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Tom Gores sent Pistons spiraling toward The Disaster Zone

Me at the Detroit Free Press:

“We better make the playoffs.”

-Tom Gores

April 26, 2012

With those five words, Pistons owner Tom Gores backed his team into a corner.

The idea, at least in abstract, wasn’t terrible. Sometimes, being pressed against the wall triggers a fight-or-flight reaction that summons the best in people.

That didn’t happen here.

Instead, the Pistons find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Backed into a corner and stuck between a rock and a hard place? Yes, everything really is closing in on the Pistons from all directions.

The Pistons are 17-25 and in ninth place in the Eastern Conference — right in the teeth of what I call The Disaster Zone.

if the Pistons land a pick in Nos. 9-14, that would mean they lose the choice to the Bobcats and missed the playoffs: The Disaster Zone.

So how do the Pistons avoid The Disaster Zone? Should they try to improve to make the playoffs or tank to keep their pick? With the season mostly over, they’re running out of time to decide.

Thanks to Kevin Pelton of ESPN for simulating the rest of the NBA season 1,000 times, applying real lottery odds to each outcome and supplying the results, we have baseline possibilities for the Pistons’ final position:

  • Make playoffs: 36%
  • The Disaster Zone: 34%
  • Keep pick: 30%

Call that a three-way tie. Any differences in percentages this small can be attributed to the difficulty in forecasting uncertain future events.

That leaves the Pistons in a heck of predicament and, in a twist that surely will leave you floored, not even I know what they should do.

Keeping their pick won’t be easy. Even finishing with the NBA’s eighth-worst record would grant just an 82.4% chance of landing a top-eight pick. It would take the league’s seventh-worst record to bump those odds up to 98.1%.

And how much worse can the Pistons get than they already are? There’s talent on this team, and it won’t be easy to make a step back. Team president Joe Dumars probably would have to pull off multiple trades to unload enough talent for a major regression.

A common suggestion — trading forward Greg Monroe for a future draft pick — actually might make the Pistons better right now. Same with trading Smith (who probably wouldn’t net a future draft pick) or, sadly, even Andre Drummond.

The Pistons just waste too much time playing all three together, a lineup combination that is a proven failure. Smith’s, Monroe’s and Drummond’s minutes together won’t change significantly as long as coach Maurice Cheeks appeases each by starting them.

Smith, Monroe and Drummond have played together 38% of all Pistons minutes this season and account for 80% of Detroit’s total deficit.

In other words, get rid of the Smith-Monroe-Drummond lineups — even if means getting no immediate contributor while excising one of the three — and the Pistons might have a fighting chance.

Getting good enough to make the playoffs might be even more difficult.

Monroe’s value has sunk while playing with this odd-fitting team, and the odds of trading him for a good wing shrink by the game.

Meanwhile, the rest of the East is showing significant progress. In their last 15 games, the Pistons are 4-11. In the conference, only the tanking Boston Celtics, tanking Milwaukee Bucks and tanking Orlando Magic have been that bad in that span. Even the tanking Philadelphia 76ers have been better.

If trying to get better won’t work and trying to get worse won’t work, maybe the Pistons should just stay the course — though that could lead them right into The Disaster Zone.

On the other hand, trying to get better or trying to get worse also could send Detroit into The Disaster Zone.

There’s no easy out, the predictable result of what Gores set in motion years ago.

By rule, I don’t typically edit block quotes in order to preserve the original message. But in interest of transparency, I want to note a change today. Free Press editors mistakenly edited “The Disaster Zone” to “the Disaster Zone.” The Disaster Zone, with a capital T, is the official style.

T-shirts available soon.


  • Jan 24, 20143:40 pm
    by Leon


    It’s a moving train that we can’t jump off

  • Jan 24, 20143:53 pm
    by MIKEYDE248


    I think it’s the Pistons plan to make it look like they are really trying to make the playoff at all costs, but are really tanking.  How else can they lose to the teams that are trying to tank?

  • Jan 24, 20144:00 pm
    by labatts


    “…and, in a twist that surely will leave you floored, not even I know what they should do.”
    “T-shirts available soon.”
    Good stuff.

  • Jan 24, 20144:15 pm
    by SuperStarRockDJ


    I am sick and tired of everyone being blamed except Joe Dumars. Detroit is the most dysfunctional team in NBA and Joe is responsible. Draft picks, trades and numerous coaches he has hired has resulted my team turn into a basket case. If I poured multi million dollars into my business I would expect a marked improvement. 
    If I hear that the players or coach are at fault again, I am going to  throw up.

    • Jan 24, 20144:18 pm
      by Patrick Hayes


      Dumars is clearly at the front of the line for who should be fired. But why isn’t it possible that along with Dumars, the coach also sucks, several of the team’s highest paid players suck and ownership made a really bad decision to speed up the rebuild process by allowing Dumars to give away a draft pick in order to shed money and spend it last offseason?

      Plenty of blame for suckiness to go around, my friend.

      • Jan 24, 20145:34 pm
        by joe dumars


        Gores may have put pressure, but Dumars has never wanted to rebuild the proper way. We saw that with the 09 offseason mess, and that’s directly connected to the mess the Pistons are today.. I think after 4 seasons of buffoonery some pressure was needed. I’m sure with some of the things I’ve seen said in the media that Dumars must have expected the teams hes put together the last 5 years to be playoff teams at least 3 times. Coaches and GMs get pressure all the time. Some sink, and some swim.

        • Jan 24, 20146:31 pm
          by gmehl


          Sorry but I just find it funny that your critical of Dumars yet your pistonpowered handle is ‘Joe Dumars’. Patrick is correct in that the blame should be shared but I think that the lion share of it has to be put on Joe. He is the one constant figure that had been there since 2000. He’s the one who’s had a say in the hired/fired the coaches, the players drafted and the free agents signed or players traded. I don’t know if Joe has lost his mojo but it’s clear that he’s become stale here. The guy needs a fresh start elsewhere.

          • Jan 24, 201410:32 pm
            by joe dumars

            What can I say? I like irony.

        • Jan 24, 20149:22 pm
          by grizz3741


          JD … Exactly .. I would be ashamed of having a team .. where as a player, a head coach . a GM .. or as a fan .. that said .. SHHHH ,,,No one better say even once .. we have making the play-offs as a goal … The issues are the roster make up, the quality of the head coach and the team attitude and atmosphere of the Detroit Pistons .. Hint.. So long as these are bad ..  it is less than intellectually honest to call out a call for making the play-offs as a major reason why this team is failing ..

      • Jan 25, 201412:07 pm
        by jomama


        don’t know why I am going to do this, but I am going to give a weak, minor defense for cheeks. no, I don’t think that he has been gangbuster this year; however, I do like that he is giving kcp a chance. when was the last time that a piston coach really gave a rookie a chance? I read an article on pistonpowered that we should trade for aaron affalo since he was a “great get”. we had him. I watched khris middleton have a great game against the pistons while listening to the announcers say that he was having break out season until an injury. I hated the guy, but I remember delfino having a ton more success after leaving the pistons. I can even go back to okur having more success post-piston. I appreciate that cheeks is actually making use of our draft pick, even if everything else he does is having mixed success.

        • Jan 25, 20142:30 pm
          by Dan Feldman


          “when was the last time that a piston coach really gave a rookie a chance?”

          Kyle Singler last year, Brandon Knight the year before, Greg Monroe the year before that and Jonas Jerebko the year before that played more minutes per game than KCP this season.

          That covers the entirety of Lawrence Frank’s and John Kuester’s tenures.

      • Jan 26, 20141:26 pm
        by V.


        KCP is 20, Dre is 20, Moose is 23. Give them time to develop. 
        The Bad Boys took 9 years from gestation (drafting Zeke) to Championship. That’s with an elite GM and an elite HC. 
        Gores’ apparent desire for the quick fix has possibly damaged the rebuild of this time. In a similar vein, note how much better both Memphis and Toronto got after dealing Gay. A lesson I think which can be applied here. 

  • Jan 24, 20144:56 pm
    by Phil


    Personally I would rather have them tank than make the playoffs.  You’re not winning a series anyway, and the only way to get better at this point is to land talent in the draft.  I’m gonna go ahead and play crazy GM here.  Let’s say we get the 7th pick, for arguments sake:
    1.) sign and trade moose for Harrison barnes, who becomes our starting 3
    2.) Smith becomes our starting 4
    3.) Draft Gary Harris to become our starting 2
    PG – Jennings
    SG – Harris
    SF – Barnes
    PF – Smith
    C - Drummond
    I could get excited about that, especially with KCP, Singler, Mitchell, and a FA big man on the bench.

    • Jan 25, 20144:11 am
      by oats


      What do people like about Harrison Barnes? I really don’t get this fascination. Harrison Barnes puts up 13 points and 5 rebounds per 36 minutes, and he has a true shooting percentage of .508. Kyle Singler puts up 13 points and 5 rebounds per 36 minutes, and he has a true shooting percentage of .573. I get that Golden State has more scoring options so they don’t really ask him to do a whole lot. I know some people would argue for Barnes as the better defender, but they look pretty similar to me because neither of them are actually good. Barnes is also younger and has more room for growth, but I’d still say that Singler is having a much better year this year. So why are people so convinced that Barnes is going to be a good starter while Singler’s just a career backup? I think Barnes looks like he’s going to be a pretty average starter.

    • Jan 25, 20144:21 am
      by Chris


      If we are playing crazy GM here, then screw Harrison barns. Move Josh Smith for Lance Stephenson!

  • Jan 24, 20146:38 pm
    by Coolaak


    It seems to me that Joe Dumars has a tough time evaluating talent in regards to free agency.  I understand that sometimes taking players that have had trouble on other teams may reap you great rewards (2004) for instance this summer this was a number of guys that were not top free agents but good players for great value that he missed out on (Millsap).   Joe D.  needs to stop swinging for the fences every free agency and get guys that play hard and you know what your going to get from them.

    • Jan 24, 20149:56 pm
      by gtg2013


      “Joe D.  needs to stop swinging for the fences every free agency and get guys that play hard and you know what your going to get from them.”
      Hell, that’s what he used to do. You know, when the Pistons won a championship and were always in the conference title race.

  • Jan 24, 20147:20 pm
    by sebastian


    Call me crazy, but I believe that Gores has given Joe orders that he cannot do anymore deals. Subsequently, Joe has been working on his next professional stop and selling/transferring various property that he has acquired over his adult life, while living in Michigan.
    Additionally, Joe is working on the public relations-related matters associated with his forthcoming separation from the organization.
    Gores will wait to allow Joe’s successor the opportunity to designing the roster, going forward.
    The firing of Joe and the hiring of his successor will happen approximately two weeks, before the Draft.
    The remaining games that are on the schedule, after the Trade Deadline will be one-on-one shows. 
    It is going to get even uglier, after the Trade Deadline has past.

  • Jan 24, 20149:14 pm
    by grizz3741


    I cannot disagree more with the theme of this article … Not that there is not something to be said for TEAM DEVELOPMENT … But making the play-offs in the NBA is really a fairly SO WHAT? kind of accomplishment. And this season it is even more true .. Winning 45% of your games will likely get you there in the east .. Is there really ANY TEAM in the NBA which would proudly say “We do not have any goal of making the play-offs .. PERIOD” .. is there? No .. Making Gore the scapegoat for lousy GM and lousy HC decisions and leadership .. is not going anywhere especially since Gore has not yet chosen his own GM. How can anyone have been blaming Joe and Mo the whole season for a series of garbage moves and team attitudes and then blame Gores for making .. making the play-offs a goal .. ??? Unfair and not that logical to say the least .. I see a lot of teams out there right now who are better organized, have more determination and more team unity .. with less talent, and are they themselves developing young players, and yet are doing better than the Detroit Pistons .. Do I have to name them for you? Didn’t think so .. Great site . great articles by the author in question .. Disagreement is high on this one ..

    • Jan 25, 20144:34 am
      by oats


      Two big things. First of all, it’s one thing to set a goal as making the playoffs and another to announce it. Once the owner says it publicly then the expected result of failing to do it is that heads will roll. Everyone knows that is usually what happens when an owner says he wants to make the playoffs and the team doesn’t do it. So the GM is automatically on the hot seat and needs to try to make any move that might help with keeping his job instead of making moves that make sense long term. What’s more, the rest of the league knows that said GM has to make a playoff push, and nothing kills trade value like the stink of desperation. If I was a GM and Dumars called me up about a Monroe deal I’d be thinking this is my chance to fleece him. Dumars needs to right the ship or he will likely get fired. No way I make a fair offer on Monroe, especially when Dumars also has shown signs of not really wanting to give Monroe a max deal anyways. I’d much rather wait for the summer, give Monroe a max offer sheet, and then try to strong arm Dumars into a sign and trade for less than equal value.
      On the flip side, if setting the playoffs as a goal was kept largely internal it wouldn’t be as big of a deal. For that matter, just using less absolutist rhetoric completely changes the whole thing. Say something like, “Our goal is the same as every year, we want to win as many games as we can and we’d love to make the playoffs.” That doesn’t come off as an ultimatum. Dumars probably still feels like he’s on a bit of a hot seat, but that much more nuanced stance would give him some hope that just making progress while improving the team long term might allow him to return. Other GMs might not focus on getting him to make a panic deal quite so much if the perception isn’t an environment of playoffs or bust.
      The other thing you seem to be missing is that they aren’t giving Dumars a pass. They are saying Gores deserves a fair share of the blame too. As Patrick Hayes said above, there is plenty of blame to go around. Even if you really want to put the blame on Dumars, you can’t ignore the fact that Gores didn’t fire him last summer. He had ownership of the team and no real ties to Dumars. He easily could have let Joe loose but chose not to. That alone is reason enough to pass the blame on up.

  • Jan 24, 20149:16 pm
    by grizz3741


    Team development and Making the Play-offs are not mutually exclusive goals .. Not in the NBA .. and especially not in the NBA Eastern Conference ..

  • Jan 24, 20149:41 pm
    by grizz3741


    Last point … If we do not make the play-offs this season ,. it will have been 5 seasons without play-offs …. that is why an ultimatum to make the play-offs is fair … especially since our first round pick (hated the give-away from the instant I heard it) is likely to go to Charlotte even if we don’t …

    • Jan 25, 20144:49 am
      by oats


      I still think that the best way to handle this past off season was with tanking in mind. Pick up a couple guys that might be long term pieces but wouldn’t really move the needle and then instruct the coach to use wonky lineups that hurt the team’s odds of winning. This team was already pretty bad when trying to win, so if they didn’t really address their problems effectively and actively tried to sabotage themselves from the get go they would have had a real shot at keeping the pick. Worse case scenario they are a bit too good and after doing that and are in the exact situation they are in now, but with a lot more flexibility because they wouldn’t have Smith’s bad contract to worry about.

      • Jan 25, 201412:00 pm
        by jomama


        oats, I don’t agree. I actually liked that dumars went for the playoffs. I am all for gores demanding that we make the playoffs. the problem is that we went for the wrong free agents. everyone knew that josh smith was a horrible fit. everyone knew that Brandon Jennings was only a slight upgrade over knight (as well as more likely to kill offensive flow). dumars targeted these two guys despite the fact that these two love to shoot when you have a team strength of two bulls in the paint. a combo fa pick up of iggy and Bledsoe would have been amazing and would have actually fit into our needs. we could have picked these two players (or similar) and been playoff ready. add into the fact the Charlie v and stuckey will be off the books at the end of the season, we become very interesting and flexible for next. instead, we have a repeat of the previous years.

        • Jan 25, 20142:22 pm
          by Dan Feldman


          Bledsoe wasn’t a free agent, and Dumars pursued Iguodala but didn’t get him.

        • Jan 25, 20145:02 pm
          by oats


          I don’t mind someone wanting to make that playoff push, and I agree that if Dumars did a better job of it then it might have worked. Your specific plan doesn’t work for the reasons Dan specified, but there are versions of a plan that may have worked out. That’s fine to want to make that push. I was mostly saying that I disagree with the notion that the team was unlikely to keep their pick. They’ve upgraded their talent and are actively looking to win, and the end result is they are still in a position where they have a decent chance to keep the pick. If they actually set out to keep the pick then they likely could have been a couple games worse, and it really is only a couple games that is the difference between where they are now and keeping the pick. Again, even if it failed then the circumstances wouldn’t have been any different than where they are now, with the exception of not having Smith’s contract holding them back. He’s arguing that Detroit absolutely needed to make a playoff push, and that fact mitigates this failure to a small extent. I disagree with both points.

  • Jan 25, 20141:26 am
    by Alexf


    well said grizz, I don’t see why Gore is the scape goat bc he wants his team who hasn’t been in the playoffs for 4 years to actually do something good , if he didn’t want his team making the playoffs then I could see that more of something to be upset at him for

  • Jan 25, 20141:29 am
    by Alexf


    Also it shouldn’t be pressure for an nba because his bosses want them to make the playoffs , thats why they get paid to succeed not to do terrible 

    • Jan 25, 20144:28 am
      by freeparty


      like this, if you want to smoke a good brisket you will have to wait 16 hours.  putting on the fire for 4 hours then finishing it off in the microwave because your guests are hungry will not make a tasty brisket.
      premature playoffs-lation=nobody satisified.

  • Jan 25, 20142:58 pm
    by Maurice Cheeks


    Early in the season most thought Utah and Milwaukee were the favorite tankers with Philadelphia rolling off a few wins.  Then Burke came back and Philly started losing.  Meanwhile we were 10-10.  We slowly started losing some games in the final minutes that even our fans were fooled by our intentions.  Those early wins against Miami and Indiana coupled with Dre and Jeanna McCurdy had people completely fooled that Gore and Dumars were not tanking.  This isn’t a 11 yo old girl screwing up the national anthem; I cannit fix this.

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