With a rebuilt core in place, owner Tom Gores and GM Joe Dumars must change their focus this season.
It's time for the Detroit Pistons to...well, to shift gears.
The Pistons are on their fourth head coach since 2008. Last year was their fourth straight losing season. They just made their third straight top-10 draft pick. And over that same time period they've dismantled their championship team, starting with a disastrous trade that cost them their team chemistry. They lost a beloved owner, and a longtime and razor-sharp team president. They've endured a de facto owner who inherited the team only to focus solely on selling it, which handcuffed free agent contracts and trades. And they've now transitioned to an entirely new ownership.
But through the drafts of the last several years, the Pistons stocked themselves with young talent. Lawrence Frank is arguably the most hardworking and passionate coach in the NBA. They've shed themselves of one of their two truly bad contracts this offseason. And more contracts come off the books at the end of this season.
Though few expect much of the team, the reality is the Pistons now have expectations of themselves. The foundering of the last four years has netted them a core that can lead them back to the playoffs.
But first they must alter their team focus.
Here are five strategic changes the Pistons must make in the coming year.
Jonas Jerebko plays on all six cylinders; a sometime starter at the four, he's an important part of the team's nucleus of reserves.
The Pistons' drafts the last three years have netted them an extremely promising core of starters and reserves:
• Greg Monroe, who already deserved an All-Star bid (compare his numbers to those of last year's Eastern Conference All-Star center Roy Hibbert).
• Brandon Knight, who played in last year's Rising Stars game and who had enough 20-point, six assist nights to make Pistons fans believe he can be their first star at point guard since Chauncey Billups.
• Andre Drummond, who has already impressed in the preseason despite only playing one year of college ball.
• Jonas Jerebko, a fan favorite who plays his heart out every night.
• Kyle Singler, who's new to the team but who brings a renowned work ethic and a year of overseas basketball experience.
• Kim English, an outside shooter and defensive specialist who's likely to make the rotation—and remind more than a few fans of former Piston Arron Afflalo.
It's a nucleus most teams would be excited about. But more importantly, it's a nucleus that can win. Last year, without Drummond, Singler or English, the Pistons finished the season with a 21-21 run, after their horrendous 4-20 start. If you're a football fan, you can draw a comparison between that stat and that of the 1981 Washington Redskins, who started the season 1-7, but finished 7-1. Pundits that offseason wondered which team would show up the following year. The Redskins went on to become arguably the NFL's premier team of the '80s.
When a team trends up as significantly as the Pistons did for the final part of the year, it's usually a sign that the team is going to continue those results the following season.
Dumars has done a fine job with his first-round picks the last three years. So now the team has most of its pieces in place, and there's room at the bottom of the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
No more focusing on what the Pistons' draft position will be. This year has to be about making the playoffs.
The Pistons' starters, and even reserves like Will Bynum, can go from zero to sixty in a hurry.
Andre Drummond is just as advertised: freakishly athletic and a strong finisher. Rodney Stuckey and Brandon Knight can push the ball up the court and attack. Greg Monroe turns rebounds and steals into fast breaks with his outlet passes. And the second unit has quite a few burners as well.
This is not your father's Pistons team, ladies and gentlemen. Last year, Lawrence Frank offered the Pistons a freelance deal: whenever they get a defensive stop, they don't have to run a set play on the next series.
Translation: run, Forrest, run.
Sure, there's plenty to be worried about with the Pistons' transition defense. But Frank is a defense-first coach, and you can bet he'll be focused on impacting the team's defense in transition as much as he can.
For now, it would be best to let the team establish their identity: guys who can get up and down the court.
The Pistons' "Goin' To Work" moniker, though created by Madison Avenue types, fit that Pistons team like a jersey. These new-look Pistons should have their ad agency hard at work trying to communicate that the team can go from zero to sixty in a hurry. That's who they are. And that's who the powers that be should let them be.
In a show of commitment to youth, Andre Drummond should be allowed to start at the five sooner rather than later.
The remnants of the championship team are all but gone. With the departure of Ben Wallace and his beloved 'Fro, the only remaining vestige of the recent glory years is Prince, who's also one of two players (the other is Maggette) over 30.
It's time for the team to commit to youth.
Unless the 25-year-old Slava Kravstov is a revelation at the five, 29-year-old Jason Maxiell should be allowed to give way to Drummond early on this season. The latter will make his share of mistakes, but nothing trumps on-the-court learning, and with Drummond's high ceiling, it's easy to imagine him picking the game up quickly. That's no knock on Maxiell, whose drive and skill set should make him a valuable contributor off the bench. But Drummond is younger, and quite simply, has a much greater chance to be a superstar.
If the Pistons are buyers come trade deadline time, as I believe they will be, both Maggette and Prince offer incredible experience and talent that could be used as trade bait to net the power forward that might be this team's final piece.
Youth is this team's ticket back to glory. And if the core gets completed, these young Pistons might be in the Eastern Conference title hunt for a long time, just like their championship predecessors.
The Pistons will have the cash to compete for Josh Smith, pictured, or Chris Paul, in a free-agent class loaded with top talent.
Late Pistons' owner Bill Davidson loved and nurtured his team, giving Dumars the power to make bold, strategic trades. It was never clearly articulated from the Palace, but Karen Davidson's only focus was on selling the team. Thus, Dumars' planned Carlos Boozer trade was nixed, leaving the GM with too many shooting guards, and powerless to create the team he wanted. Not only that, but Dumars was left to take the fall publicly for the lopsided roster.
Now, with Tom Gores committed to putting winning basketball on the court in Auburn Hills again, cap space actually means something to Dumars again.
And with the Pistons sporting a much improved roster for the first time in a while, the team needs to look to trades or free agency to finish their roster assembly, rather than the draft.
After this season, both Rip Hamilton's and Jason Maxiell's contracts come off the books, along with Maggette's. The team can let Austin Daye walk if he performs anywhere close to last season, when he seemed to be more suited for the D-League. And if Villanueva, who like Daye had a terrible year last year, doesn't improve, Dumars could amnesty him as well, or even Prince if there is something to be gained in the free-agent market.
And who's available in 2013? How would Chris Paul look in a Pistons jersey, allowing Knight to move to the 2, and the Pistons to sport perhaps the most fearsome three-guard rotation in the league? Josh Smith would fit in as Prince's replacement awfully nicely too, and arguably should be the player the Pistons go after the most aggressively. In a class that sports Dwight Howard, Andrew Bynum, James Harden, Tyreke Evans and more, the Pistons are coming to the auction with a pocketful of cash. And as they say on Storage Wars, whoever's got the most cash in their pocket can certainly own it.
"It" being the Larry O'Brien Trophy.
Pistons coach Lawrence Frank provides leadership and garners respect from his players, something the Pistons sorely needed from their coach.
During Flip Saunders' tenure as Pistons head coach, Ben Wallace famously refused to go back into a game, and Saunders benched Wallace for the entire fourth quarter of his last Pistons playoff game. Wallace, who left the Pistons in large part because of his dislike for Saunders, was not alone in his feelings. Saunders had lost his team and some would argue he never had them in the first place. He had to go.
Dumars' chosen successor, Avery Johnson, was nixed by Karen Davidson, again because of frugality. And the two coaches Dumars was allowed to hire, Michael Curry and John Kuester, were reaches at best.
But one of the team's first moves after Gores took ownership during the lockout, was the signing of the inestimable Lawrence Frank.
He is known as one of the most hard working coaches around the league. Mitch Albom's article introducing Frank as Pistons coach talked about him starting work at 5:30 AM...while the league was shut down.
In addition, he has brought stability and unity to a team which had an unofficial player revolt on their last coach. And only Tayshaun Prince has gone deeper into the playoffs than Frank.
Lawrence Frank's contributions as a leader, as well as the respect that he elicits from his players, cannot be underestimated. So for the first time in many seasons, the front office can focus on players only—grooming the ones they have, finding the ones they need.
The Pistons are solid at the coaching position.
The Pistons are poised to return to the playoffs...and potentially stay there for the next several years.
The Pistons can afford to make those changes, because they are not the Pistons of the last three years. These Pistons have their own version of the Big Three in Monroe, Knight and Drummond. These Pistons are among the league's youngest. These Pistons can run.
These Pistons can make the playoffs.
So everything is changing at 6 Championship Drive.
For the better.