teams behind them move into the top 3), the Pistons will be picking 6th (as of April 12).  John Wall, Evan Turner, DeMarcus Cousins, and Derrick Favors seem to be the consensus top four players in this year's draft, so the Pistons probably won't be in position to add any of them.  With the biggest need being a low post presence on offense and defense, Cole Aldrich out of Kansas or Greg Monroe out of Georgetown look like the best options.  The Pistons also have their second round pick, which Detroit fans hope will be another Jerebko and not another DaJuan Summers-over-DeJuan Blair debacle.

The Pistons will be about $5.5 million over the projected $53 million salary cap this summer, so don't expect much action on their part.  They will have their mid-level exception, but Joe Dumars should be in full rebuild mode and careful who he commits more money to beyond the summer of 2011, which is the next time Detroit will be under the cap.  In the meantime, the roster is going to remain relatively unchanged, with little in the way of trade assets (Tayshaun Prince and his expiring $11 million contract represent the best asset, while Rodney Stuckey could be moved if someone were also willing to take Hamilton, Gordon, or Villanueva) or free agents (Will Bynum is a restricted free agent I expect to re-sign unless he gets a crazy offer sheet somewhere else, while Kwame Brown, Ben Wallace, and Chucky Atkins represent the type of roster filler the Pistons don't need going forward).  Assuming the Pistons take Alrdrich in the first round, their opening day roster should look something like this:

PG Rodney Stuckey
SG Richard Hamilton
SF Tayshaun Prince 
PF Charlie Villanueva
C Cole Aldrich
G Ben Gordon
F Jason Maxiell
F Jonas Jerbko
G Will Bynum
F/C Chris Wilcox
F Austin Daye
F DaJuan Summers
2nd Round Pick

Not very inspiring, I know, and now you see why I ranked Detroit the most depressing team in the league.  Not only are they terrible, there is no hope for roster flexibility for at least one more season.  Joe Dumars has no one to blame but himself, as a series of poor evaluations and choices by the NBA's former front office golden boy have led to the Pistons' current state.

It starts, of course, with the drafting of Darko Milicic over Carmelo Anthony.  The Pistons did win a championship that season, and who knows if Anthony would have screwed up their chemistry or clashed with Larry Brown like he (and everyone else) did at the 2004 Olympics, so we'll give Dumars (somewhat) of a pass here.  As Milicic failed to develop,though, Joe felt pressure to get some value out of the second pick in one of the deepest drafts ever, so he dealt Milicic (and Carlos Arroyo) for Orlando's 2007 first round pick (number 13) and Kelvin Cato.  That pick ended up being Rodney Stuckey, and, after showing flashes of Dwyane Wade-like ability during his rookie year, Stuckey was anointed the future of the Pistons.  Two games into the following season, Dumars dealt Chauncey Billups to Denver in exchange for Allen Iverson.  While most felt the trade was a needed shakeup for the Pistons, those who paid attention saw what it really was:  a salary dump.  If Iverson ended up working out in Detroit and leading them to their usual postseason success, great; what Dumars really cared about, though, was the $20.84 million that would be coming off the books following the season.  Iverson, of course, began his bizarre and troubling descent into basketball limbo following his arrival in Detroit, missing 27 of the team's last 30 games, including the last seven regular season games and all four of Detroit's playoff games.  Stuckey, meanwhile, struggled as the starting point guard, and the Pistons limped into the playoffs as the eight seed, eventually getting destroyed by the Cavs.  With Rasheed Wallace's lethargic play and Rip Hamilton (who signed to a three-year, $34 million extension the same day as the Billups trade) beginning to show signs of age, Dumars appeared to be correct in writing off the 2008-09 season for salary cap relief.  When Carlos Boozer didn't opt out of his contract, however, a weak free agent class became a desert, and Detroit was left with a bunch of money they had to spend to justify the trade of the team's heart and soul, and thus Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva will be paid a combined $79.2 million through 2014.

This list of blunders doesn't even include the firing of Flip Saunders or the hiring (and firing) of Michael Curry, and shows a troubling lack of foresight and evaluative prowess on Dumars's part.  For instance, if you're dealing Chauncey Billups to get salary cap space, then why sign Hamilton to an extension on the same day?  And then if you already have Hamilton locked up for three more years, why sign a very similar player in Ben Gordon to a multi-year contract?  Playing the hindsight game, and starting from the last justifiable move Dumars made (trading Darko for the Stuckey pick), let's take a look at what should have been done.
  1. Keep Chauncey Billups.  With Billups as the starting point guard, the Pistons probably find a way to win 47-50 games and slip into the four or five seed in 2009.  While the conclusion is still probably an ousting by the Cavs (or even the Hawks), the team is much more competitive, and, more importantly, Rodney Stuckey remains an explosive 3rd guard off the bench, allowing him to avoid the crisis of confidence that seized him after he was inserted as the starting point guard.
  2. Let Rip Hamilton's contract run its course.  Rip most likely would have exercised his option in the summer of 2009, which would have eaten up the Pistons' cap space, which would have meant they couldn't have signed Gordon or Villanueva.  Sounds like a win already, and when you consider Hamilton's contract would be coming off the books this summer, giving the Pistons some cap space for one of the deeper free agent classes ever, this move becomes a slam dunk.
  3. Draft DeJuan Blair.  You could argue that it's unfair to judge the value of a second round pick in hindsight, but you'd be wrong.  Everyone knew Blair was a stud, even with his lack of ACLs.
  4.  Draft Ty Lawson.  Lawson has proven he can thrive playing behind Billups in Denver, so why wouldn't it have worked in Detroit?  When Hamilton came off the books in 2010, Stuckey would be ready to step into the starting 2 guard spot; when Billups departed in 2011, Lawson would be ready to join Stuckey in an explosive, exciting backcourt.  
If just these four simple steps were taken, the Pistons 2010 opening day starting lineup could have looked something like this:

PG Chauncey Billups
SG Rodney Stuckey
SF Tayshaun Prince
PF DeJuan Blair
C Brendan Haywood (signed in the summer of 2010 with the roughly $10 million freed up from Hamilton's expiring contract)
Sixth man: Ty Lawson

That's a decent team, and certainly more exciting than the dreck listed above.   Unfortunately for Pistons fans, this lineup will never be, and a comparable one won't be possible for at least two seasons.

NEXT: Indiana Pacers

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