The other night in Charlotte, NC I got my first live look at this year's Detroit Pistons. After following them closely in broadcast, box score and written article up to that point, I felt this would give me some perspective as to why the team was struggling so much this year.
By the end of the second quarter, I had seen all I needed to see to have that understanding. Granted, they made a nice comeback in the fourth quarter and had two chances to tie the game up in the final minute, but that comeback was overshadowed by the problems that have plagued this team throughout the season and were readily apparent in the first half of Monday's game.
Establishing an Identity
The great thing about the Bad Boys era team and the recent title winner was that they had an identity. It helped them overcome a mismatch in talent against their Finals opponents to win and become champions.
In 1990 and 1991, it was a brand of aggressive defense that did the trick. They could shut down the opponent's best wing player and they made life very rough for anyone coming into the lane. Plus they were deep—they had arguably the best bench in the league at that time.
The 2004 team was the ultimate example of the sum being greater than the parts, especially the starting five. That group flowed seamlessly on the floor, taking four players who had not had a high level of success previously in their career and making them champions.
In both cases, once they had their identity established, everyone knew their role and stuck to it. Nobody deviated from what was expected and as a result, teammates learned to trust each other in vital situations, raising the performance of the team to an elite level.
Each team also had one of the best coaches in the league running the show, a near necessity if any level of success is ever to be obtained again in the future.
Some champions are just more talented than their opponents. They go out every night and just pour it on the opposing defense, attacking in full force until submission and victory is achieved. But even these teams have players who know what to expect from each other. If they don't, they usually won't find themselves winning the last game of the year.
In the case of the Pistons, they are never going to have more talent than the most talented team in the league, especially in the current version of the NBA. To expect anything close to Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh to adorn a Detroit jersey is wishful thinking at best and perpetually damaging at worse.
Instead, what the Pistons need to do is find a way to establish identity with lesser talent. By this I don't mean a group of average players, but a group who compliment each other well and do something better than anyone else in the league.
How does the current Pistons roster compare?
The best case for the Pistons would be to try and borrow from both eras and establish a balanced team that played well together, knew their roles and stressed defense above all else. So how does the roster lend to a team with those ideals? Not well.
As was evidenced the other night, this team has a tough time playing solid defense against even a marginal team. They were constantly missing assignments, leaving wings with open looks, unchecked penetration, and easy finishes at the rim. This has been the case various times this year. They either don't have the ability to play stingy defense or aren't being coached to. Either way, this is a huge reason for their lack of success.
In terms of balance, there are serious questions there as well. What I saw on Monday and before was a team that had a hard time figuring out which five players to put on the floor. The fact that Chris Wilcox, arguably the team's tenth option at best, was one of the leading scorers and most impressive players against the Bobcats speaks volumes.
Rodney Stuckey, Tracy McGrady and Will Bynum have taken time at the point, but none of them do a good enough job getting others involved to be the long-term starter there. The don't provide what Isaiah Thomas and Chauncey Billups did—unquestioned leadership and the ability to put the team on their backs at times and take them to victory.
All three could serve a role on a quality team, but not as a starter at the point on a title contender. Stuckey's best role on a team like that would be as a sixth man who could play both guard positions. I'm not sure that he will be able to accept that role as a member of the Pistons given his history as the "next big thing" since Billups left.
At shooting guard, we have Ben Gordon and Richard Hamilton. I have little doubt that Gordon could be the starting two for a contending team. The problem since he came to Detroit is that he has been surrounded with players who don't fit well together. Seeing him excel in his last year in Chicago gives me confidence that he can do it here as well if matched with the right cast.
The case with Hamilton is not so simple. In him, we have a player who has been one of the top offensive options in his time with the Pistons. Moving to a reserve role will be a difficult one for him, especially in a Pistons uniform. The bottom line is that he doesn't fit in with Gordon very well though, given that Gordon needs steady minutes in order to get into a shooter's groove—the essence of his game.
Tayshaun Prince is a player who could find a spot on any roster in the league, including ours. His skills, even at this point in his career, are extremely valuable both offensively and defensively. What cannot be done though is to expect too much out of him. He is best suited to about 30 minutes a game as a team's fourth scoring option.
The post positions continue to typify the problem with the Pistons. They lack a potent post option on offense and any real interior toughness on defense outside of Ben Wallace, who continues to amaze but can only be counted on in a limited role at this stage of his career.
Greg Monroe is a nice piece to build around, but in order to make him effective, the Pistons are going to need a bona fide 20 point scorer in the post, as well as someone who can be counted on to be an effective shot blocker. These two don't necessarily need to come in the same player, but they need to come nonetheless.
Jason Maxiell, Charlie Villanueva, Wallace and Wilcox all serve roles, but none of them are going to provide the post compliment Monroe needs to be truly effective. And while Monroe continues to develop, they have not shown to be a good enough frontcourt to contend with the other teams in today's NBA.
So what options does Dumars have?
Not many. I don't see this as being a team that is one player away from being competitive again. As they are currently built, the Pistons will be at best a .500 team, and most likely worse. With that being the case, the only sensible solution is to blow it up and start over.
Two years ago Dumars tried to change on the fly and keep this team competitive. That helped clear space to bring Gordon and Villanueva here, but didn't create a truly competitive team. The time has come to sell off the old for what they will yield and move on.
In my opinion it all starts with Hamilton. The way his deal is structured, he will be difficult to move but not impossible. If Gilbert Arenas can be dealt, then so can Rip. His contract has another full year on it at big money ($12 million plus), then another year that is only partially guaranteed. A team in contention that needed a nice veteran wing option off the bench may be willing to give up a decent (relatively speaking) player in return.
In addition, a decision on Prince needs to be made. Do you trade him now to a contender who hopes he is the final piece, or do you wait until the end of the year to make a decision? If you wait, you may get nothing in return. Either that, or you decide he is worth keeping around for a few more years until you can groom his replacement (are you listening, Austin Daye?).
Stuckey will be a free agent at the end of the year. He could have been extended but wasn't, meaning that Dumars would not commit to an overpriced deal for him at the season's onset. I would offer him sixth man money and make it clear that he will have a prominent role with the team going forward, but not a starring one. If he passes, see if a sign and trade can be brokered to bring back something in return.
Charlie V has value, but not at what he's being paid. The Pistons will never be a contender with him as a starter, and as mentioned, he does not compliment Monroe very well in the starting lineup. If the Pistons want to keep him as a backup forward then so be it, but I can't see him serving much more than that on a highly competitive team.
Maxiell is another guy who is tough to fit in. He serves as a nice backup post player who will give a ton of effort off the bench, but has topped out in terms of what he's going to give you. I think between he and Villanueva you can keep one, and it probably depends on what we're getting in return from this and other trades.
Tear it down and build it up
So what would be left? A core of Gordon, Monroe and the currently injured Jonas Jerebko for sure. Plus one of Maxiell or Villanueva. Ben Wallace as a mentor and example for another season. Will Bynum as a backup point, unless otherwise packaged. Austin Daye for at least another year of development.
And then there's McGrady. The rest of the season could serve as a continued audition for the resurgent faded star. Should he hold up, a mid-level deal may be logical for a two- to three-year period. It may hinge on what happens to Stuckey, as they serve similar roles on a truly competitive Pistons roster.
Whether you get talent to grow with or cap flexibility in return for the players that are traded, you take it. We're not in garage sale here, but we're close.
The remaining needs are obvious: a legitimate floor general at the point, and one or two post players who could complement Monroe and round out the frontcourt rotation. If the Pistons bottom out, they'd be able to fill one of the holes in the draft. The other could come via trade or through free agency from the money freed up.
Lastly, there's the coach. I have been a John Kuester fan since the 2004 days. But the bottom line is he may not have what it takes to get a team over the hump and to the promised land. I'd love him as the offensive guru assisting a defensive minded coach like Nate McMillian, but I'm not completely sold he is the right fit to run the whole show. Time will tell, as he will undoubtedly be given the rest of the season to get things right.
Come June though, the changes will begin. Hopefully, we'll be looking at a gutted roster and a chance to start anew. I still believe in Dumars and I know this thing can be fixed. It just needs to be done the right way, and that's going to take time and patience. I'm more than willing to sacrifice a couple of years if it means a return to glory.