The All-Also Rans: The Pistons needed size, and Eric Montross had it


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 try to help pass the time by 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.

Glancing back at the rosters during the bleak era of Pistons basketball between the Bad Boys’ championships and the resurgence of the Going To Work Pistons in the 2000s is often a great trip down memory lane, a chance to look at the names of some truly terrible NBA players who made brief stops in Auburn Hills as the team tried to forge out a new identity and entice Grant Hill to stick around forever because of the exciting opportunity to play with Jud Buechler.

One theme in that era always stuck out, though: the Pistons always needed quality bigs and always seemed to strike out in their quest. Terry Mills was fine if you like stretch fours who aren’t great defenders. Veteran Otis Thorpe was a decent stopgap until they had to trade him or risk that he’d murder then-coach Doug Collins. Although I’m quite fond of Brian Williams/Bison Dele, who we lost far, far too soon, his signing with the Pistons turned out to be a disaster. They struck out again in free agency when they added Christian Laettner. The Pistons got acquiring a good big man right when they drafted Theo Ratliff … unfortunately, that wasn’t apparent until they’d traded him to another team.

Those years of frustration, watching the Pistons try to apply every kind of fix imaginable to their frontcourt situation, led  me to do something drastic, something I’m a little ashamed to admit — I got genuinely, momentarily excited when the Pistons traded for Eric Montross.

The Pistons acquired Montross with Jerry Stackhouse in a trade with Philadelphia for Ratliff, who they were giving up on prematurely, and the useful Aaron McKie. I was disappointed to see Ratliff go, but Montross was a legitimate, big 7-footer. He was only 26 when the Pistons traded for him and, although he’d bounced around the league a bit, he was a former lottery pick, and a famous one at that after he led a pretty underwhelming (by UNC standards) collection of talent at North Carolina to a national championship against Michigan’s Fab Five.

Since averaging a solid 10 points on 53 percent shooting and 7 rebounds per game as a rookie with Boston, Montross’ production had fallen off a cliff, however. He was shooting just 39.5 percent with Philly before being shipped to the Pistons, atrocious for a guy who rarely ventured outside the paint. Despite his size, he was still pushed around often inside and he was certainly not the quickest big man by any stretch.

He was not much better with the Pistons even though he managed to hang around and play 167 games with the team in parts of four seasons. Amazingly, he didn’t score in double figures with the team for the first time until his fourth season with the team, when he finished with 13 points and 11 rebounds against Indiana. He only reached double figures in rebounding four times as a Piston. That seems incredible considering how little size they had up front at times, but he was just never able to solidify himself in the rotation.

Montross was certainly no fun to watch as a Piston and he did not provide any kind of solution to their recurring frontcourt issues. His Pistons tenure was not a complete loss, though — he and Jerome Williams were eventually traded to Toronto for Corliss Williamson. And, unless you count the Grant Hill-Ben Wallace/Chucky Atkins trade that wasn’t a trade since all the players were free agents who were going to be signed by the respective teams regardless of a sign-and-trade being worked out — the Montross/Williams for Williamson swap has a case for being the best trade Joe Dumars made his first year on the job as team president.