For the last six years, this phrase has defined the Pistons. Every year, fans hope things will turn around. Every year, things end about as badly as they possibly could. Just enough wins to remain out of prime draft position; just enough losses to leave everyone with the empty feeling of a completely wasted season. They luck into two top five talents in Monroe and Drummond, who slid almost miraculously in semi-consecutive drafts, but Monroe wasn’t even the best player available (Paul George went three spots later), and the questions about how the two fit together have so far been answered with a deafening silence. Coaches have been reluctant to play them very much together, and the two have demonstrated precious little compatibility in that time.
Despite moderate upsets against the Nets and Nuggets (which weren’t enough to save Maurice Cheeks’ job) and interim coach John Loyer’s first win against a depleted Spurs team that, frankly, didn’t need or want the win very much (their only able-bodied stars, Duncan and Parker, played about 20 minutes apiece), this team has proven much more in the season’s first 51 games than they possibly could in the final 31. Given owner Tom Gores’ comments that he believes the team is much better than their record (the mantra of every bad team ever), it stands to reason that the firing of head coach Maurice Cheeks might be the team’s lone trade deadline move.
The Pistons have achieved a similar level of futility in seasons’ past with far lower expectations and far more flexibility to look forward to, and they still stubbornly pursued doomed runs at hopeless playoff berths. So it stands to reason that this season will be no different. They simply don’t have the assets to be buyers at the deadline (expiring contracts just aren’t the commodities they used to be), and Joe Dumars might not even be trusted to make any personnel moves before his contract is allowed to quietly expire. That means the most likely outcome at the trade deadline is that they stand pat and hope for the best. Whether or not they succeed in their misguided attempt at a shallow playoff appearance, this outcome would fall under “the worst.”
At this point, the best case scenario for the Pistons this season is a close approximation of the 2008-2009 season where they won 39 games and were swept out of the playoffs in humiliating fashion. (If you remember, back when this fan base had standards, this season was considered a complete disaster.) It’s unrealistic to expect them to achieve their goal of threatening to win a series, or even being a dangerous playoff team. For that, they would need to secure at least a 6th seed, which looks quite unrealistic at this point. By any standard set at the start of the season, this campaign is already a failure. There simply isn’t very much to gain by staying the course.
By bringing in Brandon Jennings and Josh Smith last summer, they certainly upgraded the talent base, but assembling a basketball team isn’t like talent soup, where the more pure talent you add the better off you are. As the Pistons have proven in both their best and worst times, chemistry is the most important ingredient. Basketball, more than any other major sport, favors the ability to field the best player and the best five man unit. This is why you can surround LeBron James with a D-League supporting cast and have a real shot at making the Finals. And why last year’s Portland Trailblazers, who had a strong starting lineup but no bench whatsoever, were significantly better than last year’s Pistons, whose second unit was almost in-arguably better than its starting lineup.
Building up the talent base was necessary, but just as necessary is that they make adjustments so that the pieces fit. Clearly the trio of Josh Smith, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond is not working. Staggering their minutes so that only two of them are on the floor at a time is probably the best way to maximize their effectiveness, but that won’t maximize the team’s resources. And for a middle market team that has struggled as mightily as Detroit has over the past half decade, maximizing resources is absolutely essential. Debate all you want about whether or not a team can win without a superstar, but no team ever achieved any level of success in this league whose best three players couldn’t play together.
Given that Drummond is the unquestioned franchise player and Josh Smith is probably here to stay (after all, we were the high bidders for him and his value has been going nowhere but down) it just doesn’t make sense to make a long-term commitment to Greg Monroe, who hasn’t adapted well (or at all, really) to the power forward spot, a position he’s known was his future since the team drafted Drummond nearly two years ago. Any long-term commitment to Monroe at this time, even in the event that Josh Smith was somehow traded, would necessarily be based on the baseless hope that both he will suddenly, out of nowhere, with no real incentive (read: money) to do so, adapt his game to a position that obviously doesn’t suit him.
If the Pistons stand pat at the deadline, before the team can take any steps forward in July, it will first take two huge steps backwards: Greg Monroe will get a colossal pay raise, and Stuckey will be renounced– lost for nothing– in order to free up as much cap space as possible (roughly $10 million in this case). And then the only real avenue they have to fix the worst perimeter in the league will be that scant $10 million in cap space. Just for starters, this team needs a legitimate shooting guard and small forward– preferably ones who play on both ends of the court– and it’s hard to imagine $10 million luring even one starting caliber wing to Detroit. And somehow this represents this summer’s best case scenario.
If another team (say, the Washington Wizards, who have already expressed interest) extends Monroe a max offer sheet, the Pistons have three days to match it. So if that happens on the first day of free agency (and it’s likely they would want an answer sooner rather than later, so they can use that money to pursue other targets) the Pistons only have three days to convince free agents to take their $10 million before it shrivels up to a number much closer to $6 million. Perhaps there will be a new General Manager in town, and with him at least the hope of a cultural shift away from the dysfunction that has marked the last half decade, but it’s hard to imagine quality free agents jumping at the chance to sign right away with the team that’s done nothing but kill the careers of coaches and players alike over the last six years.
Nobody can be sure what will happen or what the environment will be like, but is that a chance worth taking? If the team ends up being forced to match an offer sheet for Monroe before it can bring in any free agents, in terms of maximizing their buying power, it would make more sense to re-sign Rodney Stuckey (instead of renouncing him and losing him for nothing) and just add perimeter help via the mid-level exception. With the mid-level exception being just over $5 million, and our projected cap space after matching a max offer sheet for Monroe (and renouncing Stuckey) being just over $6 million, we would effectively be bringing Stuckey back for just a $1 million cap hit. In terms of putting a basketball team together, no matter how you value Stuckey, I don’t think you could argue that bringing him back isn’t worth sacrificing $1 million in buying power.
This isn’t to say that Stuckey would necessarily re-sign with the Pistons, and as an unrestricted free agent he has the power to sign wherever he wants. This just illustrates the position the team could very well find itself in under very realistic– perhaps even probable– circumstances. One where bringing everyone back (well, almost everyone; sorry, Charlie) and improving only via the mid-level exception (the bare minimum tool any team over the cap has at its disposal) could actually be the best achievable outcome. This possibility should scare anyone, because it means very little is likely to change. There is simply too much outside of the organization’s control to assume that they’ll be able to bring back Monroe for anything less than a max level contract, or that they’ll even have as much as $10 million to spend on perimeter help before matching his offer sheet.
It’s also unlikely to expect that the Pistons will have sign-and-trade options with either player. If Monroe signs an offer sheet with a team that’s under the cap, they will have no obligation or incentive to send assets back, and given Stuckey’s consistent inconsistency in play and health, it’s unlikely to expect the team that takes a flyer on him to send anything of value our way.
If the off-season plays out predictably, the next order of business would be trying to shop Smith, but he still won’t be in a position to succeed. Remember when we tried getting Rip Hamilton and Ben Gordon to coexist? Those contracts were pretty atrocious on their own, but having them together on the same roster made it impossible to showcase either one of them to establish any value. The end result was buying Rip’s contract out and, worse yet, mortgaging a first round pick to get rid of Gordon. That isn’t to say the situation will be quite as bad with Monroe and Smith, but you’d think this team would have learned its lesson about attaching incompatible players to rich, long-term overlapping contracts. The likelihood is just too great that the team languishes in mediocrity for the first two or three years of Monroe’s four-year extension while trying to get rid of Smith, all the while dealing with the unenviable balancing act of keeping Monroe happy while showcasing Smith.The likelihood is just too great that the team will continue to flounder, Monroe will get increasingly disgruntled, the first half of his contract will be entirely wasted, and he’ll never stick around for another extension. It’s difficult to see the upside of this plan when Monroe and Drummond have done nothing to demonstrate that the Pistons can build around them at all, let alone build a contender.
If the organization had half as much patience as they ask of their fans, they would be very active at the trade deadline. True, they don’t have the assets to be buyers, but they have a wealth of assets to be sellers. Let’s be honest: If the Pistons weren’t already attached to Greg Monroe, and he was an unrestricted free agent, they would be the last team lining up to give him a max contract. They simply don’t have the luxury of tying up all their money in incompatible post players. Being the absolute worst team in the league at scoring outside the paint, they should be much more concerned with bolstering their perimeter to balance the roster and create space for the post players they’ve already committed to.
By trading Monroe before the deadline, the team offers its trade partner a serious boost with a minimal cap hit, since Monroe is still on his rookie contract. His Bird rights also come with him, so they would have the right to match any offer sheet another team might offer him (and chances are they’ll be a team in need of post help, so he wouldn’t be just a rental anyways). And the Pistons have plenty of contracts to mix-and-match and get the best possible return; if they wait until he’s signed an extension, they’ll have to take back a lot of money. Furthermore, any team that gives up serious assets for Monroe would be making a much stronger statement in terms of their commitment to him than his current team simply holding onto him. This could go a long way towards discouraging other teams from extending him an offer sheet. Holding onto him just isn’t as strong of an endorsement, and it only makes sense that someone will put the Pistons to the test. At worst, their money is tied up for three days; at best, they’ve forced an opponent to pay top dollar for their own free agent.
Perhaps equally important, in its own way, would be cashing in on Stuckey’s contract year and shipping him to a playoff team for future assets. It would be a shame to have waited so long for him to develop (and sacrificing so much in a failed attempt to build around him) only to lose him in free agency seven wasted years later, with nothing to show for our troubles. And for what? A desperate attempt at a hollow playoff berth that’s only even within reach because the East is unbelievably bad. “Making the playoffs” can’t possibly feel like an accomplishment when you’re nowhere near .500 and make the cut purely by default. And with so little room to grow, having no first round pick, no movable assets, and just a sliver of cap space. Regardless of what General Manager inherits this team, he (or she?) will have precious little flexibility to improve things. And if you’ve been following the Pistons this season, you know that is a very bad thing.
Standing pat at the trade deadline is welcoming disaster. It virtually guarantees that the team we’ve seen on the court so far is pretty much what we’ll be looking at for the next several years. In a best case scenario, Monroe and Smith suddenly blossom into completely different players out of nowhere and for no reason. In a worst case scenario, we miss the playoffs, lose our first round pick to Charlotte, and come back to do this all over again next year. And the year after that. And the year after that.
The only way a team stays as bad as the Pistons are for as long as they’ve been is their stubborn insistence on winning as many games as humanly possible in the here and now, regardless of how low their ceiling was. And it looks like this year is shaping up to be no different. But if they have the vision (and patience) to make a few calculated subtractions in an already fruitless season, they could enter the summer with a bounty of picks and prospects (their return for Monroe and Stuckey), possibly including their own first round pick, and as much as $20 million in cap space (since they won’t have to worry about setting aside money for their own free agents). This translates to a tremendous amount of flexibility and, for the first time in a long time, hope.