For the past five seasons, I’ve been fighting an internal battle writing about the Pistons. There’s the rational side of me that fundamentally understands that contending teams typically aren’t built in the NBA without fully bottoming out (unless you’re a team with unlimited resources to spend your way out of ever needing to rebuild). The Pistons have been bad, to be sure, but never got spectacularly bad because of the team’s insistence on keeping around just enough veterans to prevent them from picking in the top half of the lottery in any draft during that stretch and to limit their financial flexibility because, typically, veterans are much more expensive than unproven players that usually fill out the rosters of the worst teams.
The Pistons have only halfheartedly committed to a rebuild, arguably making the process of improving take longer than it needed to. That’s what has made watching a run-of-the-mill bad team over the last several seasons even more frustrating from a fan’s perspective. Any objective analysis of the Pistons over this stretch has to include the fact that they’ve complicated the rebuilding process by their own confused strategy and insistence on paying big money to limited veterans.
But there’s also the less rational side of me that, after years of little action other than firing coaches every other year and making their draft picks, just desperately craved the team making any moves again. After years of watching a boring, complacent, lifeless team and organization, I’m choosing to ignore being rational and embracing the chaos that has been the 2013 offseason.
Can Maurice Cheeks coach? Who knows. Can Josh Smith play productive minutes as a small forward? No clue. Can Brandon Jennings become an efficient point guard? Does Chauncey Billups still have functional legs? Was Kentavious Caldwell-Pope over Trey Burke a genius move or another blunder? Don’t ask me.
Plenty of good analysis on this site and others has dug into why, collectively, these moves are questionable. Smith is the king of long twos and is most effective at power forward, a position Greg Monroe happens to occupy right now. Jennings is talented but tends to shoot too much and plays out of control. Cheeks has been average to terrible in all of his previous years as a head coach. But whether you fell more into the “just bottom out already” or the “just make a move already!” camp, I think everyone agrees the Pistons simply need more talent. Regardless of fit, Dumars has delivered.
This isn’t the summer of 2009 all over again, though. Caldwell-Pope’s Summer League performance was already enough to prove that, at the very least, he’s a better draft pick than Austin Daye was that year. Smith, unlike Charlie Villanueva in 2009, actually plays defense. Jennings, unlike Ben Gordon in 2009, is still young enough to not have peaked as a player. And, unlike in 2009, Monroe and Andre Drummond are around and improving still. If Monroe and Drummond are so good that Smith and Jennings only have to be the third and fourth best players on the team, the Pistons will be in great shape.
Objectively speaking, there is sound statistical analysis that doesn’t bode well for how this roster will fit together. For the time being though, I’m content to ignore that. This team is the eye test’s dream. I can choose to envision a team that runs relentlessly with Jennings and Will Bynum pushing the pace, that has Smith and Drummond filling lanes, forming arguably the best tandem of lob-receivers in the league (hell, the Pistons might as well sign Tyrus Thomas to fill out the roster while they’re at it and just get ALL THE DUNKS) and igniting fast breaks with great blocks. Hopefully Billups is healthy enough to play meaningful minutes late in games when the Pistons want a steadier hand running the offense. Hopefully there are finally enough weapons around for Monroe to operate like the high-post hub he was meant to be. Hopefully the team exceeds expectations enough so that Dumars’ reputation bounces back and we start to remember how great the first half of his tenure as team president was rather than how awful the last half has been. Hopefully the Pistons, whether they’re good or bad, play a brand of basketball that is exciting enough to draw some fans back to games and Billups and Rasheed Wallace don’t have to sit in a depressingly empty Palace every game. Hopefully the Pistons not having a roster spot for him last year didn’t deter Ben Wallace from staying in shape and he’s ready for ONE MORE SEASON as an end of the bench reserve.
This is all a long-winded way of saying that I have no idea what to expect from this season, but I expect … something, I guess? … and that’s a definite improvement. If the team exceeds expectations and grabs the fourth or fifth spot in the East, I wouldn’t be totally shocked, although I certainly don’t think that’s likely. I also wouldn’t be shocked if the fact that some of the key pieces appear to be ill-fitting results in a disappointing season and another lottery appearance (or an extra lottery pick for Charlotte). Regardless of outcome though, the Pistons are undeniably intriguing entering the season for the first time since before the Billups trade. That in itself is a win for Dumars. It remains to be seen if it’s enough of a win for him to get a new contract, but it’s certainly a positive start.