You would have to look to the south and the freshly minted yellow-billed Pelicans of NOLA to find a team with a more delightfully strange offseason than the Detroit Pistons.
Hounded by the arsenic disaster of a spending spree the last time the team had significant cap space, the league was braced for the “Dumaric” encore and Pistons fandom quickly morphed into a motley collection of terrified PTSD patients in preparation. When the inevitable expenditures happened, initially in the form of Josh Smith’s weighty $54 million deal followed by Brandon Jennings’ $24 million contract, reactions from twitter were the typical “LOL DUMARS”, “#HAHAPISTONS”, and the aptly concise, “Dumars’d”.
But upon further reflection it’s hard to mock either deal, at least in a vacuum. Josh Smith went for about what his market value was, a young two-way player with Smith’s type of production hardly ever goes for anything less. Jennings too went for an amount he was likely to receive on the open market and one could argue Detroit may have even gotten him at a bit of a steal when you factor in his extreme youth (despite four years of stagnated play).
No, when factoring out the history of recent incompetence (although both the Monroe and Drummond picks are starting to shine a brighter light on the maligned front office) Detroit has went about garnering their assets pretty frugally. The question comes when you compound these moves with the general makeup of the incumbent team; Smith joins an already constrained frontcourt while Jennings is being asked to take up the mantel of levelheaded decision maker/floor spacer on the court. Generally these are things you should avoid doing.
The potential logjam in the front court alone is a little scary. The Pistons were wary of pairing Drummond and Monroe on the court last season and when they did the offense resembled something akin to a five-car pileup in the middle of a free way.
Just look at how far off the Bulls play both Monroe and Drummond, the entire defense has basically gone into the train dance formation in their attempt to deny Will Bynum’s entry pass.
Monroe is a very good passer but there is only so much you can do when teams have no problem leaving you open at the elbow in favor of collapsing on a rolling Drummond. Monroe has assisted on about 9 percent of Drummond’s made baskets per NBA.com and they had to work hard for all of them.
Look at the degree of difficulty on this Monroe pass, he has to thread the needle almost immediately after catching the ball so Drummond has an open look at the basket. Throwing Josh Smith into this mix at small forward only amplifies this problem as defenses may seem content to form a prayer circle around the basket in an encouraging invitation for any one of those bigs to take a jump shot.
However, the notion that Smith, Monroe, and Drummond would be sharing the court for the majority of the time is a little misguided. As much of a per-36 darling as Andre Drummond is and as much as we want Detroit to #freeAndre, reality is that he’s still an extremely raw player who has yet to even hit legal drinking age, someone who’s development may be best served by continuing to come off the bench. Slotting Josh Smith at the power forward spot alleviates the spacing somewhat and provides some nice ball handling at the four, not to mention prompting the formation of one of the best passing front courts in the league. But it’s hard to get over the redundancy of Smith and Monroe, especially when considering their almost creepy similarity to each other:
The Jennings signing, while still somewhat curious, is a bit easier to parse through. While the sign-and-trade physically cost Detroit Brandon Knight the biggest loss was that of their near max-level cap space next year. As of now Detroit’s looking at middling cap space but moving Monroe (and moving him for a pick should be an easy thing) would get them right back into contention for a potentially crowded and star-studded free agent class.
Knight was universally well liked in Detroit but Jennings, at least on the point guard side of things (which is what the Pistons desperately need), is much superior to Knight. Jennings provides competent pick and roll play, he’s a willing passer when he needs to be, and he’s a good enough (for now) three point shooter.
But there was a reason that league wide interest in Jennings was a little south of apathetic. His shot selection is something to balk at and on a team where he is going to be the main shot creator that’s an annoying quirk that can quickly turn into a fatal flaw. The hope is that the Italian sharpshooter Luigi Datome, and the relatively unknown but hopefully rangy Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, will give Jennings some off-ball shooting options that will curb the need for contested 20-footers.
Additionally, Jennings is going to see a lot more traffic around the basket without a rangy big in the lineup (like he had in Ilyasova with the Bucks), and this is someone who already has a propensity to attempt restricted-area floaters and hook shots that almost never go in. Still, like Josh Smith, Jennings brings his own unique kind of left-handed creativity that, while mercurial, is something to behold when properly harnessed.
So where does all this leave Detroit now and going forward? Ownership has been embarrassed by their new staple in the lottery and have been craving a return to playoff relevance. This made the front office accelerate the team building process and the result is a borderline playoff team in the deluded and top-heavy east, but one who’s future may not see the better end of an incline for a while.
If we are being very generous with the development of Andre Drummond into the force of nature he has shown flashes of being and we assume Greg Monroe (or whatever asset they get for him/free agent his unloaded salary helps them sign, should they choose to trade him) continues to get better then this team projects as a middling playoff staple, staring at a string of first and/or second round outs, al a the Iso Joe Atlanta Hawks.
The popular trend in the league now for non-contenders is to get young and lose, grab a young star in the draft, and then lose some more for another one. Cleveland and Washington have emerged as the models for this strategy and Philadelphia has turned into the new and lauded poster boys for losing to win with their shameless (and smart) manufacturing of an intentionally horrible team. By this logic what Detroit is doing is foolish, why lock yourselves into mediocrity when losing usually proves to be more fruitful in the long run?
But there is a limit to how much losing you can do. The Detroit Pistons are still a business, and one with a proud history of success, and the prospect of going into the season trying to intentionally lose games is still a rather repugnant prospect in their eyes. Additionally, they had to spend the mountain of cap space they had some way and doing so with the intent of remaining bad while keeping next year’s books relatively clean is not as easy to do as it sounds. No, the Pistons already had their fair share of losing and although they’ve reaped their rewards from it (Monroe and Drummond) they’ve decided it is time to move past it.
Locking oneself into perpetual mediocrity, even if it is done with the noblest intentions, is usually unwise. But unlike, say, Atlanta with Joe Johnson’s un-tradable (or at least un-tradable to anyone who isn’t a Russian zillionaire) albatross of a contract, Detroit remains unhindered with toxic assets. If everything stays as it is now the Pistons are still looking at around $16 million in cap space and even more if they want to move Monroe. Detroit is still flexible, they still have a young and relatively cheap core, and their “splurge” in free agency was not very damaging.
In a league where the top is striving for the status quo and the bottom is fighting furiously to go further down, the Pistons are taking the refreshing stance of actually trying to get better. They can still add to the foundation but if nothing else, if all that results from this are a few playoff births with speedy exits, Detroit has at least attempted to move forward with a team trying to win in both the immediate and the future. The end result may not be all that one could hope for but the ride sure as hell will be a lot more interesting. And really, that’s all you can truly ask for.