Ever since Kevin Pritchard put “mediocrity treadmill” into our vernacular, the term has become wildly overused. To many, any team that doesn’t win the championship or the lottery is stuck on the mediocrity treadmill.
That concern has drawn discussion Detroit, where the Pistons haven’t strongly contented for a title or the No. 1 pick in a few years. Until now, that fear was misguided.
The Pistons aren’t on the mediocrity treadmill. They’re not good enough.
The mediocrity treadmill applies to teams good enough to make the playoffs, and that’s certainly not the Pistons right now. It’s not that a literal interpretation is necessary – some non-playoff teams were good enough to make the postseason if they caught different breaks. Detroit was more than a few breaks from the playoffs in each of the past three seasons.
But the playoffs are becoming an achievable short-term goal. Greg Monroe, Brandon Knight and Jonas Jerebko are getting better. Rodney Stuckey and Austin Daye might be, too. The Pistons are on the rise.
And that’s what makes tomorrow’s lottery so important for the franchise.
Most important lottery in Pistons history
Since the NBA instituted the lottery in 1985, the Pistons haven’t participated often. In fact, no Detroit representative was even on stage when the Pistons pulled their highest lottery pick. In 2003, Jerry West watched as his Memphis Grizzlies landed the No. 2 pick, knowing he’d have to send it to Detroit. The Pistons – who had traded Otis Thorpe to the Grizzlies years before in exchange for a pick that had become top-one protected in 2003 – used the pick, of course, to draft Darko Milicic.
But that wasn’t the most-important lottery in Pistons history.
That came in 1995.
Detroit drafted Allan Houston in 1993 and chose Grant Hill in 1994. Together – along with Lindsey Hunter, who was also drafted in 1993 and appeared promising but would never become a star – Hill and Houston gave the Pistons a bright future. Hill won Rookie of the Year, but neither he nor Houston was ready to carry a team, and Detroit went 28-54, the NBA’s sixth-worst record.
Some – though, certainly not all – of Detroit’s problems in the Hill era can be traced back to the 1995 lottery. The Pistons fell to the eighth pick and then traded it to the Trail Blazers for the No. 18 pick (Theo Ratliff), No. 19 pick (Randolph Childress) and No. 58 pick (Don Reid). Ratliff and Reid were excellent value picks, and Detroit traded Childress before the season to Portland for Otis Thorpe, who spent a couple alright years with the Pistons.
The Pistons nearly maximized their value with those picks, but by the time they were stuck with the No. 8 pick, their options were severely limited. If the Pistons had moved up in the 1995 lottery, they could have added Joe Smith,* Antonio McDyess,* Jerry Stackhouse,* Rasheed Wallace* or Kevin Garnett – the draft’s first five picks – to their Hill-Houston core.
*Interestingly, the Pistons eventually acquired four of these players – though, Smith, McDyess and Wallace played for Detroit after Hill had left town. Stackhouse and Hill formed an ill-fitting partnership that might have gone better if the Pistons could have drafted Stackhouse and kept Theo Ratliff and Aaron McKie, rather than trading those two for Stackhouse.
In the 1995-96 season, Hill and Houston improved and led the Pistons to a 46-36 record. Although Houston left for the Knicks following that season, Hill carried the Pistons to the playoffs four of his last five seasons with Detroit. But because they didn’t surround Hill with more talent, the Pistons didn’t win a single playoff series in that span.
Like the current Pistons, the 1994-95 Pistons weren’t good enough for the mediocrity treadmill. Within a year, they had elevated to mediocre, but their moment to draft highly had passed.
This lottery’s importance to the Pistons is based on more than just their roster makeup. The top of the draft features a few excellent prospects.
Anthony Davis does a lot of things well, and they’re all things the Pistons need badly. Size, defense, athleticism, rebounding and passing – Davis’ specialties – are each areas where Detroit has plenty of room for improvement. There would be no diminishing returns if Davis went to the Pistons.
Even other top prospects – Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Thomas Robinson and Andre Drummond (if he convinces teams he’s committed) – are tremendously more valuable than the scraps likely to be available at No. 9, Detroit’s slotted position. Any of those four could become the game-changer that puts the Pistons on an onward-and-upward track, rather than leave stuck running place.
Can Jared Sullinger, Tyler Zeller or even, my personal favorite of this tier, John Henson do that? I doubt the Pistons can find a true difference maker at No. 9, and a complementary piece just slides them comfortably onto the mediocrity treadmill.
The fundamental question: Can a team comprised primarily of the Pistons’ current players contend for a title? That matters, because the contracts of Ben Gordon, Charlie Villanueva and Tayshaun Prince will limit the Pistons’ ability to improve via free agency and trade in the near future, and the internal improvement of Monroe, Knight, Jerebko, Stuckey and Daye will limit the Pistons’ ability to improve via draft in the intermediate future.
Detroit’s best bet of getting on the track to contention is to move up in the lottery tomorrow. The Pistons have a 6.1 percent chance of landing in the top three – hardly great odds, but more than twice that of the Bucks, a team that played within the range of what Detroit could be next season.
Hopefully, the Pistons will avoid the lottery next year. They don’t need a victory tomorrow for that to happen.
But for the Pistons to surge into true contender status, they’ll need to add another star who’s not on the roster. If he doesn’t come in this draft, he’ll be extremely difficult to find.
It’s not a now-or-never situation. But it’s close.