The Detroit Pistons desperately need to put a winning product on the floor soon, but it's getting increasingly difficult to have confidence that they will do so.
After missing the playoffs for the previous four seasons—they were the No. 8 seed in 2008-09 with a 39-43 record—the Pistons came into this season with serious playoff aspirations.
“I do expect success this year,” owner Tom Gores told the Detroit News before the season began. “Last year I was hoping to get in the playoffs and I was disappointed. If we don’t get in this year, it’ll be a huge disappointment.”
Instead of fighting for home-court advantage in the soft Eastern Conference, they are on the outside of the playoff picture looking in—four games back in the loss column from the No. 8 Atlanta Hawks.
Not only are they 14 games below .500, but at 24-38 their record is just one game better than it was through the same point in 2012-13. With all the talent they've added in the past year, saying that this season is a disappointment would be quite the understatement.
The Pistons need to turn things around quickly, both for the rest of this season and going forward, in order to return to NBA relevancy.
Front Office Mismanagement
For the first half of his time as general manager of the Pistons, Joe Dumars was regarded as one of the best executives in the NBA, building a team that made six straight Eastern Conference Finals and won the 2004 NBA title.
But it's been 10 seasons since they raised the Larry O'Brien Trophy, and the past decade has been full of missteps for Dumars.
Since Larry Brown (coach of the 2004 championship team), the Pistons have had six head coaches, with only one lasting more than two seasons before Dumars gave him the axe.
There have also been numerous regrettable contracts he's given out: They bought out Rip Hamilton after extending his contract and traded Tayshaun Prince for an expiring contract after re-signing him. The 2009 offseason signings of Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva are still affecting the team, as Villanueva is making $8.5 million to sit on the bench, and Detroit owes the Charlotte Bobcats a first-round pick for taking Gordon off their hands.
If the Pistons can't sort things out, Josh Smith's $54 million contract will be added to that list.
What's the Plan?
Ever since Dumars traded Chauncey Billups in 2008, he's struggled to plot an effective course for turning the team back into a championship contender.
While most NBA people believe that if a team isn't contending that it should be trying to tear down and rebuild, Dumars never got the memo. Instead of trading veterans like Hamilton and Prince for assets while they were in their primes, he gave them cap-clogging extensions.
And instead of completely bottoming out, short-sighted moves like those helped the Pistons win 25 to 30 games each of the past four seasons. They were nowhere near a playoff spot, but also not bad enough to grab a top-five draft pick even once.
There's no guarantee that getting a top-five pick will result in getting a superstar, and Dumars has done a good job drafting outside the top five in recent years. But the Oklahoma City Thunder have shown what a team can do with a string of top picks and organizational patience, selecting Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden in the top five in 2007, 2008 and 2009, respectively. The Thunder have had a win percentage of at least .610 since 2009-10 and are currently tied for the NBA's best record.
The Pistons didn't get such high picks, and they've even given away a pick to free up cap space. The pick is top-eight protected this year, which would mean that if the season ended today they would be giving away the No. 10 pick in one of the deepest drafts ever. Again, that deal was made to trade Ben Gordon's contract in order to have the cap space to sign Josh Smith.
Joe Dumars, what is the plan?
The team is full of young, talented players who just don't fit well together. Smith is playing out of position at small forward, and you could argue that Greg Monroe and Kyle Singler are also playing the wrong spots at power forward and shooting guard, respectively.
Maurice Cheeks was hired in the offseason to replace Lawrence Frank. Cheeks was fired after just 50 games. If he was the wrong man to coach the team, why was he hired in the first place? And after all the coaching changes, what top-tier coach would want to come to Detroit?
Dumars has continuously tinkered with the roster and coaching staff since 2008, and the result is an underachieving team that has no sense of continuity or identity.
What is at Stake?
This season has been absolutely a loss for the Pistons, but it isn't quite too late for them to have a resurgence and make the playoffs, particularly with the Hawks free-falling down the standings, losing 13 of 14. Although the Pistons wouldn't have a chance against either the Miami Heat or the Indiana Pacers in Round 1, a postseason appearance would nonetheless be a victory.
The stakes are much bigger going forward. The roster has a lot of duplicated talent and needs to be shaken up. Their cap situation isn't terrible, but potential extensions for Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond will limit their flexibility moving forward. A major trade involving Monroe may be their best chance to fix the roster.
As mentioned, the Pistons need to find the right coach to lead this team, but Dumars has made it increasingly difficult to attract a top coach given some potential doubts about job security. And with all the losing and the lack of coaching continuity, it will be difficult to attract top veteran free agents who are looking to compete for a title.
Fans have already begun to lose faith in the team. According to a report from Vivid Seats provided by account supervisor Jonathan Gluskin, the Pistons now have the third-lowest median ticket price for remaining games, a drop of eight spots from the beginning of the season.
Being 14 games below .500 in a season with "playoff-or-bust" expectations is nearly impossible to sell to fans. It's going to be just as difficult to explain to potential coaches and players this offseason. This was supposed to be the season the Pistons began to end their rebuilding.
It's time for the next winning Detroit Pistons team.
*All statistics compiled from NBA.com and updated as of March 1 unless otherwise noted. Salary information from Sham Sports.
Jakub Rudnik covers the Detroit Pistons for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.
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