Pistons' Gamble on Josh Smith, Brandon Jennings Puts Joe Dumars' Job on the Line

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistJuly 31, 2013

One half of the future in Detroit.
One half of the future in Detroit.Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Weird things happen when Joe Dumars creates cap space for the Detroit Pistons.

Look no further than this year's NBA free-agency period to see just how peculiar and job-threatening his decisions can be.

Most recently, Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski reported that the Pistons had acquired Brandon Jennings via a sign-and-trade with the Milwaukee Bucks. As part of the deal, Detroit will pay Jennings $24 million over the next three years.

This comes after Dumars threw $56 million at the turbulent Josh Smith, bringing Detroit's investment in the two players to a grand total of $80 million.

Sound familiar? Because it should.

In 2009, Dumars committed a combined $89 million over five years to Charlie Villanueva and Ben Gordon, a disaster that the Pistons are one player (Villanueva) and roughly $8.6 million away from erasing.

After opening his doors to two of the league's most enigmatic young "stars," Detroit is now a litany of missed shots away from remaining trapped in another era of mediocre basketball.

This isn't to be construed as an assault against J-Smoove and Jennings, or even Dumars. Nor am I insinuating Detroit's two newest additions will flop as hard as Gordon and Villanueva did. Facts are just the facts.

The Pistons haven't made the playoffs since 2009 and haven't registered a winning record since 2008. Their four-year playoff absence ties the third-longest playoff drought in franchise history.

Dumars' solution to the quandary was going all in on a pair of essential misfits. He's betting big ($80 million) that they're going to lead the Pistons back to the playoffs. And he could be right. Or he could be incredibly wrong.

Moreover, costly ventures like these aren't supposed to signify a potential postseason appearance. They're supposed to manufacture a championship contender. That's what Dumars is really hedging all his bets on.

Mediocrity can only be sold for so long, especially to a rather storied franchise like the Pistons. Having endured the emptiness that comes with losing for the past half-decade, pedestrian promises aren't enough. Detroit has to be angling toward something more, looking ahead to something great.

Once more, we can't be inclined to believe Dumars would intentionally field a middling or lottery-bound aggregate. He knows better than anyone how long the Pistons have waited to be in the position they were in this summer—fraught with cap space and with two burgeoning bigs on the roster in Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond to sell prospective free agents on.

For the first time in a awhile, Detroit was in position to become a destination of choice again. And to an extent, it was.

Chris Paul and Dwight Howard didn't pause to weigh whatever pitch the Pistons might have slung, but Detroit still managed to land one of the summer's top prizes in Smith. Still in need of a floor general to tie everything together, they were able to add a point guard who was initially demanding $12 million annually at the start of free agency, at a much more reasonable rate.

Each of those decisions was completely justifiable, and have the potential to end the longstanding suffering in Motown. But this is a trek full of risks.

Like most of Dumars' decisions, this one is subject to wide-spread opinion.

Four years into career that has displayed the potential to be so much more, Jennings has yet to make it out of the first round of the playoffs, and found himself on the (semi-) open market for nearly one month before finding a home.

Although it bears mentioning Jennings is one of just four players in NBA history to average at least 17 points, five assists and 1.5 steals while shooting 35 percent or better from deep through the first four years of his career, the good has yet to outweigh the bad.

It also doesn't bode well that two of the other three in Jennings' company are Steve Francis and Gilbert Arenas, players who flamed out earlier than expected.

Potential coincidences aside, the Pistons are about to hand the keys of their offense to a shoot-first, shoot-again-second, maybe-I'll-pass-third point man who has posted a 39.4 percent clip from the floor for his career.

Because simply noting that Jennings has only shot better than 40 percent once in his career isn't enough, Hoopsworld's Tommy Beer tells us he is the only player over the last decade to take at least 1,200 shots in a single season and not connect on at least 40 percent of them.

Oh, and he's done it twice.

That's your point guard, Detroit. The same one who ranks 17th in assist percentage out of 30 guards who have averaged at least 50 starts over the last four seasons. 

Harnessed with the knowledge he wasn't a highly sought-after commodity this summer, perhaps Jennings will make the jump from unapologetic chucker to conscientious distributor. Maybe he'll stop living in that 55-point moment that took place almost four years ago. 

I'm sure the Bucks thought the same thing. At least a hundred times. Now they've moved on. And so has Jennings, to Detroit, where J-Smoove awaits. The equally complicated, albeit generously compensated, J-Smoove.

Jennings' new sidekick has yet to be selected to an All-Star game or make it out of the second round of the playoffs through the first nine years of his NBA tenure. But he's also one of just four players in league history to notch at least 15 points, eight rebounds, three assists, one steal and two blocks through that same stage of his career. 

Unlike Jennings, Smith finds himself joining the ranks of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, David Robinson and Bob Lanier, all of whom are Hall of Famers.

Beyond the demonstrative stat lines, however, there is a career-defining dilemma that has yet to be solved.

Smith has never been valued for his attitude or leadership. Fair or not, his career has been besmirched by volatility often pawned off as villainy. Now he's arguably the Pistons' best player.

The same player who Mo Cheeks will be forced to start at small forward, when Smith is really more valuable as a power forward.

Alongside Monroe and Drummond, the post-ups he usually avoids won't have to be thwarted by Smith himself, because they'll rarely be available. He'll be taking more jump shots away from the rim.

Problematic wouldn't even begin to describe his consistent presence on the perimeter. He drilled a regrettable 30.3 percent of his threes last season and, per HoopData.com, shot just 34 percent outside three feet of the basket, which is where 62.1 percent of all his shot attempts came from.

This is your starting small forward, Detroit.

In less than a month, Dumars has spent nearly $100 million of the Pistons' money while assembling a roster that doesn't make much sense.

Jennings hasn't shown he's the point guard to nurture a young big man like Drummond, or even Monroe. Counting on the oft-injured Billups to do it is about as big a gamble as Jennings himself.

Then there's Smith, better suited as a 4, who will be forced to log a majority of his minutes at the 3 next to an habitually inefficient chucker like Jennings.

Shiny as these signings may seem, they could wind up sparking tactical bedlam. Or the players Dumars has amassed could glean a playoff berth, making some substantial noise in the Eastern Conference in the process.

We just don't know.

Eighty-million bones later, we should. That much money is supposed to buy more than just talent, it's supposed to garner certainty. 

Nothing about Detroit's imminent future is a sure thing. Not immediate contention, not even a playoff berth. Nothing.

All we know is that for better or worse, Dumars struck again.

He bet $24 million Jennings is the point guard to lead Detroit into the future. He wagered $56 million that Smith can find his niche within this complicated setup.

He risked his job to pair the two together with Drummond and Monroe.

Provided it all works out, the Pistons secure a playoff berth and make ample progress, his roll of the dice will reap the kind of praise he hasn't heard since 2004. Villanueva and Gordon, among others, would be distant memories. But if this experiment fails, Dumars will have painted Detroit into an all-too-familiar corner.

Strapped for cash, nearly devoid of the means to improve and still not good enough, the Pistons will be left to slosh around in the very haze of disappointment they've been trying to elude. And Dumars will be without a job.



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