Since Isiah Thomas, just two men have play more than six seasons and spent their entire career with the Pistons:
Joe Dumars and Tayshaun Prince.
In many ways, Prince is the prized player of the Dumars era. He’s the only 2004 championship starter the Pistons drafted, their best pick since Grant Hill and Dumars’ first successful first-round pick after taking Mateen Cleaves and Rodney White his first two years. Prince was an Olympian, but never an All-Star – a strange dichotomy that exists only because Prince became known as the NBA’s best role player. That’s the type of recognition Detroit fans love.
I’m sure Dumars, one of the most beloved athletes ever in this city, sees some of himself in Prince – a pro’s pro whose quiet reputation is probably a bit overstated. In reality, both are more extroverted than they typically appear. They’re both extremely intelligent. They both overcame getting drafted lower than their college production probably warranted.
It’s hardly a coincidence Prince has survived five coaches and 51 teammates in Detroit.
The boss loves him.
Four years and $27 million is hardly a ridiculous salary for a player of Prince’s caliber. He scores in a variety of ways and has become equally comfortable as a first option as he was as a fourth option in the Pistons’ heyday. He rebounds well and passes well, too. His defense has fallen off a bit in recent years, but last season represented a significant defensive uptick.
Paying a player like that fewer than $7 million per year makes sense relative to other NBA contracts.
Simply, he’s a good player. Acquiring good players is difficult, and teams rarely (and usually wisely) allow good players just to walk away. Keeping a good player for fair cost makes even more sense.
If Prince continues to produce at a high level, the Pistons could decide on him from a position of power later – trading him if they want to rebuild or keeping him if he’s helping the team win. Right now, Prince, had the upper hand, because he could use 30 teams for leverage against each other.
Given Prince’s age, hefty playoff workload and recent injury issues, there’s a risk his production could fall to the point trading him is a burden. But even if Prince remains capable as a player, this signing could damage the Pistons.
Prince re-signing will cut into the minutes of Detroit’s young small forwards – Austin Daye, Jonas Jerebko and Kyle Singler when he returns from Spain. Playing time is undoubtedly one of the biggest aids to a developing player, and Prince will limit the opportunity for those three to see the court.
In theory, though, Prince could offer something else instead.
Prince is one of the, if not the (and I’d lean toward the), smartest player on the Pistons. His understanding of what to do on and off the court could benefit Detroit’s younger players immensely.
Unfortunately, the “could” might carry too much weight.
Part of being the smartest person in the room is being smart enough to know he’s the smartest person in the room, and I’d be shocked if Prince doesn’t realize that. Is he really committed to sharing his knowledge, bridging the gap between himself and his teammates?
I haven’t seen reports of Prince mentoring younger players the way, say, Ben Wallace has. Maybe he does it just as much, or even more. But from the outside, I’ve seen little reason to believe Prince holds significant value as a mentor.
I’ve seen no evidence Prince holds value as a role model, either.
Not only have the Pistons played poorly the last few years, they’ve acted poorly. That’s not to completely blame the players. Not all of their actions were without cause.
Nonetheless, the team’s attitude has been petty at best, pernicious at worst. Prince has been in the center of the movement.
Here’s my armchair psychology: Prince is a pretty grumpy guy, but winning keeps him on an even keel.
There’s a difference between disliking losing and an inability to handle it in a productive manner. I don’t think Prince falls on the helpful side of that line. That explains why he looked like the perfect team player during the Pistons’ contending years and like a petulant brat in the last few years.
The easiest fix is winning, but for the Pistons, that’s not so easy. They’re years away from winning at the level Prince became accustomed to early in his career.
In the meantime, what signals will he be sending the team’s impressionable young players?
Life will be more difficult for Austin Daye, Jonas Jerebko and Kyle Singler now. He might not know it yet, but if Lawrence Frank doesn’t turn around what will apparently be the same roster that failed to make the playoffs the last two years, his life will likely be more difficult, too, as a result of this signing.
None of that would happen if Dumars had made the courageous choice: let Prince walk away, maybe getting Chris Kaman in return, maybe getting nothing. But this move makes Dumars and Prince comfortable – Dumars with his apparently favorite player in tow and Prince with contract security through age 35.
Who cares about progress? Comfort ruled the day.
But if Prince’s contract becomes unmovable, if he stunts Detroit’s young players, if his attitude proves counterproductive… well Dumars’ seat will get pretty uncomfortable. Dumars is banking it won’t get to that point, and he might be right. For now, he doesn’t have to worry about it.
The boss has his man.