In theory, it should be easy to root for this version of the Detroit Pistons.
The Going to Work era Pistons were beloved not just because they had a successful and sustained run. They found a commonality with fans because every key player on those teams could have at different times in their careers been described as underrated, overlooked, under-utilized, given up on, overachieving or some combination of those terms. They were a reflection of the blue collar image of the city and state they represented. The fact that they won big was certainly the biggest factor in fan support, but the narrative of how that team came together as a grab-bag of players who were unappreciated or considered spare parts elsewhere shattered those expectations and had their greatest successes together was a compelling part of why fans invested so heavily in the Pistons during those years.
This year’s version of the Pistons has a narrative that isn’t without similarities to that group. They’re a mix-and-match collection of players who don’t necessarily fit. Josh Smith, despite being one of the NBA’s most versatile two-way players for much of his career and a near All-Star on playoff teams in Atlanta, is still better known for his flaws than for the collective whole of his game, which has always been pretty good. He’s surly, talented, defensive-minded and tough … all qualities that typically lead to adulation among Detroit fans. He’s been on playoff teams for six straight seasons, including one of my favorite losing playoff teams ever, the 2007-08 Atlanta Hawks, who took the eventual champion Boston Celtics to seven games in a physical, intense first round series. Incidentally, the Pistons that season could only manage to last six games vs. Boston.
Their other big acquisition, Brandon Jennings, has similarly always had detractors. Not wanting to go through the sham of playing one year of college basketball because of the NBA’s age minimum, Jennings went to Europe to play a year of professional basketball before entering the draft. At the time, some worried that Jennings would set some sort of trend — one-and-done caliber players would suddenly choose that path rather than college basketball. Looking back, however, only a couple of prospects have tried that path, with good reason — as Jennings discovered, it’s really hard to go to a foreign country as a teenager and play in a professional league of grown men.
During the 2009 NBA Draft, Jennings wasn’t one of the prospects invited to the green room. But he was driving around in the area, and when his name was called at No. 10 overall by Milwaukee, a bit higher than most projections had him going, Jennings decided to stop by and make a slightly late entrance. That’s always going to be an all-time great NBA Draft moment.
Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond both fell in the draft because scouts questioned their motivation levels, hurting their stock. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope will constantly have to deal with the, “should they have taken Trey Burke?” questions.* Rodney Stuckey has had nearly as many coaches as he’s had seasons in the league and the fact that he never developed into the All-Star level expectation the organization unfairly saddled him with, he’s still a reliable and valuable NBA rotation player.
* Yes, they should’ve taken Trey Burke … he’s already one of the best PGs in the league when it comes to not turning the ball over.
The point is, much like those beloved Pistons teams, this version of the Pistons has baggage that’s kind of endearing. They even talk similarly. One of my favorite quotes from Ben Wallace during the Pistons’ run in 2004 came in response to a TV reporter questioning whether Wallace being a “one-way player” hurt the Pistons at the offensive end. An annoyed and prideful Wallace responded, “I’m not a defensive specialist. I’m a basketball player.”
Similarly, Smith was recently asked by USA Today’s Jeff Zilgitt about his perimeter shooting woes and the impact that has on the team. Smith, noting the other skills he brings to the table in the article, replied, “I’m a basketball player.”
But if you continue with the quote, it exposes the problem and the key difference between Wallace’s defiance and Smith’s: “I’m confident in each and every play I make. I don’t think about it. I just play and play with confidence.”
Wallace’s defiance was supported by statistical evidence that overwhelmingly showed his limited offense was of little consequence because of how historically impactful he was defensively at his peak. Smith, on the other hand, has very clear statistical evidence that shooting a lot of jumpers makes him a worse player.
Pride, defiance and surliness are traits that could describe the demeanor of some of the most beloved sports figures in the history of pro sports in Michigan. The fact that this version of the Pistons exhibits some of those traits or brings with them disappointments or baggage from their experiences elsewhere, is actually a good indicator that players like Smith and Jennings, who haven’t exactly had smooth (or is it Smoove?) starts to their Detroit careers could win over fans.
Here’s the difference between the 2000s Pistons and the current version, though: basketball intelligence. Those teams, even when they lost games, even when they disappointed, they didn’t play brain dead basketball. This Pistons team plays without basic basketball intelligence regularly. Despite evidence being readily available showing that there are certain shots on the floor that Smith should never take, he won’t look at it or tweak the way he plays. Despite Jennings having incredible moments as a distributing point guard, he sometimes fails at more mundane but critical elements of point guard play, like clock management for example.
This Pistons teams is often maligned for playing with a lack of effort. I think that’s usually unfair (and I think the “effort” thing in general is an overplayed and overly general weak sports writing tool). They generally play with effort, but if you’re playing with effort but doing so unintelligently, your effort level is meaningless.
Some of the Pistons issues relate to coaching — you can’t have a team that routinely makes mental mistakes consistently and not pin that on the coaching staff. This was a great observation from Grantland’s Zach Lowe (among many great observations) about how Cheeks uses Monroe defensively:
Monroe’s issues are well documented. He inspires zero fear at the basket, and he’s not the quickest cat. He’s certainly not quick enough to execute a scheme that often asks him to jump out aggressively against pick-and-rolls, chasing little point guards 25 feet from the hoop.
Yeah … wish No. 1 for watching the Pistons is you stop using Monroe in your defense like he’s an in-his-prime Ben Wallace or Kevin Garnett.
Some of the issues are a product of youth — when Joe Dumars constructed the 2000s teams, he did so with more experienced players. Jennings is still a young point guard, Monroe and Drummond have not yet figured out NBA defense (although I’m confident that Drummond will and Monroe still might if used in a better defensive scheme) and the team’s steadiest veteran, Chauncey Billups, is too old to provide much on-court stabilization.
And some of the issues are as simple as the players themselves taking more responsibility to eliminate unforced mistakes, particularly on defense, and play more disciplined.
There’s more interest (slightly) in the Pistons this season because they have more talent and a legitimate shot at the playoffs. But many nights, they’re still a poor on-court product. Watching a poor on-court product that lacks talent is bad, but watching a talented team that loses because it plays stupid is the height of misery as a sports team. The Pistons’ season is still salvageable and I’m not even convinced that they won’t figure out how to effectively use all of their big three effectively by the end of the season — it’s doable. But if fans tuned out during the past four years because of bad basketball, they’ll turn even faster on this team if they don’t play more intelligently.
Mailbag note …
After a long hiatus, the PistonPowered mailbag will return. Apologies for the delay … it was due to an addition to the family. I have a few questions left that I didn’t get to in the last one, but I could use some new ones, so get your questions about your wildest trade scenarios, handsomest beat writers and questions about Feldman’s personal life in before Thursday evening. Mailbag will run Friday. You can catch me on Twitter or via email – patrickhayes13(at)gmail(dot)com.