I wrote a piece for SB Nation about the evolution of the ‘stretch four’ position in the NBA, and in doing it, I had the opportunity to talk to two of my all-time favorite former Pistons, Cliff Robinson and Terry Mills. Definitely check out the piece if you’re interested in the history of big man shooters, but I also snuck in a couple Pistons-related questions that I’ll write about below.
Just trying to get a feel for how closely former NBA player Cliff Robinson follows the NBA these days, I asked him what teams or players he enjoys watching now that he’s retired. Unprompted, he had the Pistons near the top of his list, right after he mentioned Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Miami Heat.
The response surprised me because, although he played two seasons in Detroit, that represented only a fraction of his 18 seasons in the league. Plus, the Pistons traded him the offseason before they won a championship and the team they shipped Robinson to, Golden State, was the only team Robinson played for in those 18 seasons in the league that did not make the NBA Playoffs. So, on the surface, there’s no particular reason for Robinson to have any special affinity for the Pistons that would cause him to seek them out and watch them regularly. But upon closer inspection, Robinson, like Drummond and Charlie Villanueva, played at UConn. He also played three seasons for the New Jersey Nets and Lawrence Frank, so connections do still exist even if Robinson doesn’t necessarily have roots in the Detroit area still.
Like many fans of the team, Robinson is intrigued by the diversity Monroe and Drummond can bring to a frontcourt, with Monroe’s craftiness, passing and high-post ability and Drummond’s natural gifts of moving without the basketball and finishing anything tossed in the general vicinity of the rim with a dunk. The key, though, is whether or not the Pistons can keep those players together long enough to see them reach their peaks together. Monroe could enter restricted free agency in 2014, and the market for skilled big men dictates that he’ll be expensive, as will Drummond if he continues to develop at such a torrid pace.
“That’s the challenge in the NBA — keeping guys together long enough for them to develop trust and chemistry,” said Robinson, who currently works with the Pro Basketball Alumni Association and mentioned that he’d be interested in getting into coaching someday.
Terry Mills, a Robinson predecessor in the role of Pistons floor-stretching big man, is already involved in coaching. Mills is an assistant coach at Henry Ford Community College, one of many very good junior college programs in Michigan (Seriously … follow your local JUCO hoops team. Flint’s Mott Community College and Grand Rapids Community College are in the national tournament this month, and Henry Ford, Wayne County, Oakland, Glen Oaks and Lansing community colleges were all formidable teams who were ranked nationally at different points this season).
Unlike Robinson, who has had basketball success in stops all over the country, Mills’ is a Michigan man through and through. He was a local star at perennial high school power Romulus, a standout on a national championship team at the University of Michigan and, after a brief stop in New Jersey to start his career, played the best basketball of his NBA career as a Detroit Piston. He’s also part of a great basketball family in Detroit — his uncle is former Piston John Long and cousin is another former Piston, Grant Long.
Mills also talked about the evolution of the modern game, particularly how the Miami Heat often surround LeBron James and Dwyane Wade with shooters to keep the lane un-clogged for those guys to get inside and finish. Mills played a prominent role in an early version of that type of offense with the Pistons.
“I really started using that shot (more) when Doug Collins took over as coach of the Pistons, he wanted to use me as more of a specialist in pick and rolls with Grant Hill,” Mills said. “It was a win-win for us, because a big guy switching on Grant Hill was a big advantage (for Hill).”
Although Mills had a solid, long NBA career, now that he’s a coach, he says players are getting to the age where they weren’t old enough to have watched him play.
“Guys on my team were just born when I was finishing HS or college,” he said.
Mills reinvented himself as a NBA player to find a niche and succeed, and he says he imparts that knowledge to players he coaches now
“I tell kids that now, work on every aspect of your game,” Mills said. “Don’t limit yourself. To be of value to division I programs or to NBA or professional teams, they are looking for versatility, not just offensively but also being able to defend different positions too.”