Tom Gores is doing all he can to bring hope back to the Palace. In Wednesday’s home opener against Cleveland, pregame festivities featured a tribute to William Davidson, the choir from that Eminem/Chrysler commercial that all of the moms who work in my office loved so much, Mason giving the fastest, most monotone visiting team intros in NBA history and Gores making the media rounds talking up his vision for the Pistons’ role in the city of Detroit’s resurgence.
All of that stuff is great. I’m glad Gores is engaged and interested in improving the fan experience at the Palace. The building has been stagnant, along with the team, for three years and badly needs an active, visionary owner. But the energy is not going to return for more than a brief special occasion like a season opener after a prolonged lockout without a product to put on the court. Wednesday’s loss to a really bad Cleveland team showed the Pistons don’t yet have a product.
Gores deserves some patience. He admitted after purchasing the team that he has to learn the basketball side of the business. He’s new to the league and, due to the lockout, new to the players. He is making a good faith effort to make things better for fans at the Palace. Gores and the new people he’s hired seem to understand that Pistons fans are frustrated and interest in the team is at a low point. I’m not convinced they yet understand just how low that interest has fallen and how long fans have been clamoring for a shakeup though.
This is largely the same roster that ended the last two seasons in the middle of the draft lottery. This offseason gave the Pistons their first chance in a couple seasons to cut ties with some of the old guard. Other than Rip Hamilton, they declined to do so. They kept Tayshaun Prince on a deal that has been largely panned. They kept Rodney Stuckey on a deal that, while probably more reasonable than Prince’s, was still expensive. They kept Joe Dumars, whose contracts to Charlie Villanueva, Hamilton, Ben Gordon and Jason Maxiell have all turned into albatrosses. They declined to use their amnesty provision to rid themselves of one of those pricey underachievers. They failed to address the team’s one glaring, obvious, agreed on by everyone need: getting frontcourt help.
Mind you, I’m not saying any of the above non-moves was necessarily the wrong thing to do if there is indeed a vision in place behind the scenes that I am too much of an outsider to see or get. Smart people whose writing and opinions I respect have convincingly argued for and against each move I’ve listed above. My point is simply that non-moves won’t excite the fanbase. Cool player intros, flashy new attractions at the Palace, honoring legends of the past … those are all nice things. But if Gores is serious about letting the fans know he’s serious, they need to make a big personnel move. There are Pistons fans so desperate for new blood on this roster that they are lamenting losing out on career fifth big man Kyrylo Fesenko.
If you want to improve the fan experience, let the fans know that the organization is cognizant of something that has been apparent to anyone with eyes for quite some time now: the product they are putting on the court is not working. They still have a collection of players whose skillsets don’t match. They have a collection of limited veterans signed to expensive contracts who have never played well together. They don’t have any depth in the frontcourt. They don’t have a post presence. They don’t have many defensive-minded players. They lack athleticism at virtually every position. These are realizations that most fans have already arrived at or will arrive at shortly with more efforts like the one displayed against Cleveland. The time for the organization to acknowledge that this roster is in need of more than just a few tweaks here and there is long overdue.
They do have Brandon Knight, though, and that’s a start. Knight will ensure that people at least pay passing attention to the team, even if the win-loss results don’t get much better. There were two things I came away with watching him against Cleveland:
Knight should start right now
I don’t care who he starts in place of, Gordon or Stuckey. Knight is the most intriguing prospect on this roster. I don’t think his 23-point/6-assist/2-turnovers/2-steals performance against another bottom feeding team is a signal of his arrival as a future star. But it proved to me that he can do enough things to compete on a nightly basis. He’s not going to shoot that well every night, he’s going to struggle with turnovers some games, he’s going to face tougher guards, but he’s confident enough to play through mistakes and he has enough physical gifts to create matchup problems.
Fans like Greg Monroe and Jonas Jerebko. They are nice young players who work hard and are still getting better. I don’t know that people will pay to watch those two or tune in on a nightly basis to watch them. Knight has star potential. I don’t know if he’ll get there, but the Pistons have nothing to lose by playing him big minutes right now. He’s the most intriguing player on their roster and needs to figure prominently into the lineup from now on. There isn’t a good reason to leave him out of the starting lineup.
Let’s reel in the hype
George Blaha has a tough job. He’s a great play-by-play guy and has to ensure that fans are gleaning enough positives from a horrid performance like Wednesday’s to hopefully encourage them to continue tuning in. Against the Cavs, Knight was really the only player on the Pistons who did much of anything worthwhile after the first quarter or so. Consequently, Knight figured prominently into the talking points of Blaha and Greg Kelser. After the game, Blaha said he hadn’t seen a Pistons rookie guard have a game like that since Isiah Thomas. I don’t think Blaha was lying, but I don’t like that the organization tends to oversell its young players so prematurely.
Look no further than Stuckey. Stuckey has had a pretty good career for a mid-first round pick, many of whom don’t amount to much in the NBA. But because the Pistons quickly ramped up expectations by trading a veteran All-Star to clear a spot for him while talking up Stuckey’s limitless upside the whole way, it has done Stuckey no favors. His incremental improvements into a pretty solid rotation guard is good by any standard except for the lofty one the team set for him.
There is a chance that Knight will be one of only a few Pistons bright spots this season. But overselling his potential by throwing insanely lofty comparisons out there right off the bat won’t serve him well. He’s young, talented, intelligent, confident and fun to watch. Let that be enough for now.
Austin Daye is lost
For two straight years, Austin Daye has followed up promising preseason performances with really passive starts to the regular season. Last year was pretty easily explainable: he was played out of position at power forward.
This season, he’s played a mix of shooting guard/small forward and he’s produced 0 points on 0-for-8 shooting in about 30 total minutes. Against the Cavs, he really seemed to be trying to do things that are outside of his skillset. Namely, he over-dribbled. Daye’s offensive strengths are his shooting range and his ability to pull up for a mid-range floater after one or two quick, aggressive dribbles. In the first half, he passed up an open three and tried to drive all the way to the basket, getting caught in the air and forcing a pass that went out of bounds. He also dribbled into an offensive foul while trying to lead a break and not giving the ball up soon enough.
Daye has the best pure shot on the Pistons’ roster. His ability to stretch the floor could be a huge weapon off the bench for the team. But if he keeps dribbling into mistakes and passing up open jumpers, there is little reason to have him on the court.
Ben Gordon’s shots
Gordon got 19 shots for the Pistons and scored 25 points. That’s encouraging and was certainly needed after Gordon played terribly in the season opener. But I wasn’t encouraged by the 19 shot attempts. I was encouraged by the nine 3-point attempts. Gordon’s most valuable commodity in the past was his 3-point shooting. He attempted about five threes a game in Chicago in his career and shot better than 40 percent each season with the Bulls. With the Pistons, his 3-point attempts have fallen to about 3 per game and he’s shot just 36 percent from three with the Pistons. If he will ever become a viable 20 point scorer again, it will be because he looks for his three ball often. Shooting 4-for-9 against the Cavs was a good start. Gordon should be looking to get off as many threes as possible when he’s on the court.
Stuckey has to draw contact
Much like Gordon, Rodney Stuckey has one thing on offense that he does that is really valuable: get to the free throw line.
This skill gets opposing bigs in foul trouble and it gets Stuckey to the line where he hits at better than 80 percent. It’s also important because if Stuckey doesn’t get contact, he’s not a good finisher. Four of his six misses against the Cavs were within 10 feet of the basket. Stuckey also was a bit too aggressive at times, including diving to the basket on a one on four break that led to a turnover.
Knight looks to be on the fast track for the starting PG job. If he gets it, I honestly don’t know who I’d favor as the starting SG between Stuckey and Gordon. Both do certain things well but have significant drawbacks when they’re playing poorly.
The frontcourt still struggles on defense
The Pistons once again struggled on defensive rotations and struggled to defend the pick and roll. Jerebko and Monroe were better on the offensive glass (combining for seven), but Anderson Varejao, Tristan Thompson, Antawn Jamison and Samardo Samuels all had big scoring nights with their movement, cutting and activity. Monroe played 36 minutes but only grabbed seven total rebounds. Jerebko only grabbed two defensive rebounds in 31 minutes. Ben Wallace and Maxiell combined for four rebounds off the bench.
The Pistons are really deficient on the boards, and Villanueva returning from suspension isn’t going to help in that department. If the team can’t rebound, there are going to be very few games they’ll be competitive in this season.