The Detroit Pistons never saw this coming.
The entire basketball world might have, but Pistons general manager Joe Dumars has always played by his own rules.
With his own expiring contract and a success-starved owner, Dumars tried to circumvent the system. He took a best-player-available approach to his roster creation—jamming square pegs into round holes—and thought his team could get bigger while the rest of the NBA downsized.
Even a putrid Eastern Conference couldn't save this jumbled mess of a roster. The Pistons (17-27) are sinking fast, unable to plug the leaks that Dumars himself created.
The panic button isn't even an option at this point. Self-destruction is the only path this contender-that-wasn't can take at this point.
Ill-Fitting Puzzle Pieces
These are what self-inflicted wounds look like. Detroit has problems that came with a Pistons seal of approval.
Josh Smith, Detroit's prized pull of the 2013 offseason, has issues away from the basket. Shot selection has never been one of his strengths. Converting those ill-advised looks has been an even greater challenge.
So, what have the Pistons done to combat this dilemma? Moved him even further away from the rack, slotting him in at a small forward spot that his career 27.7 three-point percentage says he should never play under any circumstance.
He's so far outside his comfort zone that even close-range shots are becoming insurmountable hurdles.
His shot chart has an orangish hue to it, an unsightly mix of red and yellow.
He's not a 3, but Dumars has essentially forced first-year coach Maurice Cheeks to plug him in there with the pieces the executive has assembled around him.
On that same sorry note, Greg Monroe can't man today's power forward perch.
The big man will still get his numbers (14.3 points on 51.0 percent shooting), but has neither the foot speed nor the technique to keep pace with the athletic 4s around the league. The Georgetown product gives as much as he gets—if he's even fortunate enough to break even.
Lady Luck has seemingly abandoned his side, as evidenced by the 19.1 player efficiency rating (league average is 15.0) he's yielded to opposing power forwards, via 82games.com.
In theory, blossoming big Andre Drummond (2.0 blocks per 36 minutes) would watch Monroe's back. In reality, the sophomore already has too much on his plate guarding his own man and dealing with the steady stream of dribble penetrations that the Pistons guards can't stop.
Conventional wisdom says a defense anchored by a springy 6'10", 270-pound monster should be one of the league's best.
But again, Dumars doesn't operate in a conventional manner. His maniacal methods have the Pistons tied for last in opponent's field-goal percentage (47.1) and tied for 22nd in defensive rating (105.5 points allowed per 100 possessions).
The problems just continue from there.
There's a trigger-happy point guard (Brandon Jennings) who doesn't aim well (37.8 field-goal percentage). A shooting specialist (Luigi Datome) who can't shoot (.365/.194/.667). A former hero (Chauncey Billups) who doesn't have the body (just 18 games played) nor the skill (3.9 points on 30.7 percent shooting) to be called a shadow of his former self.
This group doesn't have a quick-fix card to play. Band-Aids can only do so much when you're talking about a gushing wound.
The trade talk around this team has reached near-deafening decibel levels. Considering the Pistons have dropped 11 of their last 14 games, that's hardly a surprise.
Monroe, a restricted free agent at season's end, is the subject of a lot of that chatter. As he told Vincent Goodwill of The Detroit News, those rumblings have affected him:
It does, to be honest. We’re still trying to get things right, here. To see that stuff … I just focus on what we’re doing here. I’m here. If that changes, then I’ll move forward. If it never does, I’ll focus on playing these games and trying to win these games.
Going as big as Dumars tried to go with his roster, perimeter shooting was a necessity. Detroit's three best players (Smith, Drummond and Monroe) all work best in the paint, so finding some type of floor spacing was an absolute must.
That didn't happen. Not by a long shot.
Detroit is the league's worst three-point shooting team (30.7 percent). The only two "regulars" hitting better than 36 percent of their long-range attempts are seldom-used reserves Jonas Jerebko (42.9, 7.8 minutes per game) and Josh Harrellson (37.9, 9.5).
Vince Ellis of USA Today said that Orlando Magic guard Arron Afflalo (20.4 points, 42.3 three-point percentage) and New Orleans Pelicans guard Eric Gordon (15.9, 40.0) are "potentially available" options. However, both players would obviously come at a premium.
Detroit could also look for help at the lead guard spot, with Jennings coughing up the rock at a career-worst rate (15.4 turnover percentage).
The Pistons have reportedly been targeting Boston Celtics point Rajon Rondo since last summer, but prying him out of Boston seems like a tall task. As Ellis noted, "the Pistons aren't trading Drummond so it's hard to see a trade marriage," plus the Celtics have reportedly already approached Rondo with a contract extension offer.
Obviously, Drummond is the apple of any potential trader partner's eye. There's a reason for the interest—he has limitless potential at this point—and a reason even Dumars wouldn't bite on that bait.
The Pistons might try to move Smith (15.6 points on a career-worst 41.0 percent shooting), but no one's touching that contract (four years, $54 million, via ShamSports.com). Jennings is likely a similar story (three years, $24 million).
The 23-year-old Monroe sits as the most logical candidate, but the "Moose" comes with no security beyond this season. He's talented, but it's hard to see someone paying a high price for what could be a half-season rental of that talent.
Detroit is heavy on questions and light on answers at the moment. It's going to take some time to get out from the damage Dumars has done.
Any Reason to Keep This Together?
Frankly, it's tough to see one given how this team has performed.
The Pistons have the resources to hold onto this core if that's what they prefer. Between the expiring contracts of Charlie Villanueva and Rodney Stuckey, they'll have more than $17 million coming off the books. Even if a team makes a monstrous offer for Monroe, they'll have the funds to hold onto him.
By the time Drummond's due for what appears will be a massive raise, Jennings' contract will be done and Smith will be entering the final year of his. This team won't be torn apart for financial matters.
But really, what would the Pistons be salvaging? A group struggling to stay afloat in a watered down conference? A team whose ceiling seems to stop at a first-round exit?
Dumars' exit seems overdue, Cheeks seems lost (again) as a head coach and these players simply don't fit together.
At some point, the Pistons need to recognize the writing on the wall. The rest of us have been reading it all season long.