PistonPowered Mailbag: Knee-jerk reactions might be totally appropriate

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OK, so if the Pistons don’t immediately salvage another awful early season West Coast trip, they could be exactly where they’ve been the last four seasons — desperately trying to recover from an awful start. Now, awful starts are acceptable when you’re starting Jason Maxiell or when your big offseason acquisition was half of Tracy McGrady’s remaining knee. But when you spend significant money on talent upgrades, when everyone from your team owner on down is full of bluster about making the playoffs and when you play reasonably well against good teams at home early in the season, there isn’t exactly a lot of patience to struggle with figuring out lineup combinations.

For four years, people following the Pistons have watched irrelevant coaches comically ponder lineup shakeups that replace marginal players with other marginal players as if those types of shakeups ever matter on any team. Maurice Cheeks has more talent to work with, but here we are again, with a team struggling a bit and a coach “pondering lineup changes,” whatever that means. Here’s the thing … the Pistons’ top three players — Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe and Josh Smith — are pretty formidable. Their fourth best player, Brandon Jennings, is not a bad fourth option when he’s not behaving like a first option. No amount of messing with combinations beyond those four is going to have much of an impact on the season.

Decent teams don’t typically spend a lot of time messing with their supporting players. For all of the complaining fans did (and, admittedly, I was one of them) about the lack of use of bench players not named Antonio McDyess and Lindsey Hunter during the Larry Brown/Flip Saunders days, those Pistons teams wouldn’t have been drastically improved if, say, Carlos Delfino had supplanted Maurice Evans in the rotation. NBA teams are as good as their best players. If Drummond, Monroe, Smith and Jennings figure out how to play with each other effectively, this team will be solid. If they lack cohesion or, in Smith’s and Jennings’ cases, play undisciplined or shoot too much, this team will be disappointing.

That was essentially the debate before the season started and seven games into the season, we’re no close to having an answer — there’s evidence that the season could go either way, depending on which argument you’d prefer to make. The Pistons certainly have plenty of time to figure it out, but based on the team’s rhetoric and playoff talk, it’s certainly reasonable to be impatient with uninspired play that is reminiscent of the past four years rather than a glimpse at an up-and-coming team with a bright future.

So, with that backstory out of the way, let’s get to this week’s questions.

This may just be knee jerk reaction … but I think we should consider benching Dre. He’s been great, no question, but I think it would be better for the team to split the front court minutes between him, Moose and Josh. If we simply had a 3 man rotation all of them could get 32 min and we would never see a drop off in our big men. This would also allow for more floor spacing by playing Singler, Datome, and Stuckey at the three … which in turn opens up more room for KCP at SG. Am i crazy or do you agree?– Mark

You’re not that crazy, Mark, but I think it’s impractical. I don’t disagree with you — there’s evidence supporting that the Pistons are better with two of their three bigs on the court than they are with all three sharing the court. So the obvious answer is to move one to the bench and evenly divide minutes. In theory, that would be a great solution. In practice … not so much. I doubt any of the three would say so because Smith, Drummond and Monroe are all good at giving athlete-speak, non-controversial answers to media, but I guarantee that none of the three would be pleased about not starting, even if it meant the team played better and even if it meant their minutes were not being drastically cut. Starting is hugely important to most NBA players — calling yourself a NBA starter sounds much better than simply ‘NBA player,’ ya know? So who do you pick to go to the bench? Drummond could be a choice because he’s the youngest and seems easygoing enough to take it in stride. But he’s also been their best player this season. So symbolically, do you want to bench your best player, someone who has the talent to develop into maybe the most dominant defensive player in the league? Or do you want to tell Monroe, in a contract year in which he’s trying to prove he’s worth a max deal, that you want him to come off the bench? Or how about Smith, the biggest name and most expensive free agent signing in franchise history who has been a near All-Star for years, who has reportedly had trust issues with previous coaches and how they’ve handled him and who has more playoff experience than anyone on the team other than Chauncey Billups?

I agree with you, the Pistons desperately need to find minutes for Datome and Caldwell-Pope, in particular. I also agree that their lineups have looked better offensively without the supersized lineup sharing the frontline. But I think when the team signed Smith, they committed to starting those three players for better or worse. If they solve their offensive and defensive issues, it’s not going to be by making Drummond, Smith or Monroe a sixth man unless one of the three volunteers to go to the bench Rodney Stuckey-style, and I just don’t see that happening.

Watching J.Smith and Jennings throw bricks after bricks, I fear the CEILING for this team is 2011 Hawks. Agree? FT33

I dunno … unless they traded for Al Horford, I’m not sure they can even be 2011 Hawks good yet. That Hawks team won 44 games. I think the Pistons, as sad as it sounds, would be thrilled with a 44-win season. Although the Hawks have certainly never been among the league’s elite, they have been a playoff team for six straight seasons (and should make it seven this season) with three appearances in the second round in that stretch. They had a 53-win season in there and won 61 percent of their games in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season. I share your hope that the Pistons as a franchise have higher aspirations than simply being a team that, best case scenario, can get to the second round every year, but I’m also hesitant to say they’re even at that level yet.

Horford has long been one of the most underrated players in the league, and I don’t think the Pistons have anyone on their roster who is as good as he is yet. The good news, however, is that they have a couple of young bigs in Drummond and Monroe who are both pretty close to Horford-level now and both have significant potential that they’re still yet to tap into. I’m cautiously optimistic that a Monroe-Drummond frontcourt combination can grow into something truly dominant, and if that happens, they’ll certainly be better than those Hawks teams. But I also don’t think it’s close to a given that they’ll get to that Hawks level either.

Billups looks effective some games and just plain old others. Should the pistons consider giving him the old/often injured treatment of sitting one of the back to back games? This would keep him fresh, efficient when playing and open up more KCP time. – Travis

I have no problem admitting that there was nothing I was rooting harder for this season than season for Billups in the twilight of his career like the surprising one Ben Wallace had in his first season back with the Pistons. It’s not going to happen, though. Billups is coming off a more significant injury, he plays a position where speed and athleticism are more of a necessity and I just don’t think he’s going to help the Pistons much on the court this season.

It’s great hearing his name called in the starting lineup at the Palace, but the Pistons just flat out stand a better chance of competing with Caldwell-Pope taking those shooting guard minutes. The Pistons still need Billups’ steadying hand in the halfcourt on occasion with the erratic point guards they feature, but that role should be severely limited. So to answer your question, yes, I would be in favor of a reduced role for Billups. In fact, I think it’s vital if the team is going to progress.

With all the talk of expiring contracts next season and apparent trade rumors of Greg Monroe, is it possible/probable for the Pistons to be in a position to nab Chris Bosh next summer assuming he takes his early termination option on his deal in Miami? — Evan

Anything is certainly possible, Evan (Man … that was a total Keith Langlois go-to line, wasn’t it? Apologies Evan, let’s start over).

Bosh would be an interesting fit in Detroit’s lineup, albeit at age 30, not a long-term solution and likely super expensive. He’d still give the Pistons a frontcourt-heavy offense, but his perimeter-happiness (the merits of which may have been learned from playing with Charlie Villanueva and Andrea Bargnani in Toronto) would help spread the floor. In fact, Bosh has been adding a competent three-point shot to his arsenal over the past few seasons, shooting 8-for-16 from three so far this season. His rebounding has been progressively getting worse (again, perhaps influenced by all that time with monsieurs Villanueva and Bargnani), but that wouldn’t matter much in a lineup with Smith and Drummond crashing the boards. If Bosh’s good shooting continues, he could almost move into the small forward role on offense, move Smith down to the post more and then have them switch positions on defense. I don’t love that lineup, but I could talk myself into an aspect or two of it.

Now, could they afford to sign him outright? With their expiring deals and if they were to trade Monroe for something like future first round picks and take no long-term salary in return, then decline Billups’ team option, they could conceivably be in position to offer Bosh the max-level contract I assume he’d command. The question is, would the want to? He’s possibly a slightly better short-term fit, but he’s older, rebounds worse and, if you’re going to hand out a max contract for a player, why pick Bosh over Monroe? Monroe is still improving, has yet to hit his prime and would probably still have more trade value than Bosh even if both were at max-level salaries. I just don’t see a great incentive for Detroit to pursue Bosh at the expense of Monroe.

Now, an in-season trade could be an intriguing match. I’ve long maintained that I don’t think Monroe is likely to get traded, but if the Pistons struggle, I think his name gets discussed more and it’s possible the Pistons make a panic deal, sacrificing long-term logic to try to win in the short-term. In that case, Bosh could be a possible target. He’s a big name who would add some balance (although the lineup would still have issues) and championship experience to the lineup

I don’t think Miami is likely to explore any in-season trades for any of their big three, but after watching Dwyane Wade game deteriorate because of the physical pounding his body has taken during his career and watching Bosh slowly morph into Villanueva and Bargnani with his plummeting rebounding totals, I’m less certain of my prediction for a Heat three-peat. But I also don’t think there’s much of a chance Miami would blow up that core before they’ve had a chance at a third straight title.

Now with that disclaimer out there, if the Pistons for some reason had serious interest in Bosh and were willing to dangle Monroe … that might be fairly enticing for Miami. Monroe would command a max contract, but the Heat would replace a player who will turn 30 in March with a 23-year-old big man who is a great rebounder, great passer and has a developing post game. There is no doubt that Monroe’s skillset would add a really interesting dimension to the Miami offense, and his youth would give Miami enough of an established transitional building block to perhaps convince LeBron James to re-sign with the team.

So, what would I conclude with this whole exercise? Playing fantasy GM is always fun, but I think Bosh on the Pistons as a replacement for Monroe doesn’t make much sense. If the Pistons trade Monroe — and I still feel like that would be a major mistake under most circumstances — they better do it to acquire an impactful long-term asset, not a veteran, even a good one, who makes them marginally better in the present but sacrifices potential future success.

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