Archive → September, 2010
Let’s flash back to June 30, 2009. It was a simpler time. Sarah Palin was still Alaska’s governor. “JK Wedding Entrance Dance” hadn’t been uploaded to YouTube. Nobody had punched Snookie in a bar (at least not while televised).
Those two have quickly become the poster children of the Pistons’ downfall. On the surface, it makes sense. They’re guaranteed a combined $95.7 million, and for that money, the early returns have been pretty poor.
But those are only the early returns.
Look, I’m not going to say those signings were great. They weren’t. But they certainly weren’t the brain-dead moves so many people make them out to be.
Those signings are viewed too negatively for three reasons:
- People use the benefit of hindsight when assessing the initial idea of signing the pair.
- People misunderstand the salary-cap realities of Detroit’s situation.
- People assume Gordon and Villanueva won’t improve.
Class of the class
When the Pistons traded Chauncey Billups for Allen Iverson early in the 2008-09 season, creating the cap space used to sign Gordon and Villanueva, the free agent class looked much different. Around that time, ESPN’s Chad Ford listed the top possible 2009 free agents. The list was divided by type of free agent, and for one reason or another, several key players didn’t have their rankings hold up:
Carlos Boozer (No. 2 among early termination or player option candidates)
Despite Ford saying “Boozer is probably the biggest threat to leave his team in the summer. The Pistons also could be a serious option for Boozer if Joe Dumars decides to use his money,” Boozer never opted out.
Mehmet Okur (No. 4 among early termination or player option candidates)
Ford said Okur was unlikely to opt out, but with a solid season, I think there was a reasonable chance he would. Okur didn’t have one, and he didn’t opt out.
Eddy Curry (No. 7 among early termination or player option candidates)
Curry went from scoring 13.2 points per game on 54.6-percent shooting to playing three games.
Shawn Marion (No. 1 among unrestricted free agents)
This is the season Marion’s decline began. His number fell across the board.
So, that’s four players who the Pistons could have had in mind when they traded Billups, but none of those four were possibilities when summer hit. And when you consider not many players on Ford’s list had breakout seasons, the free agent class was pretty disappointing.
In fact, Gordon and Villanueva were among the cream of the crop.
Two days before free agency began, Dave D’Alessandro of The Star-Ledger ranked the 2009 free agents by position. Gordon was the No. 2 shooting guard behind Kobe Bryant, who wasn’t leaving the Lakers. Villanueva was the top No. 2 power forward behind Carlos Boozer, who didn’t opt out.
For comparison’s sake, Andre Miller and Raymond Felton were the top two point guards. Allen Iverson, even after his disastrous season in Detroit, was the No. 3 shooting guard. Hedo Turkoglu and Shawn Marion were the top small forwards. Besides restricted free agents and Detroit’s own Rasheed Wallace and Antonio McDyess, Brandon Bass was the top power forward. Anderson Varejao (before his transformation from flopper to stingy defender) was the top center.
As stated above, this ended up a pretty weak free agent class.
Just before free agency, Yahoo! Sport’s Johnny Ludden ranked the free agents. Gordon was No. 2, and Villanueva was No. 13.
Sports Illustrated’s Steve Aschburner had a similar view, ranking Gordon second and Villanueva 12th.
Ford wrote the Pistons had the league’s fourth-best offseason, saying of Joe Dumars:
He signed Ben Gordon, arguably the best free agent on the market, and quickly followed that up by signing Villanueva, probably the best free-agent power forward he could get with the money he had left. The combination of Gordon and Villanueva is an upgrade over Iverson and Rasheed Wallace.
That praise made sense at the time.
Gordon led the Bulls in win shares the previous two seasons. Stealing the best player of a division rival appeared to be addition by addition and subtraction by subtraction for an opponent.
Villanueva was also coming off what appeared to be a breakout season:
- He scored more points per 36 minutes (21.7) than Chris Bosh, Zach Randolph and Amar’e Stoudemire.
- He grabbed more rebounds per 36 minutes (8.9) than Udonis Haslem, Marc Gasol and Nene.
- He posted a higher defensive rating (106) than Luc Mbah a Moute, Jason Kidd and Bruce Bowen.
Besides, who would you rather have had the Pistons sign? Hedo Turkoglu (five years, $52.8 million) or Shawn Marion (five years, $39,879,660)?
A common answer is David Lee, but he was a restricted free agent (not to mention, overrated, because his defense is poor and his numbers are inflated by Mike D’Antoni’s fast-paced system). As Alessandro showed, not only was this free agent class lackluster at the top, it thinned quickly. The Pistons couldn’t afford to wait 10 days for the Knicks to match an offer to Lee.
That leads the next problem with criticizing the signings.
The Pistons couldn’t have simply waited for the Class of 2010 – or at least it didn’t seem that way at the time.
If the Pistons hadn’t signed Gordon and Villanueva (or Chris Wilcox), they would have had the following players under contract this summer:
- Richard Hamilton ($12.5 million)
- Tayshaun Prince ($11,148,760)
- Jason Maxiell ($5 million)
- First-round pick (we’ll use Greg Monroe’s $2,798,040)
- Rodney Stuckey ($2,767, 126)
- Austin Daye ($1,803,720)
- Jonas Jerebko ($762,185)
If the Pistons went this route, they probably wouldn’t have picked up DaJuan Summers’ option, so he wasn’t included. Adding five roster charges for having fewer than 12 players ($1,894,416), the Pistons would have had $39,147,861 committed in salary.
That would have meant $18,896,139 to sign free agents, enough for a max contract for anyone under 10 years experience. But it’s not so simple.
Shortly after the Pistons signed Gordon and Villanueva, the NBA sent a memo to its teams saying the salary cap was estimated to between $50.4 million and $53.6 million. Unless the cap was set at the high end of that range, Detroit wouldn’t have been able to match the contract, say, Carlos Boozer received.
In the end, the salary cap was actually $4.5 million higher than the July estimated maximum. But it’s probably not fair to criticize the Pistons for not seeing that coming.
Room for improvement
I’ve covered this before, so I’ll be brief.
Gordon missed 20 games last season, and when he returned he played hesitantly. Villanueva only missed four games, but he played most of the season with plantar fasciitis and back problems.
It wasn’t a fair season to judge those two, but so many have already done that.
Gordon is 27, and Villanueva is 26. They can still improve.
But that’s not even necessary for the signings to be looked at in a different light. What if Gordon could shoot 3-pointers and Villanueva could rebound? Well, before last season, both did those things well.
Let them get healthy, then judge.
Also, don’t just use hindsight to bash the signings.
When I wrote yesterday’s post pointing out why I think it’s flawed reasoning to assume Bill Laimbeer will make a great NBA head coach, I knew it would be a controversial opinion, probably one that puts me in the minority among Pistons fans. So, in fairness, here are a couple of ‘other side’ perspectives.
First, an Outside the Lines piece where former nemesis Charles Barkley says it’s a shame Laimbeer is not a head coach.
Second, there’s definitely a counter-argument to be made, and lo and behold, one showed up in the comments section from a very reputable source, Keri Laimbeer. Here’s her well-thought-out and argued comment:
Althought i respect your opinion and the fact that this IS an opinion piece – I’d have to say its flawed in many areas. Its disturbing to know that someone can write a piece although it is just YOUR piece (clearly not a PUBLISHED piece)that has so many fictions, portraying as fact.
It is true that my dad is not everyone’s favorite person. That comes with the territory that he stepped in when he decided that his role on the Pistons would be that it was. Love him or hate him, he accepted his role and he performed to a T.
Your opinion is based on his coaching ability, so I will try to focus my attention on that part of your piece. Your opinion about his “X & O” are clearly based on someone who did not spend time watching him coach or really understand what his team accomplished. He is a BRILLIANT X & O coach. Ask anyone with a basketball background, or someone who has coached him, played with him, or was coached BY him. Being his daughter, I spend MANY nights up with him in highschool reviewing tapes of upcoming teams and games that were just played. He could see what was going to happen before it happened and it was EVIDENT in the record of his team when he coached. There were many times when he would come up with a play on the fly in a 30 second time out (see the 1st championship Deana Nolan’s shot in the corner last minute of the game). Your opinion is yours so it is respected, but it is wrong.
Regarding his players:
Katie Smith – what you fail to mention is that he negotiated the trade of Katie to the Shock from Minnesota where she played he whole career for basically NOTHING. His ability to GM a team in the league was 2nd to none. You also failed to mention the 15 lbs he demanded she lose so that she could fit the role of point guard for the Shock instead of shooting guard as she played her whole life. (her performance speaks for itself).
Swin Cash – yes, she is a FANTASTIC player. She deserves all the credit in the world. However, you were not privy to the behind the scenes involving her time with the Shock (and i will not make that information public) so you do not understand the dynamics of his coaching of her.
Cheryl Ford – a strong physical player who THRIVED in the Shock’s system. a GREAT PLAYER who had a great system to play in.
His players were brought into Detroit BY HIM. He knew what would work and he made it happen. Hes OFTEN accredited with changing the way the league was played and the way it was coached/GMed because the league had to keep up with his examples.
The 2007 finals were a complete disaster. As the head of the team, he took blame for its collapse – never disclosing the real reasons that the season ended the way it did. (in the WNBA Finals going for a back-to-back) I suppose if its not a championship, its a failure.
I wont even comment on your OPINION of the Swin situation. I am in NO position to comment on it nor would I ever. But my only advice would be to not believe everything you read and to understand that the league is a business - with ALL parties attempting to have their “brand” shown in the best light possible. No winners or losers in that situation. The NBA/WNBA is a players league. No coach is or should be the face of the franchise. They do not sell tickets and they do not win games..its a PLAYERS game. To blame the demise of the Shock on him is pure foolishness. The Shock hold the WNBA attendance record for their finals appearances. He was open and approachable to ALL the WNBA fans. He understood his role in the league and he at times became the leagues ‘dog and pony’ show as they flaunted him around to various appearances and events which he was OPEN to doing. PLEASE do not undermind the work he put into helping the league survive. The WNBA is a money pit. No team makes a profit. It is the sole decision of the owner to decide the fate of a franchise and with all the “changes” and talk about the Pistons and their future… I believe the blame for the team moving belongs on another woman’s shoulders. IMO.
Your opinion is your opinion. Do I believe that he will make a great head coach? ABSOLUTELY. is it because I am his daughter? NO. it is because I know, just like his players, his former coaches and former teammates know what he has the capability to do. he will eventually get his shot and I hope then you are singing another tune.
Welcome to Myth Week at PistonPowered. This is the second in a five-part series of posts addressing what we see as myths involving the Detroit Pistons.
Bill Laimbeer is a tough subject for me.
I firmly believe he is one of the most underrated players of his era who, because of his reputation as an instigator (and punching bag of Robert Parrish), never gets the credit he deserves for how much he contributed to those Pistons back-to-back title teams. He was a great rebounder, great defender, great passing big man, nearly flawless fundamentals and obviously had great range as well as a solid post-up game. He’s basically the prototype for how all big men with limited athleticism should aspire to play.
I also hate everything he represents to most Detroit fans. I hate that the extracurricular stuff — his surly attitude, his cheap shots, his dirty little tricks — have made him a cult hero in this state and overshadowed the nuances of his game. He’s one of those athletes we have here — think Brandon Inge or Darren McCarty — who a segment of fans defend so vociferously, whose contributions they constantly skew and overrate and whose glaring deficiencies they constantly gloss over or flat out ignore.
I don’t hate Laimbeer at all, far from it, but the unflinching love he gets for basically being an asshole is tiresome. And what’s really tiresome is those ardent defenders — most of whom I would guess are nothing more than casual NBA fans — would love nothing more than to see Laimbeer coaching the Detroit Pistons.
Bill Laimbeer as head coach of the Pistons would likely be a disaster.
Can he handle the X’s and O’s?
Bill Laimbeer won three championships as coach of the Detroit Shock. I can’t and won’t argue with the results. What I will argue is that Laimbeer didn’t have to do anything special to win with the Detroit Shock. Maybe another coach wouldn’t have won as many titles or produced the exact same results, but that team, with its talent, was going to win a lot of games regardless of who was coaching.
His Shock teams were not the 2003-04 Detroit Pistons — a bunch of hard-working, tough, overachievers. The Shock were definitely tough and hard-working, but they also had as much (or more) talent than any team in the league from their first title team onward until Laimbeer stepped down as coach to pursue NBA opportunities. The names are probably not familiar to people who don’t have at least a casual interest in the WNBA, but rest assured, they are talented. I’ll roll out some WNBA/NBA comparisons to help make the point:
Katie Smith, who was on the last two title teams, has made more three-pointers than anyone in WNBA history and is the league’s third all-time leading scorer. Think of her as, oh, I don’t know, Ray Allen.
Swin Cash, a team captain for six years, was a top 10 scorer multiple times, a multiple time All-Star and a winner — she won two national titles at UConn in college, played for a title team in Detroit and currently has her Seattle Storm in the WNBA Finals. We’ll call her Manu Ginobili.
Deanna Nolan was one of the best all-around players in the W her entire career. She was on all three title teams in Detroit, she can score, she defends, she’s tough and she’s a leader. Let’s say she’s a bit like Chauncey Billups — a big, strong hybrid guard who can score, distribute and defend.
Cheryl Ford, also a member of all three title teams, averaged a double-double three of her seven years in the league. Two other seasons, she was just tenths of a point or rebound from doing it. She’s a strong interior presence, a great rebounder and helped make Detroit’s front line one of the toughest in the league. Think of her as Al Horford.
Sprinkle in a cast of great role players along the way like Plenette Pierson, Alexis Hornbuckle, Ruth Riley and Elaine Powell, to name a few, and coaches didn’t have to do much but roll out the balls (ahem … basketballs) to get that team to have some success.
This isn’t to say that Laimbeer or the coaches were bad coaches or didn’t do anything to help the team improve — as I said above, he was one of the most fundamentally sound players in the NBA. He knows how to coach defense, knows how to preach intensity and competitiveness and knows how to play winning basketball. But as far as getting this team to perform on the court? He didn’t have to do much because there was a hierarchy in place where the team leaders and stars policed things, and if you don’t believe me, look what happened when the team moved to Tulsa.
Nolan, Smith and Ford elected not to play in Tulsa. Holdovers included Pierson, Kara Braxton, Hornbuckle and Shavontae Zellous, all key players in Detroit. New coach Nolan Richardson runs a defensive oriented system just like Laimbeer did. And minus Nolan and Smith, the unquestioned leaders in Detroit, the team was a colossal flop, the remaining players had their flaws exposed without stars around to take pressure off and draw the defense’s attention and all of them were eventually traded.
There were certainly other factors at play, but I tend to think the impact of coaches is a bit overrated when they win and underrated when they lose (except for Michael Curry … he sucked in every way). The Shock won titles first and foremost because they had several great players and a couple legit franchise cornerstones.
That was one of the worst coached basketball games I’ve ever seen in my life. From poor adjustments, poor play calling and poor shot clock management it was hard to believe this was a finals game. There were several long stretches where neither team scored and yet watching the game you really couldn’t attribute it to tough defense. The Shock played tough, kept the game close and forced Phoenix out of their rhythm and still lost which has got to be slightly demoralizing.
In fact, if you read the whole series of DBB posts on that summer’s finals, there seemed to be plenty of questions about Laimbeer’s schemes, his rotation (more on that in a minute) and his ability to control his team. He obviously won in Detroit. His teams were obviously among the best in the NBA. But to act as if the team didn’t have major issues or questions at times is revisionist history.
Can he deal with today’s stars?
Laimbeer, as a major local star, had a large say over personnel as coach of the Shock. He was able to bring in players that fit what he wanted to do and able to get rid of players he didn’t think fit, he didn’t like or he openly clashed with. He did a good job of this — as I said, the Shock were one of the most talented, complete teams in the W.
As an NBA coach, he would not likely have this luxury though. Coaches, even successful and well-known ones, are not true stars in the NBA, even if they are famous. If Kobe Bryant walked into Lakers owner Jerry Buss’s office tomorrow and said, "I won’t play for Phil Jackson," Jackson would most likely not be coaching the Lakers. Not that it would happen, but if Tim Duncan suddenly believed Gregg Popovich was holding the Spurs back and wanted him gone, he could force the Spurs hand. That’s a reality of NBA coaching — hell, even faux star players (Penny Hardaway?) have helped push coaches out the door in the NBA. To a large extent, NBA coaches who take jobs don’t have a large say over their personnel. Re-working or building a roster in the WNBA is much different and Laimbeer had much more freedom to create a team in his mold.
Getting along with the top players on a team is vital, and based on his time in Detroit, there are legit questions as to whether Laimbeer can make due with players whose personalities clash with his. His relationship with former Shock player Swin Cash rapidly deteriorated.
This was Cash in profile in the New York Times before the 2007 season:
“If you don’t know Bill, you think he’s the biggest jerk walking,” Cash said. “I can see past it all. He played. He knows the game. He’s competitive and he wants to win. He’ll go to war with you every day.”
Smiling, Cash added: “I like him. Do I think he’s dysfunctional? Yes. But is he a heck of a coach? Yes.”
By the 2007 Finals, that relationship was damaged beyond repair. Cash was traded after the season and had this to say:
"When a coach loses their respect for you, and treats you the way he did me … it’s tough to deal with. … I can deal with a coach attacking me to make me better, but I cannot deal with someone attacking my character, or my integrity. That was the hardest part for me."
What did she consider attacking her integrity and character? Well, this was part of the problem (from the Seattle Times):
A June 2007 article in The New York Times quoted Shock coach Bill Laimbeer and assistant coach Rick Mahorn referring to her as a "crackhead" and "crack."
Laimbeer blamed the media and said he was joking:
"With the ‘crack’ comment, it was playful. It was, I think, until it got in the media. Then it became an issue."
Joking or not, Cash was obviously offended:
"If a man said that or called your daughter that, how would you feel? It became a public thing," Cash said. "When that happens, you not only offend me, you offend my family and people who know me. That comment doesn’t go with me, and that’s why it became that big of an issue."
An argument over calling someone a ‘crackhead’ is kind of silly, but it does show a lack of understanding that this particular star player might be more sensitive than others Laimbeer deals with, so perhaps he should’ve tread more carefully. Other insults, however, cut more deeply. Namely, according to Cash, Laimbeer behind closed doors questioned Cash’s heart and whether or not she was washed up as a player while she was battling back from a serious injury. Her final season in Detroit, he cut her minutes to 22 per game and the most prominent incident in the deterioration of their relationship occurred when he gave her a DNP-CD in game four of the finals.
And to be clear, Laimbeer got it wrong on this one: Cash is still a very productive WNBA player who (as of writing this) has helped the Storm to a 1-0 series lead in the WNBA Finals against Atlanta.
Cash is not a player with a reputation of being a malcontent. She’s not a player who has a history of not doing what it takes to win. She’s won everywhere she’s played and, if the Storm win this series, she’ll add a third WNBA title to her collection as a prominent player on all three and the best player on two of the three title teams.
The Shock still won without Cash, and Laimbeer and the remaining players deserve credit for that, but Laimbeer absolutely mismanaged his relationship with Cash and that would not end well for him had it been as a NBA coach with a star NBA player. And more importantly, while Laimbeer had the luxury of simply trading Cash when he didn’t want to be bothered with her for good value (fourth pick in the draft), he won’t have that same freedom in the NBA. The coach is the more disposable asset, and even if the star gets traded, it usually doesn’t bring close to equal value in return.
Maybe he knows that there is a difference between what a WNBA coach can get away with players and what a NBA coach can. But I don’t think we should just assume that he knows this.
Can he be a franchise face?
The alternative to having star players is having a team of pretty good under-the-radar players, kind of like the 2003-04 Pistons. So why not bring Laimbeer in as coach and assemble a team in that mode, with no stars?
The problem, then, is that Laimbeer becomes the face of the franchise. To his adoring fans, that’s wonderful news. People in Michigan love him and the style of basketball he represents. But it’s not so great from the team perspective, and once again I point to the Shock as evidence.
The WNBA is a mixed bag of colossal franchise flops financially and franchises that understand their fanbase, market their team extremely well and have stars who are giving of their time and committed to working hard off the court, promoting their league and team, as well as on it. These teams (Seattle and Los Angeles are good examples) develop a following that allows the individual franchise to flourish even if the overall financial success of the league is a constant source of debate.
The WNBA failed in Detroit, and it did so despite having arguably the most success of any WNBA franchise and two people involved who were major stars in their market in Laimbeer and Rick Mahorn. On-court success and two beloved people in prominent roles within the organization should’ve led to at least marginal financial success for the Shock. So where did the team fail?
As a NBA player, Laimbeer was not only known for not being all that accessible, but he was sometimes downright annoyed by having to deal with the media. Honestly, I don’t blame him — who wants the hassle? He’s a basketball guy, I’m sure he just wanted to play/coach basketball and leave the other exterior stuff to others. But in the WNBA, a league where it’s a necessity to plead and beg to get any press, that is a recipe for disaster. In Detroit, with his beloved reputation, I firmly believe that had Laimbeer went above and beyond to promote the team, to talk to the media and encourage his players to do the same, the Shock would still be around. If Laimbeer was easily accessible, the Detroit media would’ve written/covered that team extensively, not because people are especially interested in the WNBA, but because people are very, very interested in Laimbeer.
But we’re talking about a NBA job, right? Laimbeer would be the biggest star on the team if the Pistons hired him. The roster is not that good right now. Having a star like Laimbeer as the coach would ultimately help generate interest in the team, but it would require the cooperation of Laimbeer to actually make the appearances and do the interviews. The non-basketball demands on him and his time would be magnified and increased. Based on his history as a player and a coach, I don’t know if that’s a responsibility he would embrace, and I don’t say that as a criticism — again, I very much respect people who just want to focus on the game rather than the business/promotional aspects that go along with being in the league. But the NBA is a very image and PR-conscious league, and Laimbeer would be expected to meet those demands whether he wanted to or not.
Why am I so harsh on a Detroit icon?
As I said, I have great respect for Laimbeer as a player. And I don’t even think he’s bad as a coach, I just think he’s a coach who hasn’t shown the flexibility to deal with many different styles of play and players. It doesn’t mean he’s not capable of it, it just means there’s evidence to suggest he has a strong view of how the game should be played which requires personnel that buy into it.
If he’s going to coach in the NBA, where coaches can’t get away with regularly demeaning and calling out their players constantly, I think he’s much better suited as an assistant. In fact, until David Kahn gave away Al Jefferson, Laimbeer was a perfect choice to help tutor Jefferson and Kevin Love, two big men who aren’t elite athletically but have great skillsets that Laimbeer could help develop.
I care about legacy. Being a head coach in Detroit would be bad for Laimbeer’s legacy, because he would get fired. I don’t know how long he’d last. And given the right roster (i.e. not the current roster), he might even find a mix of players he could have success with. But there’s a good chance that things wouldn’t end well (see: Trammell, Alan). What I dislike is the assumption that just because Laimbeer was a tough player who is beloved by fans that he’d naturally make a good coach. Even with titles in the WNBA, he hasn’t proven enough as a coach, motivator or understander of the modern player to deserve that assumption.
Myth: Detroit Pistons picking Darko Milicic over Carmelo Anthony with the No. 2 pick in the 2003 NBA Draft was an avoidable blunder
Welcome to Myth Week at PistonPowered. This is the first in a five-part series of posts addressing what we see as myths involving the Detroit Pistons.
I firmly believe most teams in the NBA would have drafted Darko Milicic with the second pick in the 2003 NBA draft. In fact, although I’m less sure of this, I believe every team would have taken Darko second.
Of course, Darko was a tremendous bust. The three players taken after him – Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade – are stars. Those are facts I won’t dispute.
But it’s not fair to blame the Pistons for picking Darko. They were just the team unfortunate enough to land the No. 2 pick.
Not an unknown
Too many people think Darko was a late riser, who overtook Melo with a couple dazzling workouts. That wasn’t the case.
Yes, Darko wowed in his individual workouts, but that only confirmed what everyone already (thought they) knew. Darko was the second best player in the draft behind LeBron James.
Sports Illustrated first mentioned Darko on Dec. 23, 2002. The magazine wrote:
One scout counted at least 10 times that James failed to get back on defense. Added one G.M., "You have to worry that his sense of entitlement is so great after being spoiled by the AAU system, the agents and all the publicity."
There are no such worries about the potential No. 2 pick, Darko Milicic of Yugoslavia, who sleeps on a pullout bed, is warmed by a space heater and earns approximately $20,000 for the small club Hemofarm. A 7-foot lefthander with size-18 feet, Milicic can do it all—score inside and outside, run the floor, pass and block shots.
Tim Leyden wrote an article on Melo in the same issue, but it made no mention of the Syracuse forward’s draft position. Rather, the story hit on the uncertainty of the freshman’s place in basketball.
It wasn’t until March 31, 2003 that a scout declared Melo’s draft position had solidified:
He’s going to be the Number 3 pick in the draft [after LeBron James and Darko Milicic] because he’s a throwback guy with the skills to play multiple positions.
LeBron was the consensus No. 1 pick since his junior year of high school. Darko became the consensus No. 2 the winter before the draft (and important to note in this timeline, before Detroit “won” the second pick in the lottery). Carmelo solidified his No. 3 spot in the spring, on the way to leading Syracuse to a national title. During the pre-draft process, Chris Bosh set himself apart as the fourth-best player in the draft. The real mystery began with the Heat’s fifth pick.
And I don’t think any of that would have changed – no matter which teams had the first four picks.
Obviously, no player is a sure thing. But calling Darko the high-risk, high-reward pick and Melo the safe pick can only be done with the befit of hindsight – or a lack of understanding of the draft at the time.
Let’s start with the latter.
When the Pistons landed the No. 2 pick in the lottery, many fans assumed they would take Anthony, the player who had just spent a season dominating the college game. But those fans thought that way because they had never heard of Darko.
Darko wasn’t playing on national television. He wasn’t carrying a well-known Syracuse team to six wins in March. He wasn’t written about in newspapers across the U.S.
So, most of those fans who wanted Melo at the time felt that way because they didn’t know Darko. Melo was a safe pick because they knew him. Darko was risky because they didn’t.
But NBA teams knew Darko, which leads us to the problem with using hindsight.
At the time, Europe was seen as the place to find polished players. Pau Gasol, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili had recently entered the NBA ready to compete after earning their stripes playing against older competition abroad. The 2003 draft probably ended that line of thinking, and the notion had begun to unravel beforehand – but not completely. Ian Thomsen of Sports Illustrated:
But several years of fishing by the NBA has depleted the talent pool. Other than 7-foot Darko Milicic, an 18-year-old from Serbia-Montenegro who will probably be one of the top three picks, there is no player overseas perceived as a safe choice.
Thomsen wasn’t the only one smitten with Darko’s apparent ability to make an immediate impact. ESPN’s Chad Ford:
Darko is really one of a kind. He runs the floor, handles the ball, shoots the NBA 3 and plays with his back to the basket, so you can slot him in at the 3, 4 or 5 positions. OK, a few other guys can do that too; what sets Darko apart is his toughness in the post. You have to love a guy who has the footwork to spin by an opponent but still prefers to lower a shoulder and bang. Fact is, Milicic plays in attack-mode at both ends of the floor. The more you push, the more he pushes back. While he won’t be asked to carry the Pistons, he’s capable of doing this earlier than you think.
Ford also wrote an entire article full of Will Robinson praises for Darko. Among them:
"He’s going to own the game. Own the game," Robinsons exclaims. "We’re going to have to build a new arena. The only thing that could destroy a kid like that is a woman."
"I’ve seen a lot of kids come through here in my day," Robinson says. "And none of them have ever played like that. That kid’s going to be a star. He’s a 7-footer that plays like a point guard. That kid’s something special."
Yes it is. Like just about anything else Robinson says, it’s awfully hard to argue with 92 years of experience.
In a league that can be swayed by the whims of trends and fleeting success stories, it’s nice to have an anchor that keeps the ship from straying too far beyond shore.
Will Robinson is sold on Darko Milicic. The question, for the unbelievers still out there, is why aren’t you?
Like I stated above, I think the first for picks would have been LeBron-Darko-Melo-Bosh no matter which teams had them. But that doesn’t mean everything was certain at the time – and I don’t mean just according to the uneducated “The Pistons have to take Melo because I’ve heard of him, and not this Dorko guy” fans.
"He has the makings of the most dominant center in Europe since Arvydas Sabonis," says an NBA scout who isn’t sure that James should be picked ahead of Milicic.
And as much as I’ve been pumping up Darko, it’s not like Melo was perfect. ESPN’s Jay Bilas found a couple faults:
“does not blow by people off the dribble and is suspect defensively.”
In fact, the Nuggets actually toyed with the idea of taking Pavel Podkolzine, according to both ESPN’s Andy Katz and Chad Ford. Ford:
After Pavel Podkolzine’s unbelievable workout in Chicago, a few were quietly whispering that Nuggets’ GM Kiki Vandeweghe might grab the 7-foot-4 Siberian.
If Anthony were such a sure thing, that never would have happened. Clearly, the Nuggets had some pause for the same reasons the Pistons knew they didn’t want Melo over Darko.
The Tayshaun Prince factor – or lack there of
I don’t believe the Pistons having Tayshaun Prince had anything to do with their decision to pass on Anthony.
As I’ve detailed above, I think the reason was solely based on Darko being seen as the best player available.
But the Pistons have never seemed bothered by letting their rookies sit on the bench, anyway. Larry Brown was coaching them at this point, after all.
If Dumars thought Melo was better than Darko but not as good as Prince, the Pistons would have drafted Melo and played him behind Prince.
In fact, they did something similar with Darko. The Pistons signed Elden Campbell that summer, and he started. Mehmet Okur was the backup, and Darko was out of the rotation.
The Pistons also traded for Rasheed Wallace that season, but you could argue they only did that after they knew what they had in Darko.
Either way, the Pistons didn’t shy away from Darko because they already had a crowded frontcourt. So, I doubt they would have passed on Anthony only because they believe they were set at small forward.
What went wrong
Darko was a colossal bust. I’m not sure whether the pre-draft reports of his humble attitude and mean streak were exaggerated or he lost his edge in America, but he never showed those traits in Detroit.
The big question I have whenever a draft picks fails is whether it could have been avoided. In this case, I think the answer is a resounding no. Although the Pistons could have picked Melo, Wade or Bosh, that would have gone against the very strong conventional wisdom of the time.
Blame chance for the Pistons getting stuck with the No. 2 pick in a 1-3-4-5 draft. But don’t use hindsight to blame them for picking Darko.
Perhaps, you’ve heard: Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson – for my money, the best college football player in the country through two weeks – doesn’t tie his shoes. Well, he’s not the only one. From Keith Langlois of Pistons.com:
Remember last month’s viral video of Terrico White at the NBA’s rookie photo shoot when an impromptu dunk contest broke out? The one where White stole the show from high flyers like Wesley Johnson and John Wall with a 360 windmill that included a between-the-legs element?
Turns out White, the Pistons’ No. 2 pick in the 2010 draft with the 42-inch vertical jump, was performing with a handicap.
“He called me right afterward,” Adam Wilson, White’s personal trainer, laughed Tuesday from the Pistons’ Auburn Hills practice facility. “He was like, ‘You know my shoes weren’t tied.’ I’ve seen him do that stuff a lot in the gym. He’s a phenomenal athlete.”
I’m never tying my shoes again.
Greg Krupa of The Detroit News wrote an excellent feature on potential Pistons owner Tom Gores. An excerpt:
"He is actually one of the brightest guys in private equity," said Erik Gordon, a professor of entrepreneurial studies and strategy in the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. "He’s not a Wall Street wizard, though. He’s an operational guy. He likes to get inside of a company and fix it.
"Some of these guys are sort of fancy financial wizards who borrow someone else’s money and do a lot of financial fancy footwork. Gores and his people learn about the companies they buy; they learn about the industry they’re in. And they actually try to make the companies better companies."
With characteristic contrariness, he seemed poised to purchase automotive supplier Delphi in 2009, before creditors looked at his plans, realized the company was more valuable than they had realized and bought it themselves. Gores exited, with his offer and plans largely on the table.
Maybe it’s just because I’m from Flint (where Gores moved when he was 4), but Gores might be my favorite of the Pistons’ prospective buyers.
I’ve covered why I think the popular candidate, Mike Ilitch, would be only a good, not great, owner for the Detroit Pistons. Maybe it’s because I don’t know as much about Gores as I do Ilitch, but it’s tough not to be excited about Gores.
Who would you like to see buy the team? You better choose a side quickly. Tom Walsh of the Detroit Free Press writes the Pistons very well could be sold soon.
I don’t think I’ve ever been more excited for a video game release than for the updated version of NBA Jam. It was easily the best video game that ever came out when I was a kid (the David Robinson/Sean Elliott combo was my favorite, but Jeff Hornaceck/Hersey Hawkins was the most hilarious duo).
But unfortunately, from a Pistons fan perspective, the old version left a lot to be desired. Nothing against Isiah Thomas and Bill Laimbeer — I loved both of them as players. But NBA Jam was all about the flash, and Laimb and Zeke just didn’t scream “flash” with their games.
ESPN’s Marc Stein just reported the new version’s Eastern Conference rosters, and because EA Sports wanted to keep some of the original options in place, Thomas and Laimbeer are once again in the game as the Pistons’ “legends” options. Fair enough. But add this slap in the face for Pistons fans to the mix:
Dennis Rodman is also in the game. As a Chicago Bulls legend. And don’t get me wrong, Rodman is a Bulls legend I guess. He won three titles there. But because of the wild hair color/boning pop princesses/taking off his shoes during games phases he went through in San Antonio and Chicago, his early career in Detroit, where he was not only a great rebounder, but also the most versatile defensive player of his era (and a guy who should be in the Hall of Fame), gets a tad overlooked. Rodman had great success in Chicago. But the way Dennis Rodman played basketball in Detroit is what truly made me love the game as a young person just learning about the NBA.
I eventually came to grips with my favorite player of the 1990s playing for my least favorite team. But to have to think of Rodman as a “Bulls legend” is too much to take.
Don’t worry though — there’s more controversy with the roster of current Pistons in the game. The foursome is Rip Hamilton, Rodney Stuckey, Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva (Note: some teams ended up with four players instead of three because fan voting was too close to call). Here was Stein’s take on those choices:
The same principle used with the Cavs applies here: Detroit’s legend duo of Zeke and Laimbeer, same as the original arcade twosome in 1993, will undoubtedly appeal to Pistons fans more than the current crew … although I’m somewhat stunned that there are four current Pistons instead of three and that Ben Wallace isn’t one of them.
I’d like to add on to Stein’s mild confusion over the choices with some blatant outrage: the three current Pistons in this game should’ve been Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince and Ben Wallace. Yeah, they’re old. But they’re also by far the most accomplished players on the team and the only three players left responsible for the second greatest era of Pistons basketball ever.
These rosters were determined by fan voting. It is baffling to me how Pistons fans, who spent the better part of the season calling Villanueva and Gordon busts, could vote them into the game over Prince or Wallace. Not only should Wallace be in the game, but he should be in it with his Afro.
Obviously, it’s still going to be a great game that has all kinds of nostalgic value for NBA fans everywhere, but we have to admit that they got the Pistons roster wrong don’t we? (And when the West rosters are announced, Rasheed Wallace better be available as a Blazers legend).
Through all of the trade rumors of this offseason, all of the questions about his health and whether he’s washed up and through adding another veteran who plays the same position as him, Pistons captain Rip Hamilton has remained silent.
That is, until writer Ben Sin caught up with him at a NBA promotional event in China for SLAM Magazine. Hamilton said he’s fully healthy, he hasn’t talked to Tracy McGrady yet and he still believes he’s the best conditioned athlete in the NBA (and, injuries or not, he still might be right about that).
But none of those answers were unexpected. I found this question, and response, about the Pistons run as one of the NBA’s best teams in the 2000s very interesting:
SLAM: Okay, you guys won it all in 2004, and then came so close in 2005—if Sheed didn’t leave Horry open you guys may have won in that year—and then from ‘06 to ‘08 you guys were right there too. So really, a break here, a bounce there and you guys could have two to four rings. Do you feel a bit of regret looking back? Like, “damn we coulda been one of the greatest teams ever”?
Hamilton: Not at all, I’m happy I got one. How many times do you hear guys say “we were right there” and came up short? It’s tough, man. We won one, and yeah we had opportunities to win again and we didn’t, but to walk away with one ring, five rings, two rings, you still taste that champagne.
Hamilton’s response is understandable — he’s still playing, and I think every player who’s currently playing feels to some degree like he’ll still have a shot at a title again before retiring. But Lin’s question, I think, will become much more relevant as Hamilton, Chauncey Billups, Tayshaun Prince and Ben Wallace join Rasheed Wallace in retirement one day.
Shaquille O’Neal addressed his free agency, which apparently included a large offer from the Detroit Pistons, in an interview with John Reid of the The Times Picayune (hat tip: Mike Payne of Detroit Bad Boys):
As a free agent this summer, what were all the factors you considered before deciding to sign with the Celtics?
Atlanta was cool, but they don’t have a lot of national television games. But Boston, with Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, I said we can do it. A lot of people said I only got the league minimum salary, but that’s all right. I’m the luckiest guy in the world. I’ve had four max contracts in one lifetime, I don’t care about that little million. Did I want $10 million? I’m always going to put the number high. I could have gotten $8 million from Atlanta and Detroit, but it wasn’t about that. It was about being somewhere and being seen and winning.
I’m not sure if this is true or Shaq embellishing. There were no reports (that I saw) mentioning Shaq as a Piston target, but I discussed the idea as a hypothetical.
Update: I’ve seen Shaq’s claim disputed because the Pistons didn’t have $8 million in cap room. Well, neither did the Hawks, but they offered him a two-year contract, according to Tim Povtak of AOL FanHouse. The Pistons easily could have done the same.
Matt Hubert of DLeagueDigest.com graded, with input from others, each NBA team based on how well it uses the D-League. The Pistons didn’t score very highly:
Detroit Pistons: 1.37 GPA
High Grade: B (MM)
Low Grade: D- (MH)
Players Assigned: 7 (2 in last two years)
Players Called Up: 0
THN’s Take (by Dan Feldman, Piston Powered): Their seasoned young players remain in Detroit, and the Pistons often only trust their own coaches to work with their raw players. Not many guys fit in between, justifying few D-League assignments. It seems more one- or two-week stints would be helpful for the raw players to test Detroit’s coaches’ lessons. Also, I rarely hear about the Pistons mining the D-League for end-of-bench players. But at one point, Amir Johnson may have been the D-League’s best player of all time, so that counts for something, right?
Matt Moore’s Explanation: They’ve used it to develop guys, but it hasn’t worked out. B for effort? Besides, Bynum is arguably their best point guard.
Final Assessment: D-troit basket-ball. D-League usage. D-minus grade. The Pistons have never called up a player from the D-League. They might be deserving of a pass for their success during the early 2000s, but there’s no excuse for not testing the D-League waters last season when the team struggled. There were a record 40 call-ups last year, yet the Pistons didn’t make a single move. They have used the assignment strategy in the past and employ former D-League Rookie of the Year Will Bynum, but there’s a lot of room for improvement in their D-League usage.
I don’t think the boost for having Will Bynum is quite justified. The Pistons signed him because of his play in Israel, not the D-League.
I recommend reading the entire series at DLeagueDigest.com to see how other teams incorporate the league into their planning. I know the Pistons could do more. I’m not quite sure they should. What do you think?