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Rooting for the Pistons doesn’t have to be this hard

In theory, it should be easy to root for this version of the Detroit Pistons.

The Going to Work era Pistons were beloved not just because they had a successful and sustained run. They found a commonality with fans because every key player on those teams could have at different times in their careers been described as underrated, overlooked, under-utilized, given up on, overachieving or some combination of those terms. They were a reflection of the blue collar image of the city and state they represented. The fact that they won big was certainly the biggest factor in fan support, but the narrative of how that team came together as a grab-bag of players who were unappreciated or considered spare parts elsewhere shattered those expectations and had their greatest successes together was a compelling part of why fans invested so heavily in the Pistons during those years.

This year’s version of the Pistons has a narrative that isn’t without similarities to that group. They’re a mix-and-match collection of players who don’t necessarily fit. Josh Smith, despite being one of the NBA’s most versatile two-way players for much of his career and a near All-Star on playoff teams in Atlanta, is still better known for his flaws than for the collective whole of his game, which has always been pretty good. He’s surly, talented, defensive-minded and tough … all qualities that typically lead to adulation among Detroit fans. He’s been on playoff teams for six straight seasons, including one of my favorite losing playoff teams ever, the 2007-08 Atlanta Hawks, who took the eventual champion Boston Celtics to seven games in a physical, intense first round series. Incidentally, the Pistons that season could only manage to last six games vs. Boston.

Their other big acquisition, Brandon Jennings, has similarly always had detractors. Not wanting to go through the sham of playing one year of college basketball because of the NBA’s age minimum, Jennings went to Europe to play a year of professional basketball before entering the draft. At the time, some worried that Jennings would set some sort of trend — one-and-done caliber players would suddenly choose that path rather than college basketball. Looking back, however, only a couple of prospects have tried that path, with good reason — as Jennings discovered, it’s really hard to go to a foreign country as a teenager and play in a professional league of grown men.

During the 2009 NBA Draft, Jennings wasn’t one of the prospects invited to the green room. But he was driving around in the area, and when his name was called at No. 10 overall by Milwaukee, a bit higher than most projections had him going, Jennings decided to stop by and make a slightly late entrance. That’s always going to be an all-time great NBA Draft moment.

Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond both fell in the draft because scouts questioned their motivation levels, hurting their stock. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope will constantly have to deal with the, “should they have taken Trey Burke?” questions.* Rodney Stuckey has had nearly as many coaches as he’s had seasons in the league and the fact that he never developed into the All-Star level expectation the organization unfairly saddled him with, he’s still a reliable and valuable NBA rotation player.

* Yes, they should’ve taken Trey Burke … he’s already one of the best PGs in the league when it comes to not turning the ball over.

The point is, much like those beloved Pistons teams, this version of the Pistons has baggage that’s kind of endearing. They even talk similarly.  One of my favorite quotes from Ben Wallace during the Pistons’ run in 2004 came in response to a TV reporter questioning whether Wallace being a “one-way player” hurt the Pistons at the offensive end. An annoyed and prideful Wallace responded, “I’m not a defensive specialist. I’m a basketball player.”

Similarly, Smith was recently asked by USA Today’s Jeff Zilgitt about his perimeter shooting woes and the impact that has on the team. Smith, noting the other skills he brings to the table in the article, replied, “I’m a basketball player.”

But if you continue with the quote, it exposes the problem and the key difference between Wallace’s defiance and Smith’s: ”I’m confident in each and every play I make. I don’t think about it. I just play and play with confidence.”

Wallace’s defiance was supported by statistical evidence that overwhelmingly showed his limited offense was of little consequence because of how historically impactful he was defensively at his peak. Smith, on the other hand, has very clear statistical evidence that shooting a lot of jumpers makes him a worse player.

Pride, defiance and surliness are traits that could describe the demeanor of some of the most beloved sports figures in the history of pro sports in Michigan. The fact that this version of the Pistons exhibits some of those traits or brings with them disappointments or baggage from their experiences elsewhere, is actually a good indicator that players like Smith and Jennings, who haven’t exactly had smooth (or is it Smoove?) starts to their Detroit careers could win over fans.

Here’s the difference between the 2000s Pistons and the current version, though: basketball intelligence. Those teams, even when they lost games, even when they disappointed, they didn’t play brain dead basketball. This Pistons team plays without basic basketball intelligence regularly. Despite evidence being readily available showing that there are certain shots on the floor that Smith should never take, he won’t look at it or tweak the way he plays. Despite Jennings having incredible moments as a distributing point guard, he sometimes fails at more mundane but critical elements of point guard play, like clock management for example.

This Pistons teams is often maligned for playing with a lack of effort. I think that’s usually unfair (and I think the “effort” thing in general is an overplayed and overly general weak sports writing tool). They generally play with effort, but if you’re playing with effort but doing so unintelligently, your effort level is meaningless.

Some of the Pistons issues relate to coaching — you can’t have a team that routinely makes mental mistakes consistently and not pin that on the coaching staff. This was a great observation from Grantland’s Zach Lowe (among many great observations) about how Cheeks uses Monroe defensively:

Monroe’s issues are well documented. He inspires zero fear at the basket, and he’s not the quickest cat. He’s certainly not quick enough to execute a scheme that often asks him to jump out aggressively against pick-and-rolls, chasing little point guards 25 feet from the hoop.

Yeah … wish No. 1 for watching the Pistons is you stop using Monroe in your defense like he’s an in-his-prime Ben Wallace or Kevin Garnett.

Some of the issues are a product of youth — when Joe Dumars constructed the 2000s teams, he did so with more experienced players. Jennings is still a young point guard, Monroe and Drummond have not yet figured out NBA defense (although I’m confident that Drummond will and Monroe still might if used in a better defensive scheme) and the team’s steadiest veteran, Chauncey Billups, is too old to provide much on-court stabilization.

And some of the issues are as simple as the players themselves taking more responsibility to eliminate unforced mistakes, particularly on defense, and play more disciplined.

There’s more interest (slightly) in the Pistons this season because they have more talent and a legitimate shot at the playoffs. But many nights, they’re still a poor on-court product. Watching a poor on-court product that lacks talent is bad, but watching a talented team that loses because it plays stupid is the height of misery as a sports team. The Pistons’ season is still salvageable and I’m not even convinced that they won’t figure out how to effectively use all of their big three effectively by the end of the season — it’s doable. But if fans tuned out during the past four years because of bad basketball, they’ll turn even faster on this team if they don’t play more intelligently.

Mailbag note …

After a long hiatus, the PistonPowered mailbag will return. Apologies for the delay … it was due to an addition to the family. I have a few questions left that I didn’t get to in the last one, but I could use some new ones, so get your questions about your wildest trade scenarios, handsomest beat writers and questions about Feldman’s personal life in before Thursday evening. Mailbag will run Friday. You can catch me on Twitter or via email – patrickhayes13(at)gmail(dot)com.


  • Jan 15, 20142:11 pm
    by Joey R.


    We could waive a player and try to see if Seth Curry could be that guy, we need backcourt with potential..And range from behind the three!

  • Jan 15, 20142:32 pm
    by PistonFanSinceDay1


    If you try to understand the business side of the NBA and you’re patient, it’s not really hard to be a Piston fan.

    • Jan 15, 20142:47 pm
      by Patrick Hayes


      Ha … actually, if you follow the business side of the NBA, that makes it even HARDER to be a Pistons fan. You don’t notice many teams throwing away first round draft picks just to shed salary these days, do you? Or reaching in the draft for a position of need to try to make the playoffs now rather than taking the best player available? That’s also not a particularly wise “business side of the NBA” strategy that a smart team would employ.

      Anyway, the column was about the on-court product. If I factor in the business elements, then it becomes much easier to not pay attention to the Pistons. Their front office has clearly not had any kind of plan for around five years now.

      • Jan 15, 20142:58 pm
        by Tim Thielke


        “reaching in the draft for a position of need to try to make the playoffs now rather than taking the best player available”

        David Kahn set the model for the perfect way to do this in the 2008 NBA draft. Mayo was clearly the consensus best prospect on the board. But he didn’t like Mayo, he liked Love. So he traded down and got another asset (Mike Miller, who he later flipped, with Randy Foye, for the pick that became Ricky Rubio) along with Love.

        If Dumars’ assessment of Burke was that he wasn’t worth taking at that point, so be it. But he was still a top prospect (arguably, the top prospect) in the draft and available at 8. You gotta take the guy and then if you really want someone else, trade down.

        It’s sad when the team you root for has a GM who could learn a thing or two from Kahn.

        • Jan 15, 20143:16 pm
          by Huddy


          Thats what Minnesota did with Burke, right now it looks like they didn’t get great value for him, but either way why settle?  With the picks the Jazz gave up (or even swapping in a future pick) the Pistons could possibly have someone like Tim Hardaway JR shooting very well from behind the arc and another asset (I’d like Giannis, Schroeder, or a 2014 pick).  KCP is playing considerably more than Hardaway shooting worse and scoring worse.  I don’t hate KCP on the team and I think his D can be valuable (not that it has been mind blowing yet), but when I see the very next team in the draft using the guy I wish we would have drafted to collect two draft picks in the first round of a pretty flat draft class its like Dumars not only drafted fit over talent, he didn’t even fully explore how he could still acquire the fit he wanted and get the full value out of his draft position.  With how much Minnesota was rumored to like KCP Dumars might have even been able to move him for the next pick and more.

        • Jan 15, 20143:29 pm
          by Chris


          I don’t want to be an apologist here, but I will be. Who says anyone was willing to trade with Dumars? Was Burke worth giving up assets for? I don’t think so. A good PG is nice, and some teams definately need them, but not all. Sure Burke could also spot up, or be in the corner, or really be anywhere and be just as good as say Derek Fisher, or any PG on any 90s bulls team, but is that what you want to use your lottery pick on? Do you really think Burke was going to be the PG of the future on your team? Was/Is Burke going to stop John Wall, Derek Rose and Russell Westbrooke? Is he even going to make them work on the offensive end?
          I think you are correct, and I think dumars would have considered doing just that, but he probably didn’t have any partners to trade with in the range he still wanted to pick in. Would KCP (If that is who Dumars really, really wanted out of that draft) have been there at 20+, honestly I don’t recall, but I thought he was supposed to be gone by 14 at the latest. The NBA isn’t like the NFL where you can sort of make that pick up with excellent drafting later.

          • Jan 15, 20143:42 pm
            by Patrick Hayes

            “Was Burke worth giving up assets for? I don’t think so.”

            Um … Minnesota did.

            “Do you really think Burke was going to be the PG of the future on your team? ”

            I dunno. I do think he’s going to be better than Caldwell-Pope. He’s a legit rookie of the year candidate this season. May not win, but he’s a top three rookie in the league, at the very least.

            “he probably didn’t have any partners to trade with in the range he still wanted to pick in. Would KCP (If that is who Dumars really, really wanted out of that draft) have been there at 20+, honestly I don’t recall, but I thought he was supposed to be gone by 14 at the latest.”

            Utah traded 14 and 21 for Burke. 

          • Jan 15, 20145:27 pm
            by Huddy

            @chris did you even read what I wrote?  Even if you weren’t aware of the actual Burke trade before I spelled it out for you.  Was Burke worth assets?  Yes, at least two draft picks at least…literally according to what actually happened.
            it doesn’t matter if KCP would be available higher (he wouldn’t Minnesota wanted him) that’s why I mentioned getting someone like hardaway who was available and so far seems similar in talent.

          • Jan 16, 20149:00 am
            by MarkButter

            “Was/Is Burke going to stop John Wall, Derek Rose and Russell Westbrooke? Is he even going to make them work on the offensive end?”
            Perhaps not.  But is Wall/Rose/Wetbrook going to stop Burke?  I doubt it.
            You can take your practice time worrying about how to stop the other team.  Or you can take that time and make the other team worry about stopping you.  Right now, with Jennings.  We’re worrying about how to stop the other team.  He does not instill fear in opposing teams.  He can’t get to where he wants on the court without significant T/Os, he’s either really hot or really cold.
            Perhaps Joe already knew Milw and Jennings were not going to come to an agreement.  I think many did.  However, it starts with your PG unless you have a Bron or Durant as a starting place, then you have the luxury of filling around them.
            Burke will be 22 this year and Jennings 25 (Nov & Sep).  Jennings has already, realisitically hit his ceiling.  He got great minutes in Mil to learn the NBA and he’s still not capable of running a team on a consistent basis night after night. 
            Burke?  Give him another 2-3 years and he’ll be a top 5 PG in terms of running a team.  And neither Rose, Westbrook or Wall will be able to stop him.  Right now, those players don’t have to worry about how to stop Jennings and realistically, never will have to.

    • Jan 15, 20142:52 pm
      by Tim Thielke


      The business side of the NBA:

      Own a team.
      Step 2:
      Don’t get hit with the repeater tax penalty (occasional ventures into the luxury tax are fine).
      Step 3:
      Make lots and lots and lots of money.
      Step 4 (optional):
      Insist upon going all out to make the playoffs regardless of circumstance and refuse to use assets (amnesty clauses) available to you. This doesn’t change how fiscally successful your team is liable to be, but it will make it much more difficult to be competitively successful.

  • Jan 15, 20142:55 pm
    by frankie d


    Great post!  Could not agree more.
    And it doesn’t even begin to deal with the front office buffonery that has taken what was an enviable strength – 2 talented bigs – and created chaos and confusion around the positions. 
    The fish rots from the head…

  • Jan 16, 20142:41 am
    by MrHappyMushroom


    I’m not sure why you’re so certain about Burke.  If you put any stock in WS and WP, he’s not producing much.  He’s shooting 39% from the floor and 35% from 3, which is about what KCP is doing.  More assists for Burke, to be sure, but he projected as a defensive liability (worse than Jennings, though, I doubt..), whereas defense is KCP’s strong suit.
    My understanding is that Minny was primed to jump on KCP at nine, so if Joe wanted him, there was no trade down option.
    Hey, maybe you’re right that Burke will be the better pro. But based on the first half of the season, I’m not seeing anything to make that more clear than it was four months ago.

    • Jan 16, 20146:53 am
      by Vic


      I agree, I like Burke but KCP is just as good

    • Jan 16, 20147:36 am
      by Huddy


      “There was no trade down option”
      so the jazz wouldn’t have made the same trade they made to far the same player if he was selected one spot earlier?  Minnesota did want KCP and if they thought he was tthat important they might have traded their pick and something for him.(that’s more hypothetical, but the Jazz trade happened …so yes there was a trade down option).
      if you think Burke is a similar prospect then that is not much of an argument, but dradting him would mean not acquiring Jennings, keeping Knight(probably in a more suitable off the bench role) and keeping Middleton.  The other option expressed above was trading down because there were similarly valuable prospects available further down so if Burke really wasn’t the best choice why not do what Minnesota did and draft the best player available and turn him into two picks with the Jazz?

    • Jan 16, 20149:18 am
      by Patrick Hayes


      “He’s shooting 39% from the floor and 35% from 3, which is about what KCP is doing”

      Burke is playing a primary role on a bad team. KCP is playing a supporting role on a team with playoff aspirations. There’s a big difference in what they’re being asked to do. Burke, in a much larger role with less talent around him, is a top three rookie in the league right now.

      “More assists for Burke, to be sure, but he projected as a defensive liability (worse than Jennings, though, I doubt..), whereas defense is KCP’s strong suit.”

      You’re neglecting Burke’s huge value, particularly to the Pistons — his 11.9 percent turnover percentage is incredible, let alone for a rookie point guard, and he’s a prototypical pick and roll, pass-first point guard who would be perfect on a team with talented bigs like Drummond/Monroe/Smith.

      “My understanding is that Minny was primed to jump on KCP at nine, so if Joe wanted him, there was no trade down option.”

      That’s fine. I just don’t believe that the Pistons (or anyone) truly believed KCP was the best player on the board when they picked. Objectively, I think it was clearly Burke (and I’m not a Michigan fan). His skillset, production and ability to step in and run a pro offense efficiently from day one has already been established, and if his shooting numbers creep up (I suspect they will with more talent around him), he’s going to quickly be one of the top halfcourt PGs in the league.

      “Hey, maybe you’re right that Burke will be the better pro. But based on the first half of the season, I’m not seeing anything to make that more clear than it was four months ago.”

      Well, if that’s the case, I think you might need to look closer. If you don’t have Insider, Burke is No. 2 in David Thorpe’s rookie rankings behind Michael Carter-Williams. KCP is not even in the top 10 — guys like Pero Antic, Nate Wolters, Miroslav Raduljica and Mason Plumlee are currently ranked ahead of him in Thorpe’s very respected eyes. 

      I’m not arguing that that conclusively means Burke will be better three years from now. But I just don’t see how you can argue that based on evidence right now, Burke is not clearly the much better player.

      • Jan 16, 201410:27 am
        by Huddy


        I don’t even think it is that important to debate Burke/KCP now or what they will be.  Personally I think Burke is better and would have taken him, but even if they are close and Joe really didn’t want to take a PG he could have drafted Burke and turned him into two picks.  I think it is currently tough to say KCP is better than Time Hardaway Jr, I would say Antetokounmpo at 18 years old looks like more potential.  Would we rather one of them and someone else or maybe even both? 

      • Jan 16, 20146:52 pm
        by MrHappyMushroom


        ” But I just don’t see how you can argue that based on evidence right now, Burke is not clearly the much better player.”

        Sure, you can argue that. Both have struggled to shoot the ball (though KCP has come around some). Burke is looking like a really good ball handler. KCP is looking like a really good defender. Both are Pistons needs.

        Again, not saying that KCP is necessarily going to be a better player than Burke, but he’s looking like a really good pick. Honestly, with a do-over, I’d take KCP again. You wouldn’t. I don’t think either position is clearly wrong.

        • Jan 16, 201411:42 pm
          by oats


          You do realize that Burke had a .515 TS% in December, right? I guess his 6 games in January haven’t been good, but I’d still say he’s also improving as a shooter as the season goes on.
          I’d take Burke every time. I see Burke as a guy that can run an offense at an elite level, while Pope is a 3 and D guy. Pope could turn into a really good 3 and D guy, but that role is just less valuable than a guy that makes the entire offense run more efficiently. There are always guys who can do what Pope does in free agency, but the same thing can’t be said about Burke’s skill set. Heck, the team already had Brandon Knight and Khris Middleton. Neither of them have the upside of Pope, nor are they as good defensively, but I suspect the team would be better off this year at least with those 2 in Pope’s role.

  • Jan 16, 20149:09 am
    by MarkButter


    Burke played two years with the tag of “if you stop Trey Burke, you can stop Mich.”  Put Jennings in Burke’s shoes at UM at the same age and you do not have the same answer.
    Granted, Jennings said he’d have more assists in Det becaue he had people to pass to, and he’s averaging about 2.5 more.  OTOH, he’s shooting his worst percentage, worst FT%, highest T/O (per 36).  I don’t see how that can be considered “improving.”  And he’s not the focal point for opposing team’s defense.

  • Jan 16, 20149:31 am
    by Scott


    I do believe that we should’ve taken Burke over KCP. In all fairness,though, who on Utah is getting shots?Enes Kanter? In fairness to KCP, he is in the back of the line on the starting rotation when it comes to available shots. He is still pretty uninspired on the court and doesn’t create a lot of chances for himself, but I think it’s important to remember who these two guys are sharing the court with. With all that being said, why did Joe D. pass on Trey Burke?!

    • Jan 16, 20149:57 am
      by Tim Thielke


      “With all that being said, why did Joe D. pass on Trey Burke?!”

      He didn’t think it would be fair to take Monroe, Drummond, and Burke significantly lower than where they should have gone.

  • Jan 16, 201410:55 am
    by Scott


    I feel like drafting Austin Daye at 15 gives you the green light to be unapologetic about drafting players that slip in future drafts.

    • Jan 16, 201411:16 am
      by Tim Thielke


      I think every mock draft and prospect evaluation out there had Daye outside the lottery but in the first round. That made him a bit of a reach at 15, but hardly an outlandish one.

      At the time, I can certainly say that I was a lot more peeved about Summers over Blair than about Daye over Lawson.

      • Jan 16, 201412:19 pm
        by Scott


        Perhaps- but then why go invest millions of dollars on another stretch 4 (Charlie V.)? I don’t know if there was a logical plan heading into that summer, but I’d imagine that Dumars had decided to go after Carlie V beofre drafting Daye. This is also coming off a season in which it was obvious that Stuckey was not going to be your PG of the future. Not drafting a PG that year seems indefensible. I’m not gonna lie, I was the guy who had his fingers crossed that the Pistons would select Eric Maynor.
        *Side note 2009 draft night was the same night Michael Jackson’s death was announced.

        • Jan 16, 201412:24 pm
          by Tim Thielke


          I may be giving Dumars too much credit, but I’d like to think that just about any GM goes into free agency not knowing who he’s going to get because he shouldn’t be aiming to overpay. And if he doesn’t think he’s overpaying, he should assume others are willing to pay similar amounts. And if he thinks others are willing to pay similar amounts, he shouldn’t be able to simply assume he’ll get “his guy”.

  • Jan 16, 201412:29 pm
    by Scott


    Turns out, a package of defective condoms was overpaying for Charlie V’s services.

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