The All-Also Rans: The Pistons and hometown reunions


In case you haven’t noticed, although I’m sure you have, this has been a pretty quiet off-season for the Pistons since the draft. So, in the spirit of having something (anything) to write about, I’m going to spend the next two weeks profiling some of my favorite Pistons who never made much impact on the team despite the fact that I irrationally expected great things from them.

In one of the essays I wrote in my Pistons book (Hey, it’s been a while since I’ve plugged that … you can buy it either as a printed or Kindle book through Amazon here) last year, I wrote a bit about Mateen Cleaves and the fascination the team has always seemed to have with in-state players:

"Drafting Cleaves, a point guard who famously played in the national title game on a badly sprained ankle, to his hometown team, a team in need of a savior, a team whose most famous player ever just happened to be a point guard who had a well-known performance while playing on a badly sprained ankle, was not the best move for either party."

The Pistons have strangely had a weird fascination from just before the teal era on with acquiring players who have ties to Michigan from their amateur days. Occasionally, that’s worked out OK — Romulus native Terry Mills had a very good career with the Pistons, Detroit native Chris Webber made decent contributions as a rental player one season during their most recent run as title contenders, Saginaw’s Darvin Ham was a Larry Brown favorite on a title team and Rochester’s Walker Russell Jr. was a nice story last season, finally getting to make his NBA debut in his hometown.

But there’s also a long list of players from Michigan the Pistons have brought in who have not had great success playing for their hometown team — Flint’s Cleaves was traded after one season, Detroit native Negele Knight was soon out of the league after a brief signing by the Pistons and draft pick Ricky Paulding, also a Detroit native, never made the roster.

There are plenty of reasons to route against hometown team reunions. Sure, when they work, they’re incredibly fun, but they also make players much more susceptible to hangers on or distractions that might not be as present if playing in another location. Still though, I’m a sucker for them, and three of my favorite hometown reunions happened in the 1990s.

Grant Long, a standout at Romulus and Eastern Michigan, was a natural fit as a Piston. His uncle, John Long, was a star with the team in the 1980s and his cousin, Mills, had become a key player on the team by the time the Pistons traded for Long and Stacey Augmon in the 1996 offseason, giving up a collection of draft picks that never amounted to much.

Long was seemingly the kind of tough, blue-collar frontcourt player the Pistons lacked, averaging 13.1 points and 9.6 rebounds per game in his final season with the Hawks. With the Pistons, however, his numbers and minutes plummeted. He went from 36 minutes per game in his final season as a Hawk to 17 per game in his first as a Piston. Then, in his second season with the Pistons, he had one of the worst shooting seasons of his career. He left as a free agent and re-signed with the Hawks after that season. I was sure a hard-working, goggle-wearing lunch pail type of player like Long would succeed in Detroit, but for whatever reason, both he and Augmon struggled to fit after that trade.

Those same qualities are why Grand Rapids native and Michigan great Loy Vaught should’ve been destined for success as a Piston. Vaught helped Michigan win a national title, then went on to an unappreciated career with the L.A. Clippers as a perennially underrated player because, well, he played for the Clippers. He averaged double-doubles in back-to-back seasons in 1996 and 1997.

Cruelly, though, Vaught suffered a knee injury just before he was set to hit free agency and escape Clipperdom. He never got the opportunity to show that he was an underrated player post-Clippers. He signed with the Pistons in 1999 and played parts of two seasons with the team, but was never close to the same type of player he’d been pre-injury.

Mark Macon, a Saginaw native and Temple great, came to the Pistons as a bit of a reclamation project. The Nuggets traded him to the Pistons for Alvin Robertson midway through Macon’s second season, strange considering the Nuggets had just used a lottery pick on him and Robertson was being shipped out of Detroit for fighting then-Director of Player Personnel Billy McKinney. Incidentally, I loved this quote from Robertson on that incident:

"“It was a split second when I lost my cool,” Robertson said of the fight. “And that split second is going to get me more media attention than I have had for the last two years, so I certainly regret the incident.”"

Macon came into the league well-schooled defensively, obviously, playing for John Chaney at Temple. He was also a big combo guard, something that the Pistons have always had an affection for. His offense — he was a big-time scorer at Temple — never really translated to the NBA, though. It’s a shame too, because the former Mr. Basketball winner really was an elite, tough high school and college player.

As someone who runs a site partially dedicated to celebrating the basketball legacy in the state of Michigan, I’m obviously a huge fan of in-state players. But I always worry a bit when they join my favorite pro team, just because it puts so much unnecessary, behind-the-scenes pressure on them that might not otherwise be there, although it’s obviously cool to see up-close what guys who starred here in high school or college grow into as pros too.