Biggest Needs for Detroit Pistons During 2014 Offseason
If the five consecutive seasons without a playoff appearance weren’t evidence enough, the resignation of Detroit Pistons general manager and president Joe Dumars signifies the end of an era in Motown.
Following six consecutive trips to the conference finals and a pair of appearances on the NBA’s grandest stage, the Pistons—champions 10 years ago this summer—have fallen on hard times. A mess of ill-advised contracts, bad free-agent gambles and draft-day misses have put the Pistons in a punishing basketball purgatory.
To spare itself another lost decade, Detroit must chart a new course forward, one that emphasizes the potential and promise of rebuilding in a way that is both sensible and sustainable.
With an ill-fitting roster, a coach who is not long for the bench and an enormous front-office void to fill, the task won’t be easy. But if the Pistons can learn anything from the struggles of their namesake city, it’s that patience and resiliency thrive most when the chips are down.
No one expects the Pistons to enter next season as a sudden contender. But if they can at least begin to address these most pressing needs, there’s no reason to believe the potential promise felt before this season can’t be redeemed.
1. Hire a Forward-Thinking GM
For all his well-publicized failures and foibles, Joe Dumars hit more than his share of home runs. But that was more than a decade ago. He has agreed to stay on in an advisory role, which means he could have a weighty say in who succeeds him.
One name that’s been bandied about in other circles is Cleveland Cavaliers acting general manager David Griffin, who took over for the embattled—and ultimately fired—Chris Grant earlier this season. Per ESPN.com's Marc Stein, Griffin has already been linked to the New York Knicks, owing to his time spent working under Steve Kerr, former GM of the Phoenix Suns and noted confidant of new Knicks president of basketball operations Phil Jackson.
The Knicks are nothing if not beholden to splash and sizzle. As such, stealing Griffin out from under them—if he is indeed New York’s target—would be an impressive coup for Detroit, who, after all, will be competing with the Knicks for redemptive glory next season.
A noted ambassador of analytics, Griffin is exactly the kind of low-profile, hungry executive that the Pistons could use to turn their wayward ship around.
2. Go Get Lionel Hollins
Unlike the star of our previous slide, Lionel Hollins doesn’t see much use for advanced statistics. Take, for instance, this little diatribe, delivered during a radio interview with Sports 56 WHBQ back in January 2013 (tip of the hat to Bleacher Report’s Grant Hughes, who outlined in delicious detail the awkward relationship between Hollins and his former, analytics-centric employers, the Memphis Grizzlies):
We get hung up on statistics a little too much, and I think that's a bad trait all over the league that's taken place. And the media has done it because it's easy to go to the stats to make a point or to build up a player or tear down a player. Just the analyzing, I see it every time listening to talk show radio. You've got guys spouting off stat after stat after stat. The bottom line is going out and contributing to your team for winning.
How willing would Hollins be to take coaching reins under someone like Griffin? More than you’d think.
The Pistons would give Hollins the perfect palate with which to paint another defense-first masterpiece—much as he did with the Grizzlies, which charted an improved winning percentage (not to mention one of the league’s staunchest defenses) in each of the five seasons Hollins was at the helm.
Between Josh Smith, Andre Drummond and a few possible offseason targets (we’ll get to that), Hollins could have the raw rudiments of a true defensive force.
Part of his frustrations with the Grizzlies stemmed from the abrupt, almost coup-like takeover of the front office by the likes of former ESPN stats guru John Hollinger. In Detroit, Hollins would—ideally—already be walking into a situation where the stats informed specific personnel decisions. As such, he wouldn’t have to worry about having his emotional ties (remember Rudy Gay?) be upended by a sudden change in the team’s executive culture.
Instead, Hollins and Griffin would, hopefully, be starting on the same page. And so long as the defense improves and the wins keep rolling in, there’s no reason to believe they couldn’t stay there.
3. Draft for Need, Not Upside
The Pistons aren’t exactly in a position to blow it up completely; they simply have too much—in money and manna both—locked up in the likes of Brandon Jennings and Josh Smith.
That’s not a bad thing, per se, but players like that need the proper pieces around them if the experiment has any hope of working.
A popular trope vis-a-vis this year’s draft class is that, contrary to popular belief, it’s the depth, not the franchise-changing talent, that sets it apart. That’s a good thing for a team like the Pistons, who could use an NBA-ready contributor more than a high-upside project.
Our choice (or my choice, anyway)? Michigan State forward Adreian Payne. A two-way threat with sound fundamentals and impressive athleticism to boot, he has the potential to be a lockdown defender down low, a rim-rattling threat in the offensive paint and a deadly spot-up shooter to boot. In short, he's the prototypical high-impact third forward (think Taj Gibson).
Having cut his chops under the notoriously iron-fisted Tom Izzo, Payne would be well-suited to a coach like Hollins—someone capable of getting the most out of him on defense while letting him find his way—to navigate the already impressively refined offensive instincts—at the other end.
Even if they don’t go for Payne, the Pistons would be wise to pluck someone who fills one of two immediate needs: defense (particularly on the perimeter) and overall depth.
4. Don't Reach for Greg Monroe
Through the tumult of the past three seasons, forward Greg Monroe has been one of Detroit’s lone, lustrous bright spots. But with Josh Smith signed to a long-term deal and Andre Drummond due an enormous payday sooner than later, Monroe has been (rightly) seen by many as balling on borrowed time in Motown.
That some team will blow Monroe’s $5.5 million qualifying offer out of the water goes without saying. In fact, more than a few teams will line up to overpay for the smoothly skilled big man.
One-year sample size aside, the returns on the Smith-Monroe-Drummond frontcourt aren’t exactly encouraging.
According to NBA.com, of the 17 Pistons lineups that have logged a minimum of 1,000 minutes this season, the Drummond-Monroe and Drummond-Smith pairings were the worst and third-worst in terms of overall net rating (minus-6.6 and minus-5.9, respectively). Meanwhile, the Monroe-Smith combo fared slightly better, ringing in at a still-discouraging minus-3.9.
Not surprisingly, the trio suffered a similar fate, logging a minus-8.0—the second-worst outcome for any Detroit troika with more than 500 minutes tallied.
Detroit cannot afford—financially or philosophically—to overpay to retain Monroe’s services. Instead, the team should use the newfound cap space to pursue other, more systemically sensible options.
What kind of options? Funny you should ask!
5. Reach for Lance Stephenson
Like Monroe, Lance Stephenson may have priced himself out of the team that drafted him—in this case, the Indiana Pacers.
With Charlie Villanueva and Rodney Stuckey’s combined $17 million coming off the books at the end of the season, Detroit will have more than a little bit of cap room to play with. With so many teams eyeing 2015 as their prospective coup, the Pistons have a great opportunity to make a splash one year early.
In Stephenson, the Pacers would be reeling in a Grade A wing defender with an ever-bourgeoning offensive game.
Concerns about his short temper and erratic, borderline reckless style of play aren’t without merit. But a coach like Hollins—defensive-minded like Frank Vogel but with a slightly heavier hand—could do wonders for Stephenson’s career.
Even at four years, $45 million, he would be a great get for a Detroit team in desperate need for a return to its defensive heritage.
6. Sign Thabo Sefolosha
Noticing a theme here?
Owing to the growth of Jeremy Lamb, Reggie Jackson, Perry Jones III and Andre Roberson, the Oklahoma City Thunder could find themselves with a backcourt logjam next season, reducing their need to re-sign soon-to-be free agent Thabo Sefolosha—unless it’s at a steep discount.
At 29 years old, he is unlikely to fetch much more than the $3.9 million that the Thunder paid him this season. That makes him affordable to a team like the Pistons, who could use a bit of perimeter defense to help bolster their 25th-ranked defense.
Veteran leadership, like many a tired cliche, is such in large part because it’s true. Sefolosha not only brings an on-court grit and guile forged over five-and-a-half seasons with the diapers-to-dominance Thunder, but his steady, calming demeanor could prove a much-needed counterweight to the histrionics of Smith, Brandon Jennings and—should Detroit sign him—Stephenson.
7. Get Back to Defensive Principles
And so we make explicit what we’ve prodded throughout this slideshow: To return to relevance, the Pistons need to reimagine their Bad Boy roots.
In his comprehensive (and thoroughly depressing) excursus on Detroit’s defensive ineptitude, SB Nation’s Mike Prada had no qualms about spreading the blame equally:
The coaching staff deserves the blame when the scheme is this disjointed, but the problem really starts with the three big men, all of whom have been disappointing. Smith is the worst of the trio because 1) he really should know better and 2) has previously shown that he does indeed know better. Remember how good he was in Atlanta last year, even when he had to play on the wing at times? That effort has been missing since he signed that four-year, $56 million deal with Detroit in the offseason. It's embarrassing how often he is caught napping on the opposite side as his man sneaks right behind him for easy layups.
The last time Detroit finished in the top 20 in defensive efficiency? The 2008-09 season. That’s five straight years of floundering futility in a department whose bygone acolytes—from Bill Laimbeer to Ben Wallace—were responsible for all three of the franchise’s championship banners.
Like Wallace before him, Andre Drummond has the potential to be a franchise-changing defensive presence—and with the raw offensive skill set that Big Ben never had. Likewise, Josh Smith’s three-position versatility is enough to make any defense-first coach’s heart flutter.
What the Pistons need is an organizational recommitment, from their new GM down, to a more blue-collar approach—an appeal that’s served them well throughout their history.