The Detroit Pistons are getting set to open training camp on Tuesday and to say that the franchise is under scrutiny would be a colossal understatement.
The team is inundated with small forwards and shooting guards, the front court is thinner than angel hair pasta, and the franchise may have new ownership in a matter of weeks.
Seems pretty hopeless, doesn't it? So should the usually optimistic Pistons nation give up on watching this team come October?
From a pure entertainment standpoint, this should be interesting to watch. And while the Pistons should not be considered serious contenders this year, they are not devoid of talent either. This is a team that has no clear identity nor plan or direction. But they have a lot of interesting pieces that could make things interesting.
So while we the fans figure out what we are dealing with, here are some questions that are worth looking at as training camp gets into full gear.
1. Who needs to step up the most for Detroit to improve.
Lots of players could fit this bill as nearly the entire team underachieved last year. A case can be made for Charlie Villanueva, Ben Gordon or even Tayshaun Prince. But bar none the player with the most riding on this season and the overall effectiveness of this team is guard Rodney Stuckey.
Stuckey has become the most polarizing player on the Pistons roster. Fans seem to be split into two camps in regard to the young guard. Either you are someone that believes Stuckey is capable of playing point guard or he isn't.
The evidence seems to point to the latter, but there can be an argument made for the former.
First, Stuckey has yet to be in a position to succeed. He was thrust into the starting point guard role two years ago when Chauncey Billups was abruptly traded for Allen Iverson. Obviously everyone knows how that worked out, but beyond anything it is important to see things from Stuckey's perspective.
He was replacing a Detroit legend, an all star that was the NBA Finals MVP in 2004 and considered one of the top five point guards in the league. The team quickly became a toxic environment with Iverson and Rip Hamilton both stewing about coming off the bench, and coach Michael Curry was obviously in over his head and handled the whole situation poorly.
The next season, the Pistons were injury plagued from the start, and the team failed to fully grasp new coach John Kuester's system. Furthermore, it was Stuckey's third coach in his young career, and with each coach came a different set of rules and expectations.
Stuckey tried to be the leader, and all indications are that he is ready to step into that role with the uncertain future of current team leaders Hamilton and Prince.
Stuckey has the quickness and size to get to the hoop at will, and if he can develop an outside shot, it will only help him keep defenders honest. Additionally, rookie Greg Monroe will help take some of the burden off of Stuckey in getting his teammates involved.
The bottom line is that Stuckey needs to be effective as the point guard given the team's lack of depth at this position as only Will Bynum and Prince are capable of extended minutes at the one guard.
Personally, I am curious to see what kind of an impact playing in the same system for consecutive years has on Stuckey. While I am apprehensive to predict that he will be the answer at the point, I do believe he is capable of scoring at will.
The key to whether Stuckey develops into the point guard the Pistons need him to be will lie in whether or not he can use his ability to get to the hoop to free up his teammates for easy looks.
2. Who will be the odd man out?
As currently constructed, the Pistons are not built for success. Team president Joe Dumars is looking for the right deal to present itself in order to clear out his log jam in the back court and give him an added big body up front.
For argument's sake, let's imagine that this does not happen before mid season. Therefore, coach Kuester will need to find a regular rotation amongst his guards and small forwards.
Stuckey, Hamilton and Prince are the likely starters at the point guard, shooting guard and small forward positions, respectively.
So if each gets in the neighborhood of 30 minutes per game, that leaves about 54 minutes per game for everyone else. That means Tracy McGrady, Gordon, Austin Daye, Bynum, Terrico White and Dajuan Summers will all be fighting for any time they can get.
If McGrady has anything left in the tank, he and Gordon will get the lion's share of these minutes. Since Gordon will likely get 25-30 minutes, that will leave 10-15 minutes for T-Mac and about the same for Bynum.
Therefore, the young guys will likely become situational players and White and Summers will battle to be on the active roster at all.
I have been arguably the biggest critic of the McGrady signing for a number of reasons. But probably the biggest reason is because of what kind of impact it has on the minutes that younger players will receive.
In the summer league, Summers and especially Daye, showed flashes of real potential. Daye in particular appeared to be ready to take the next step and contribute this year. The Pistons were feeding him in an array of positions, including the post. Daye gained 10-15 lbs of muscle, and clearly was the leader on the court.
McGrady obviously didn't come to Detroit to ride the pine, so if Daye outplays him in training camp, will he accept a role of situational player? Probably not. I have heard of star players swallowing their pride, but the fall from MVP caliber player to five minutes per game is probably asking too much of McGrady.
I have heard the argument that Dumars brought in McGrady so he would have enough depth to trade Prince and Hamilton. But with every day that passes with those two still in Pistons jerseys, and the fact that Dumars has stated that he will not trade Prince, McGrady appears more and more likely to be a fifth wheel of sorts.
The other argument that is making the rounds is that McGrady is only a half year rental that Dumars will leverage into a trade for a big man. I like the thought of that, but regardless those are minutes that he will receive showcasing his improved knee that could have gone to Daye or Summers.
The bottom line is that someone will lose minutes due to the McGrady signing, and none of the candidates to do so are ideal ones, including McGrady.
3. Is the front court good enough for Pistons to compete?
As presently constructed, no.
Dumars is looking to add another big body, and will no doubt be frantically calling other general managers around the league until mid season.
The likely starting power forward and center will be Jonas Jerebko and Ben Wallace respectively.
Neither of these two players is an overwhelming post presence on offense. They both are great energy players, are great rebounders and will play defense with passion.
But on offense, they will largely be relegated to garbage points and chasing down errant jump shots by the guards.
If Stuckey develops into the facilatator that Dumars envisions, then they will be the first ones to benefit with easy lay ups and dunks. But if Stuckey stays at his current level of development, I can see a lot of one-on-one situations that will run them ragged.
Backing up those two will be some combination of Villanueva, Monroe and Jason Maxiell with Chris Wilcox getting minutes against particularly big men like Dwight Howard and Shaquille O'Neal.
Dumars apparently had no interest in Erick Dampier, and the big man will likely sign with Miami. The Pistons could still make a move for someone like Tyson Chandler, although this seems unlikely.
The one hope could be that the Denver Nuggets deal Carmelo Anthony and decide to rebuild on the fly. This would put Kenyon Martin and more importantly Nene on the market. If Dumars were able to swing a deal for Nene, he could put Wallace on the bench and alternate him with Villanueva depending on the situation.
The bottom line is that Detroit is incredibly small up front, and any success they have will depend on Monroe developing into a player capable of logging big minutes right away.
However, the smart money is on Detroit taking their time developing the rookie. In the summer league Monroe showed flashes, but he is still very raw offensively and needs to become more aggressive on defense and in rebounding.
4. What exactly can Villanueva contribute?
The Pistons need to figure out exactly what they are expecting from Villanueva. If they are looking for a beast that will dominate the post and put up 20 points and 10 rebounds per game, they more than likely will be disappointed.
However, if they are looking for a sixth man type of player that can spread the defense and command double teams in the post while contributing 15 and eight, then Charlie may be able to handle that.
In his first year in Detroit, no one was more disappointing than Villanueva. He clashed with coaches, missed team flights and seemed to be lost on both ends of the court. He openly sulked and appeared to be more interested in tweeting with his fans than he was with grabbing rebounds.
Many media outlets are reporting that Villanueva has re-dedicated himself to training this off season, and has spent a lot of time with strength and conditioning coach Arnie Kander.
While this may seem like music to Pistons fan's ears, the proof will be in his play.
If Villanueva can become a consistent 15 and eight player, he will truly help this team, especially if he can play even solid defense and log some minutes in the post on offense.
The bottom line is that he is being paid too much to contribute anything less. Personally, I have a hard time believing that Villanueva can put up those kind of numbers, but I hope I am wrong.
5. Can the Pistons become relevant again?
There is not a doubt in my mind.
But an even more important question might be whether or not Dumars can build another contender.
This becomes a little murkier of an answer. The fact is that I believe he can if he remembers how he did it in the first place.
The Detroit Pistons are unlike any other team in NBA history. The reason behind this is that they buck the trends and succeed that way.
In the 1980's, when the Lakers were winning with a run and gun showtime offense and the Celtics were winning with ball control and an inside out game that featured superstar Larry Bird and the talented Robert Parish and Kevin McHale, the Pistons went in the other direction.
They won because they played a stifling defense, the likes of which hadn't been seen in years, and because of a will to out work their opponents. They were hated and called dirty, but the hometown fans loved them and the bottom line is they ended the Celtics run and held Michael Jordon down for nearly a decade.
In the past decade, the Lakers were winning with superstars Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal and another dominant offensive game and the Spurs were winning behind their low post giant Tim Duncan.
The Pistons again bucked the trend, and built their team around aggressive defense and a crew of cast offs that lacked star power. But they ended the Lakers run and nearly repeated over the Spurs.
Two things bound these two generations of title winners. Aggressive defense predicated on toughness and a will to out hustle the opponent, and a lack of super stars. Two different decades, but the same principles.
Dumars was an integral part of both of these Pistons teams.
The key to the Pistons future lies in whether or not Dumars chooses to embrace the past.
In today's NBA, the trend is building teams around two or three superstars and trying to out score the opponent. The problem with this for Detroit is that they do not have a trendy city to parade in front of star players. Also, there are not enough superstars to go around.
Last year, Dumars betrayed the Pistons blue print for success, opting instead to load up on finesse scorers. It is obvious from his statements to the press he has made over the summer that he was not happy with what he saw last year.
He has continuously mentioned a need to get back to aggressive, tough, Pistons basketball.
This sounds great, but his moves since then have not exactly re-inforced that sentiment. Monroe is a talented big man, but the biggest knock against him is that he lacks toughness. And McGrady has never been considered tough or defensively aggressive.
Dumars may yet prove to make a move or two to turn this thing around. And who am I to doubt whether or not he can. He obviously has proven that he deserves a chance to turn this thing around.
But the bottom line is that the key to turning this thing around lies in the lessons learned from the past. If Dumars gets back to what has made the Pistons special, they can absolutely become relevant again. But if he tries to mimic other team's formulas, nobody is going to like what we see.