Dysfunctional Pistons lose Ben Gordon trade

The Pistons are dysfunctional.

Their trade of Ben Gordon and first-round pick (lottery-protected next year, top-8 protected in 2014, top-1 protected in 2015 and unprotected in 2016) to the Bobcats for Corey Maggette practically proves that. The trade might have been necessary, but a functional franchise never would have had to make such a deal.

Joe Dumars, Tom Gores and many others might deserve blame for this trade, but it isn’t about the trade itself. And it’s certainly not about Gordon and Maggette, both of whom are practically irrelevant as basketball players when it comes to the reason this deal was made.

It’s about a culture of dysfunction.

Something is going wrong at 6 Championship Drive, and I’m not sure whether this trade will help or hurt – or even have an effect at all. The trade is a symptom, not the cause.

If you’re going to read this post it’s important you read this paragraph. There might not be a specific person to blame or a person whose firing would solve the problem (though, there might be). The Pistons operate in a complex environment, not in a vacuum where they hold complete control of their destiny. Sometimes, bad things happen for reasons outside anyone’s control. We can assess those situations without necessarily blaming a specific person for them.

I can’t, from my outsider’s perspective, pinpoint exactly where the Pistons’ dysfunction manifests itself. But I’d bet you can find at least shreds of it in these several areas:

Dysfunctional revenue streams

The Pistons ranked 28th in attendance and 30th in percentage of capacity filled last season. As terrible as those numbers are – even when you consider the periphery loss in parking, concession and other game-day revenue – the figures probably still undersell the problem.

The Palace might eliminate luxury suites, which I figured to be big revenue generators if they can be sold. But they probably can’t be sold. The Pistons are a bad and boring team playing in a state with a crumbling economy, and who would want to pay  to watch that?

Further, the Pistons’ team salary ranked in the top half of the NBA. That’s not a profitable combination.

The Pistons are selling this trade as a way to clear cap room – and it will, to the tune of $13.2 million next summer. But if cap room was the real goal, the obvious step would have been amnestying Gordon. That would clear him from the salary cap and not cost a future first-round pick.

I don’t think the Pistons could have afforded that, though.

The issue isn’t paying Gordon. That’s a sunk cost. The problem is paying his replacement. The larger the amnestied contract for a team under the luxury tax, the more that team – at least if its trying to win – will spend on a replacement. Basically, a team pays around double in real dollars for the roster slot of an amnestied player.

In short, because the Pistons can’t afford to pay an amnestied Gordon and his replacement the real dollars they’d be owed, Detroit had to offer a first-round pick to another team to pay Gordon instead.

Dysfunctional organizational structure

If the Pistons continue to miss the playoffs and ultimately send the Bobcats a high draft pick, this trade will be a colossal failure. As it stands now, I think it’s a bad deal with potential to turn out fine.

But imagine, in two or three years a Pistons team that has continued to lose and then doesn’t even get its high draft pick. That team would be in major trouble, and its general manager would be in an incredibly unenviable position.

It also might not be Joe Dumars’ problem.

Can you imagine him keeping his job if the Pistons don’t make the playoffs sooner than later? That’s why a trade like this, which clears cap room to get a proven player next summer, happens. General managers without job security, even when the best plan is patience and keeping an eye to the future, build for the present to impress their bosses and keep their jobs.

Did that happen here? I don’t know.

But if Gores pressured Dumars into a win-now or win-soon move when the apt strategy is to win later, that’s a costly threat. After all, even if Dumars isn’t around to suffer the consequences, Gores will be.

Dysfunctional players

Ben Gordon has been lousy in Detroit, and he’s not the team’s only disappointment. This is an area that might be fixed, or at least improving, but the Pistons have brought in far too many players who either aren’t good or aren’t good enough to justify their contracts.

Gordon had negative trade value, because Dumars overpaid him three years ago, and it cost Detroit a first-round pick.

The root of this issue might be complex, but the solution is not. Acquire better players on cheaper contracts, and the Pistons won’t have to make a trade like this again.

Dysfunctional locker room

Why make this trade now?

The salary relief this season is minor ($1,337,931), though perhaps Detroit’s revenue issues are so extreme that it was imperative to save that money, or perhaps they have a plan to use it this summer. If not, I see a possible reason: fear of another player rebellion.

The Pistons could have probably waited and traded Gordon and a less-enticing draft-pick sweetener at the trade deadline or next summer to a team with room to absorb his contract (likely including the Bobcats).

But Detroit clearly wants to give bigger roles to Brandon Knight and Rodney Stuckey next season. Would Gordon take that OK? By all reports, he’s not a troublemaker, but at one point, I never would have thought Richard Hamilton would lead the revolt he did.

The Pistons’ locker-room dynamics appeared to be improved last season, but perhaps the situation was more fragile than I realized. How would Gordon have reacted if he wasn’t receiving consistent playing time? Maybe the Pistons didn’t want to find out after getting stung by Hamilton when presenting him with a reduced role.

Dysfunctional sense of self-worth

The Pistons must believe they’ll make the playoffs next season to make this trade, and they should think they have a good chance of winning a round if they were willing to draw the protection line at 14.

I just don’t see it.

The Pistons certainly have a realistic shot at the postseason, with Greg Monroe and Knight improving. But they’re still relying on young players who haven’t proven they can be steady two-way contributors.

Detroit made the same mistake of overvaluing its roster last offseason, when it quickly re-signed Tayshaun Prince and Jonas Jerebko just so they could practice more with Lawrence Frank. The Pistons were more than a few practices from the playoffs last year, and though they might be closer next year, I’d call the odds of them making the post-season 50-50 at best.

Dysfunctional understanding of NBA economics

The two best contracts in the NBA are rookie-scale contracts and max contracts. That’s because those are the types of deals that the the league’s Collective Bargaining Agreement artificially depresses by rule. On an open market, first-round picks and elite players would command much more money than they’re making now.

The Pistons just dumped a future rookie-scale contract for cap room to pursue players in free agency, the mode of player acquisition where teams overspend with the money they save on rookie and max contracts. The last time the Pistons took this path ended with Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva.

The next go-around in free agency won’t necessarily go as poorly as 2009, but the system is set up for teams to overpay. It doesn’t appear Dumars – who bucked the odds by signing Ben Wallace and Chauncey Billups to contracts that paid far less than their value – understands this.

For a long time, I planned to write a post about the end of the Gordon/Villanueva era – and fantasized about writing it sooner than later. As sad as it sounds, the $95 million men define this period of Pistons basketball. Now, even if the Pistons amnesty Villanueva tomorrow, that post can’t yet come.

As that first-round picks hangs in limbo between Detroit and Charlotte – maybe even longer if the eventually drafted player does well for Bobcats– the Pistons are still operating in the shadow of July 1, 2009. That day wasn’t the start of the Pistons’ dysfunction, but it might be the catalyst that got us here.

At this point, I don’t know who or what is steering the ship or whether the current regime is just along for the ride until past mistakes clear themselves up. But for the time being, the dysfunction still reigns.