Pistons need to prove they are worth the time of fans

There won’t be grades tonight. It’s (almost) a holiday and, if you’re really into the grading thing, Greg Monroe is really good. Andre Drummond looks like he could be if he could ever play more than 18 minutes, even in a loss to a terrible team when most of the rotation players look lethargic and Charlie Villanueva, of all people, gets nearly 10 minutes of action. I think you can figure out the rest of the grades based on those sentences.

The Detroit Pistons organization has gone to great lengths to court fans. They’ve improved the facilities. They’ve improved the in-game entertainment. They have people working for the organization who have a long-term vision for running a successful, entertaining, fan-friendly business.

The basketball is the serious problem. And it’s not even about fans expecting this team to win a lot. Aside from a few of the deluded, no one approached this season expecting that the Pistons would return to playoff contention. Would it have been a nice surprise if the young talent on the roster collectively took a huge leap forward and made this team a playoff contender? Absolutely. But I think most fans would be extremely satisfied by pretty basic standards.

Are the young players developing? Is the team realizing that limited veterans, likable and useful though they may be, are much more useful if they’re turned into assets that help the team’s future?* Will the front office and ownership acknowledge, not even with words so much as with actions, that selling this team as a potential playoff contender so soon did everyone, from the coaches to the players to the fans, an incredible disservice?

* And, for that matter, is the team realizing that those veteran players are far more useful to teams who actually are contending than to teams that desperately need to develop young talent?

That’s not a long list. And if this team had been presented to fans with more reasonable expectations or fewer mixed messages, I don’t think the poor start would be nearly the issue it has become. If you have an owner who, even if he wasn’t doing it in a threatening way, says he thinks and wants the team in the playoffs, you will have an organization that reacts accordingly. I have no inside information about what conversations Tom Gores has had with Joe Dumars or Lawrence Frank. I don’t know if he really meant it when he said in the offseason that this team could make the playoffs this season. But, trying to put myself in the shoes of an employee who hears those words, I think I might take them to heart. If I were a coach, I might tend to play less mistake-prone veterans rather than gambling that a promising rookie could handle big minutes off the bat. If I were a GM, I think I’d be more hesitant to admit that there are players on the roster with guaranteed contracts that no other team wants who should not be on the roster (although I would find it hilarious to watch Dumars play the Larry David role in a conversation with Gores about the Villanueva/Gordon/Hamilton signings). If I were a player thinking about playoffs on a team that had no business thinking that way, I’d probably get more frustrated with losses than I would in an organization that was more realistic about its immediate fortunes while also looking to be competitive long-term. If I were a fan — and I am a fan — I would be upset that I’d been sold something the team isn’t delivering on.

This is going to come off like a straight rant, and I’m OK with that. There is actually practical evidence of bad teams doing the right things to get better. The Charlotte Bobcats are owned by Michael Jordan, who might be the most competitive person (and most fashionable person) in the history of humanity. Via ESPN Chicago, check out these comments from Jordan about the Bobcats:

He knows it won’t be a quick, easy process.

“Are we a playoff team? C’mon, we can’t expect that,” Jordan said Thursday. “But we need to get the ball rolling in the right direction. I’m not real happy about the record book scenario last year. It’s very, very frustrating.”

See how he did that? Most people hate losing, so I understand where Gores was coming from in his ‘playoffs’ comments. But, as Jordan demonstrates, you can hate losing and still be realistic. Charlotte came into the season with low expectations. They added more young players through the draft and a couple of stopgap veterans on the cheap, not with burdensome long-term contracts. When they made one trade for a burdensome long-term contract, they picked up an asset (a future first round pick … the team who helped them do that shall remain nameless). They knew they’d be young, they knew they wanted to play and develop their young players, so they made an outside-the-box hire and brought in a relatively unknown coach (by NBA standards at least) in Mike Dunlap whose specialty is — get this — young player development. The bar was set low for them, and guess what? They’ve rolled with their young players, errors and all, and started the season 6-4. I certainly don’t think that will hold up, but imagine being a fan of that team. If you’d spent an offseason hearing angry but realistic comments from front office personnel and ownership who hate losing every bit as much as fans do then your team had a strong start while playing intriguing young guys in big roles, you’d be extremely happy, right? The Bobcats set themselves up to exceed expectations.

And yes, it’s incredibly depressing that I resorted to using the Charlotte Bobcats for a comparison to what I consider one of the league’s elite franchises, the Pistons. But that’s where we’re at. No one paying attention faults the Pistons for rebuilding. All teams have to get there at some point. But the fact that they’ve never fully committed to a youth movement, to a tearing down of the team in order to build it up again, suggests they aren’t doing this the right way. This isn’t the Spurs, who had to just draft Tim Duncan and wait for David Robinson to return from injury to get good again. This isn’t the Celtics, who had to just wait for a former player to hand them Kevin Garnett for pennies on the dollar. The Pistons are in a traditional rebuilding situation, they’ve continued to rely on (and pay) limited veterans who ultimately have looked worse with less talent around them than they did on better teams, driving down their trade value, and they continue to give dual public messages, both stressing a practical long-term approach while also tossing out that ‘playoff’ word fairly frequently in the build-up to the season, which puts unreasonable expectations on coaches and players.

I’m not mad that the Pistons are bad. In fact, I thought the absolute best case scenario for them this season would be about a 35-37 win mark and it was far more likely they’d be in the 25-30 range. They’re a bad team, but not a remarkably bad one, and they at least have a few young players who are intriguing enough to continue paying attention. But as a fan, it’s incredibly frustrating to watch a player be as productive as Drummond has been in limited minutes and not be rewarded with more minutes. It undermines everything the coaching staff says publicly about earning minutes. Drummond, point blank, has out-played every big on the roster except Monroe in the scant minutes he’s been given. On top of that, the Pistons have been awful, including two ugly losses to a bad Orlando team. Their biggest weakness — defense — is an area where Drummond seems like he’d be the most help, and yet he’s still languishing in the same role he started the season in. In short, there is absolutely no possible excuse to not play him more.

I jumped the gun the other night when the Pistons beat the Celtics and I decided I’d move on from the Drummond issue as long as the Pistons were playing better. Dan Feldman is right. They are a team that has no shot at the postseason, and never really did, despite the preseason rhetoric. The largely non-competitive performances of the team to open this season — against both good teams and bad teams — has proven as much. Drummond’s development is vital to the long-term stability of this franchise. They were incredibly lucky a talent like him, even with some red flags, fell to them at the spot he did. If they get it wrong with him — and to this point, they’ve had little success in Dumars’ tenure developing players considered ‘projects’ who weren’t NBA-ready immediately — it will have dire long-term circumstances. Drummond is still raw. There are certainly rosters with better big man options in front of him where keeping him on the bench would’ve been more justifiable. The Pistons, clearly, are not one of those teams. Drummond is their second best big man, maybe their second best player already (at least on a per-minute basis in the limited role he’s played) and it’s clear to every objective eye that the Pistons are not playing him enough thus far.

I never intended to rant like this, especially on the eve of a holiday, and wish there was a more positive note to end on, but this game offered zero positives. On Sunday, I complimented Frank for having the team ready to put a beating on a very good Boston team after a disappointing loss. Following that up with an awful performance against a bad team is incredibly disheartening.

Tags: Andre Drummond Greg Monroe Lawrence Frank