It has been four years since the Detroit Pistons were in the playoffs. In fact, it has been over 1,200 days since the Detroit Pistons were in the postseason.
It has been about 1,500 days since they were actual contenders.
In the 2000s, the Pistons were a team to be feared. They routinely not only made the playoffs, but made the Eastern Conference Finals. The idea of making the playoffs was a foregone conclusion and the lottery was unthinkable.
But that all changed when team president Joe Dumars traded Chauncey Billups and set in motion the deconstruction of that team.
In all fairness, they were bound to be revamped eventually and those aging stars couldn't go on forever.
Still, mistakes have been made and the resulting mess has been a team consistently in the bottom of the standings and routinely in the draft lottery.
So what is the path back to contention?
Finally some progress
As bleak as the recent history has been for the Pistons, there certainly is reason for optimism.
The last three draft classes have provided excellent talent. Greg Monroe has the makings of an elite big man, Brandon Knight isn't perfect but he can score in a number of ways and Andre Drummond could be the second-coming of Dwight Howard or even Shaquille O'Neal.
The overall depth of the roster isn't great, but it isn't terrible either. Jonas Jerebko is a talented 'tweener, Rodney Stuckey has trade value and the trio of Kyle Singler, Kim English and Khris Middleton certainly could help over the next few years.
All in all, this team is in much better shape than it was four years ago, and perhaps better shape than it was seven years ago as well.
Most importantly, it appears that Dumars finally has a plan. He came to grips with the fact that his "rebuild on the fly" attempt was ill-fated precisely because he didn't have a cogent plan. He knew that he needed some offense but he wasn't sure exactly how to go about it.
Overall, the lesson that Dumars learned was that he couldn't just throw talented players against the wall and hope that they stuck; rather, he needed to approach roster building in a rational way and put together a team that complimented one another.
Need number one: athleticism on the wings
The Pistons are solid up front and have potential in the back court. What they don't have are athletic wing players that can slash to the hoop and create easy scoring opportunities.
Rodney Stuckey is not a part of this team's future. For a time he was believed to be the next Dwyane Wade; however, he turned into the next Keyon Dooling. He is an athletic swingman that has terrible shot selection and surprisingly is a terrible finisher.
That leaves primarily stiff shooters on the wings that have little value in a slashing role.
The Pistons are likely going to miss the playoffs this year. That isn't pessimism, that's just the way this season is flowing.
They are likely going to be in line for a pick somewhere between eight and 14. This actually is a good thing as their first round pick is promised to Charlotte if they make the playoffs.
If they are in fact drafting in that range, they will have a lot of options. The prize of this draft from a wing perspective is UCLA's Shabazz Muhammad. He is an athletic swingman that has surprising range and great potential as a defender. He would be a perfect fit, but likely will be a top five pick.
Otto Porter from Georgetown is a more rational option as he probably will slip to the second half of the lottery. He is athletic but needs to add some bulk. He can shoot the ball but he struggles sometimes with the deep shot.
The real gem in this range, however, is Alex Poythress. He is athletic, long and shows real potential as a lock-down defender at the next level. Some have been so bold as to compare him to Michael Kidd-Gilchrist although he has a long way to go to match Kidd-Gilchrist's motor and passion on the court.
Need number two: figure out the point
One of the better developments to come out this year was the realization that Dumars is actually more committed to his job than he is to any of his past personnel moves.
Why else would he give up on former first round pick Austin Daye, deal aging yet loyal star Tayshaun Prince and bring in Jose Calderon and move Brandon Knight to the shooting guard spot.
That last development is the most important. The move for Calderon and the subsequent shift of Knight to the off-guard spot is major news.
This basically shows Dumars' commitment to his own job over the feelings and/or development of Knight. Knight was supposed to be the point guard of the future yet that experiment appears to have only lasted about a year.
Now the Pistons will rent Calderon, a true point guard, for the second half of the year and figure out whether or not he fits their scheme. He should provide some real flash and could earn a multi-year deal for his efforts.
However, the bigger test in this scheme lies with Knight. Can he effectively become a scoring guard off the ball? If he plays well opposite Calderon and cements his role as a scorer at the shooting guard spot, the Pistons could opt to draft a point guard with their first round pick and keep Knight at the off-guard.
But if he falters in that role, the Pistons could opt to move him while his value is still high. Then they will either choose to rent Calderon for a few years and develop a replacement over the next few years or they will just draft a stud point guard this year.
Either way, the Pistons need to get a handle on their point guard spot no later than this June.
Figure out their power forward situation
Okay, so wasn't this supposed to be a strength of this team? I mean, at least 20 NBA teams would love to have Greg Monroe, right?
Well, so far it is not exactly clear that Monroe and Drummond can play together. Sure, in limited minutes they have been effective. But their development depends on Monroe's ability to play in the high post and knock down the 15-20 foot jump shot.
So far, Monroe is struggling mightily in that respect, knocking down only about 30 percent of those shots.
Sure, Monroe is a prolific passer and a good rebounder. But if he and Drummond can't pair well on the offensive side of the ball the Pistons might have to make some tough decisions.
Trading Monroe could be a difficult proposition. He is supremely undervalued due to his rookie wage scale and his heightened production. The best scenario for Detroit would be to pair him with a high-priced veteran like Charlie Villanueva and get back a legitimate star.
Hopefully Monroe gets better at the perimeter jumper and renders this whole argument moot. But if he doesn't, the Pistons should be prepared to deal the talented big man no later than next February.
Another thought might be to trade Monroe for a lottery pick. A team like Phoenix might be in the market for a big man, so too could be Charlotte or a number of other lottery teams.
If the Pistons could deal Monroe and end up with two lottery picks in this year's draft, they could completely turn around their prospects in a hurry.
Moderate free agent moves
The Pistons aren't going to solve their woes in free agency. Top-notch free agents don't come to Detroit. They go to Los Angeles or New York. They don't settle on a small market team in the rust belt.
Mid-level free agents settle on Detroit, but they do so for a high cost. That is precisely why the Pistons wasted the last few years with Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva.
Free agency needs to shore up bench weaknesses and add depth. Players that compliment good players are just the type that the Pistons need to target.
Players like Chris Duhon, Earl Watson and Chauncey Billups are potential backup point guards that Detroit could bring in at a discount.
The Pistons should also target a shooting guard like Tony Allen that can provide sound perimeter defense and the occasional bucket.
In the front court, things could get a little tricky. Big men tend to be expensive but the Pistons will need a back up or two.
Ideally someone like J.J. Hickson would be an ideal fit, but he likely will be too expensive. Other cheaper options could include Jason Maxiell, Jared Jefferies or Andray Blatche.
Pistons fans may be tempted to hope for a big name free agent like Chris Paul or O.J. Mayo, but that isn't going to happen.
Sure, they have a lot of cap space, but those players aren't coming here.
The theme of free agency should be focused on backups.
The road ahead is much brighter
The Pistons are finally trending in the right direction. It is a wonder what an exciting big man can do for team morale.
This team finally has some trade-able assets and some potential. They will have a ton of cap room heading into this offseason with very few financial obligations to look forward to.
They will have a lottery pick to work with and the potential to flip a player or two into another one.
The Pistons are not on the verge of contention, but they aren't getting worse either. This is a team that is a few solid moves away from the playoffs and a lucky move or two away from contention.
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