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3-on-3: No Cheeks, No Problems?

Modeled after ESPN’s 5-on-5, three of us will answer three questions about a Pistons-related topic. Please add your responses in the comments.

1.  Maurice Cheeks has been fired, and it only took 50 games for him to join Pistons’ lore as one of the many Joe Dumars‘ casualties. Did Cheeks get a fair shake?

Dan Feldman: Yes, but only because he had eight seasons prior to this one. Cheeks had an established record as an NBA head coach, and it wasn’t pretty. I understand hoping he’d used his years since the 76ers fired him to improve significantly, but 50 games were enough to show he hadn’t. The Pistons were wrong to hire Cheeks in the first place, so he got more than a fair shake (and a few million dollars, too).

Brady Fredericksen: Probably not. This team is flawed, but Cheeks seemed to start figuring them out. The struggles with ill-fitting personnel weren’t his fault, and he’s had the Pistons playing at a .500-level over their last 14 games. That’s not bad, considering the rest of the season’s up-and-down nature. The firing is a low-risk decision, though. Say John Loyer is a dandy coach? Good for the Pistons, they’ve finally found a good coach and will have likely earned a playoff berth. Say Loyer is a terrible coach? Darn, the Pistons went into a tailspin and fell completely apart, keeping their draft pick. I think it’s a win-win (or is it lose-lose? I dunno?) situation.

Tim Thielke: Yes, for most coaches, 50 games would not qualify as a fair shake. Nor would it for Cheeks if he had underachieved with mediocrity. But he did a horrendous job. There is a lot of talent on this roster and he managed to consistently minimize it. Worst of all, he started with mediocrity before falling off. So it’s not like he was just taking some time to figure out how to use this eclectic bunch.

2. What does the timing of Cheeks’ firing tell you about the Pistons?

Dan Feldman: Tom Gores is only so vested in the franchise’s success. However much sense it made to fire Cheeks on Sunday, it made even more sense two days prior, before the Pistons went on a two-game win streak. There’s clearly a lag in the Pistons receiving and implementing Gores’ directions. But I get that. The Pistons are one of his many business interests and not the most substantial investment in the portfolio. He’s not required to monitor this team as rigidly as its hardcore fans.

Brady Fredericksen: Dumars isn’t the guy calling the shots. This has impatient-owner-trying-to-be-proactive written all over it. I’ve said it before, but I have no idea if Goes knows anything about basketball. He’s been more in to being an NBA owner than I expected, and he seems like he wants this team to work. That’s nice, but the fact that Loyer is apparently getting a tryout the rest of the season tells me that Gores doesn’t want Dumars hiring another coach. Does that mean Dumars’ goose is cooked? No, but it sure does feel like that.

Tim Thielke: That I don’t understand the decision making processes going on there. Firing Cheeks would have made just as much sense a dozen games ago. Why did they wait until now and not until after the season? I I had to guess a narrative for it, they finally concluded within the past month that Cheeks was an awful head coach but that they were too far in the hole to make anything but tanking a good strategy. A couple recent wins made them think this season could be turned around after all, so they got rid of him.

3. We’ve yet to see what John Loyer has to offer, but does getting rid of Cheeks in the middle of the season improve the Pistons’ playoff chances?

Dan Feldman: Yes. Firing a coach midseason usually leads to improvement. Obviously, there’s something going wrong when a coach is fired, and there’s a chance any change in those situations could be productive. Plus, a coaching change under these circumstances is likely to energize everyone – especially the players, who must have known they were consistently getting sent into each game without a coach capable of adequately preparing them. There’s a chance Loyer is even less cut out for the job than Cheeks, but even if they’re exactly equally capable, that likely means the Pistons will fare better under Loyer.

Brady Fredericksen: Sure? Loyer might be a really great find, and having a new voice may be what the Pistons need. He is apparently well-liked by the players, and while it sounds minor, that’s actually a huge deal. The Pistons players haven’t liked a coach since, what, Larry Brown?

Tim Thielke: I don’t know much about how good Loyer is or how the players felt about Cheeks. If they deemed him incompetent, I’d have to assume there’d be a a short term bump in their performance just from having a new guy call the shots. Coaching changes often have that effect. So I’ll guess yes although I’m not assuming Loyer is an upgrade until I see supporting evidence.

By firing Maurice Cheeks, Tom Gores asserts control and marks Joe Dumars as next to fall

The Detroit Pistons have been down this road before. Too many times, in fact.

But this trip is different, the backseat driver now behind the wheel and all pretenses of status quo dropped.

Look back at the official press releases for the hiring and firing of the Pistons’ last half dozen coaches:

Hiring Larry Brown:

Detroit Pistons President of Basketball Operations Joe Dumars announced today that the team has named Larry Brown as head coach, signing him to a multi-year contract.

Firing Larry Brown:

Detroit Pistons’ President of Basketball Operations Joe Dumars relieved Larry Brown of his coaching duties, it was announced today.

Hiring Flip Saunders:

Detroit Pistons President of Basketball Operations Joe Dumars announced today that the team has named Flip Saunders as head coach, signing him to a multi-year contract.

Firing Flip Saunders:

Detroit Pistons President of Basketball Operations Joe Dumars announced today that Flip Saunders will not return next season as the team’s head coach.

Hiring Michael Curry:

Detroit Pistons President of Basketball Operations Joe Dumars announced today that the team has named Michael Curry as head coach, signing him to a multi-year contract.

Firing Michael Curry:

Detroit Pistons President of Basketball Operations Joe Dumars announced today that Michael Curry will not return next season as the team’s head coach.

Hiring John Kuester:

Detroit Pistons President of Basketball Operations Joe Dumars announced today that the team has named John Kuester as head coach, signing him to a multi-year contract.

Firing John Kuester*:

Detroit Pistons President of Basketball Operations Joe Dumars announced today that John Kuester will not return next season as the team’s head coach.

Firing Lawrence Frank:

Detroit Pistons President of Basketball Operations Joe Dumars announced today that Lawrence Frank will not return as the team’s head coach.

Hiring Maurice Cheeks:

Detroit Pistons President of Basketball Operations Joe Dumars announced today that the club has named Maurice Cheeks as head coach, signing him to a multi-year contract.

Firing Maurice Cheeks:

The Detroit Pistons announced today that Maurice Cheeks has been relieved of his head coaching duties.

Notice the pattern? In every posted press release – it seems the one announcing Frank’s hiring, which occurred during the lockout, has been lost to history – “Detroit Pistons President of Basketball Operations Joe Dumars” is the subject.

Until now.

Conspicuously, “The Detroit Pistons,” not “Detroit Pistons President of Basketball Operations Joe Dumars,” fired Maurice Cheeks. Whether the change to the boilerplate language was deliberate or not, the alteration speaks to what is becoming increasingly true in Auburn Hills:

The Pistons aren’t Dumars, and Dumars isn’t the Pistons. Not anymore.

If you want to understand the crux of the situation, these two sentences from the initial report on the firing will cover you. Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports:

Owner Tom Gores had become increasingly impatient with Cheeks, and sources with knowledge of his plans say that he had been pushing for a change in the coaching staff.

Eight different coaches have been replaced under Dumars’ run as GM, but league sources told Yahoo Sports he had been an advocate of giving Cheeks more time as coach – especially in light of back-to-back victories over the weekend.

Gores wanted to fire Cheeks, and Dumars wanted to give the coach more time.

The scenario’s end was both uncomplicated and predictable.

Gores owns the Pistons, and that gives him absolute power to control the franchise’s personnel. Some of that responsibility falls on Dumars, but only to the extent Gores defers it.

Now, it seems the only thing Gores is deferring is removing Dumars as the Pistons’ general manager – and that delay might not last long.

Maurice Cheeks’ firing justified

The Pistons put a bad coach in position to fail, and he failed.

The sad reality is the Pistons would have been better off firing Cheeks at literally any point after hiring him. Two minutes, two months and even after his two-game win streak. Getting too caught up in the timing or the roster issues only misses the matter at hand.

Cheeks is a bad NBA head coach. Any hope that he’d improved enough since the Trail Blazers and 76ers had long gone out the window. It had became so painfully obvious Cheeks couldn’t handle the job, the Pistons fired him after just 50 games – giving him the shortest tenure in franchise history aside from a couple interim coaches.

In fact, it’s been eight years since any non-interim NBA coach has had such a short run with his team.

In the last 20 years, just five coaches had been fired during their first season with a team: Terry Porter (28-23 with the 2008-09 Phoenix Suns), Bob Weiss (13-17 with the 2005-06 Seattle SuperSonics), Randy Ayers (21-31 with the 2003-04 Philadelphia 76ers), Gar Heard (14-30 with the 1999-00 Washington Wizards), Don Nelson (34-25 with the 1995-96 New York Knicks).

Honestly, I was surprised the list was so long. But four of the five coaches had something in common: Their team had a winning season the year prior to their arrival.

Cheeks – who took over a team that went 29-53 last season – certainly didn’t share the pressure of preserving a winner. Maybe the Pistons were too impatient, but more likely, Cheeks performed just that terribly.

Interestingly, the other exception might soon soon share a common thread with Cheeks.

Heard was fired just 10 days after Michael Jordan became the Wizards’ president of basketball operations. New executives typically want to hire their own coach.

In Washington, the front-office domino fell first. In Detroit, the head coach changed first. I suspect the result will be the same either way: A total overhaul.

Joe Dumars, Tom Gores never clicked together

Right now, how much does Gores regret retaining Dumars in the first place?

In Gores’ first season, the Pistons rushed to re-sign players already acquired by Dumars with presumption a new coach, Lawrence Frank, would fix everything. The Pistons flopped to a 25-41 record.

Before next year, Gores demanded a playoff appearance and stressed his impatience. Again, the Pistons struggled, but their eye was clearly toward 2013-14.

Well, 2013-14 is here, and the Pistons are only marginally better.

The assumption all along was that Dumars must make the playoffs to keep his job. Now, I’m not sure even that will be enough. Gores so publicly undercutting Dumars clearly bodes poorly for No. 4.

But if Gores wanted to fire Dumars now too, he could have. The owner, for whatever reason, granted a stay of execution. Though it’s possible Gores wants to give Dumars the dignity of completing his contract or just can’t hire his desired replacement until the offseason, I choose to believe that means Dumars has a chance – not matter how slim – to keep his job beyond this year.

When the Pistons hired Cheeks, I wrote the move would likely end Dumars’ stint as general manager. Cheeks had already proven himself beneath the caliber of a good NBA head coach, and apparently needing a playoff berth to get a new contract, Dumars seemed to have tied his fate to the wrong coach.

Now, Dumars’ best chance is that hindsight makes Cheeks look like the worst coach of all time.

If interim coach John Loyer can somehow blend the Pistons’ mismatching talents and boost the Pistons soundly into the playoffs, that would give credit to the roster Dumars assembled. Dumars might still fall considerably short in hiring coaches, but if Josh Smith, Brandon Jennings and Chauncey Billups are actually the caliber of players Dumars hoped them to be when acquiring them, that would at least complicate Gores’ pending decision. Is a general manager who can form a strong team of players but can’t hire a good coach to lead them worth keeping? With a plan to fix the coaching-search process, maybe. General managers who can form a strong team of players – regardless of any other shortcomings – are a valuable commodity.

That is an extreme longshot, though. Smith, Jennings and Billups could be used better, but raising their contributions into job-saving territory won’t be easy.

I can’t imagine Gores, after the disappointments of the last three years, is searching for reasons to keep Dumars – though I doubt he’d find any, anyway.

Joe Dumars’ day of reckoning will come

The Pistons have bigger problems than Cheeks, but Cheeks was the problem they fixed now.

Cheeks’ firing should put to rest any suggestions of tanking. Gores did not want to tank and does not want to tank. Period. If he did, he would have kept the overmatched Cheeks.

This is about re-configuring on the fly and making another run at a playoff berth that is, somehow, still very attainable. In the 2013-14 Eastern Conference, it was neither too early nor too late to fire Cheeks.

And if tanking was never organizational goal, as much as the Pistons’ in-season decisions comically suggested otherwise, Dumars will not be let off the hook. Dumars built this failed roster that hastened, but didn’t cause, Cheeks’ demise. Dumars, unlike previously, led last summer’s coaching search and signed off on Cheeks. Even if Dumars preferred a different coach – and circumstantial evidence suggests he would have hired Nate McMillan – every general manager must work under his boss’s direction, and Dumars made Cheeks the Gores-approved hire when there certainly would have been better coaches who appeased the owner.

Not that appeasing the owner is easy for Dumars, who thrived under the ever-present but rarely interfering Bill Davidson. Gores is certainly not Bill Davidson.

Gores bought the Pistons for $420 million. Last month, his company, Platinum Equity, purchased a majority share of a company valued at $583 million. The month prior, Platinum Equity bought a company for $1.1 billion.

That’s why he’s not around The Palace more often. Still in the prime of his career, Gores has other professional priorities with even more money on the line.

But from time to time, he swoops in, making changes as he sees fit. His last visit meant the coach changed. His next visit might mean the general manager changes.

Gores has earned the right to be impulsive, and maybe Cheeks’ firing came on whim. However, a thorough analysis would have led to the same result.

Dumars too could be cast out for either reason. It’s up to Gores.

It’s all up to Gores.

3-on-3: What if the Pistons really are tanking?

Modeled after ESPN’s 5-on-5, three of us will answer three questions about a Pistons-related topic. Please add your responses in the comments.

1.  We’ll never know the answer, but let’s speculate. The Pistons’ losses are adding up, and they’re in an awkward spot of being too good to tank and too bad to be a legitimate playoff team. Assume the the goal is to tank, what does that tell you about the state of the organization?

Dan Feldman: To answer, it would depend when the Pistons decided to tank. Was this a decision before the season? That would say a lot about Tom Gores‘ influence, considering Joe Dumars has previously seemed so anti-tanking. That would also likely mean Dumars would keep his job beyond this season. If tanking has always been the priority, that means there’s no way to judge Dumars on this season, so if Gores were going to fire him, it would have been last summer. Or was this a decision made in-season? That would mean the Pistons tried first to win and couldn’t. Considering making the playoffs was the plan and that plan failed, an in-season move to tank would likely mean Dumars is running out the clock on the final year of his contract.

Brady Fredericksen: That Dumars isn’t really that close to being fired. The assumption has always been that missing the playoffs means the end of the Dumars’ era in Detroit. This summer, it seemed reasonable considering the Pistons had increased their talent. Now, I don’t know. Sadly, I don’t think they’re tanking, but I think they’re just trying to decide whether they should just let their current dumpster fire flame out or if they should try to contain it by making a mediocre trade. I’m sure Dumars knows this team is like mixing cherry vodka and chocolate milk, but as far as Gores goes, does he really know that much about what’s going on? If the Pistons stand pat at the deadline, it’s either the cruelest way to send Dumars out or a sign that Gores still trusts him to build this team if/when the team gets a lottery selection.

Patrick Hayes: It doesn’t tell me anything — it raises more questions. If they’re tanking, does that mean Gores approves and the ‘playoffs or bust’ talk was all fan appeasing bluster? And if he approves, does that mean that Joe Dumars’ job is safe? I mean, how could Dumars agree to tank if his job was truly in trouble? Is there a big conspiracy at work? Was Maurice Cheeks hired because they needed the worst coach possible (and make no mistake … Cheeks is the worst coach in the league right now, by a landslide) to manage to pull off adding more overall talent to the roster while staying pretty bad? I dunno … if they are purposefully tanking, it makes a lot of conceptions fans had about what the results of this season meant for Dumars more complicated — ‘the playoffs or you’re fired’ assumption doesn’t seem as much of a foregone conclusion if the front office has endorsed tanking.

2. If tanking actually is a realistic option for this team, what are the most logical steps to assure that they avoid The Danger Zone, as Dan’s coined it?

Dan Feldman: Make Cheeks the head coach. Design an offense that features Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings over Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond. Start Smith, Monroe and Drummond together. Start Kyle Singler at shooting guard. Don’t call timeout to advance the ball to midcourt down one with seconds remaining. Bench the team’s best player 11 seconds into a second half. Seriously, what else can they do? This team has too much talent to make tanking easy.

Brady Fredericksen: Do what you’re doing, and trade Rodney Stuckey. I’m not sure that trading Smith or Monroe would make the Pistons worse. I think that could end up being addition by subtraction like what happened in Toronto with Rudy Gay. If they find a way to get a late-first rounder for Stuckey (wishful thinking, I know) or a young, inexperienced shooter, that’s going to really hurt the Pistons. They’re 2-6 without him this season, and his production off the bench has been the only efficient perimeter scoring. An already bad offense would look supremely worse without him.

Patrick Hayes: Well, they wouldn’t have to change much from what they’re currently doing. Continue to play their unworkable big lineup (which became even bigger and more unworkable with Singler added as starting shooting guard). Flip a couple of their useful bench contributors — Stuckey, Will Bynum, maybe Jonas Jerebko (not that he qualifies as useful anymore) — for future picks or something and give minutes Peyton Siva and Tony Mitchell to see if either shows any potential to be rotation players next season. Maybe ship Stuckey to the Knicks in the hope that they get better than the Pistons. Root hard for Trey Burke to make a late push for Rookie of the Year and get Utah’s record better than Detroit’s. Maybe toy with bringing in a few D-League prospects for looks on 10-day contracts after you’ve traded a couple of players for picks. Continue to let Cheeks find innovative new ways to handle late-game situations. With so many teams seemingly trying to lose, it won’t be easy to out-do those efforts, but the Pistons certainly have options.

3. As a fan, how the heck do you come to terms with the idea that your team is positioning itself for failure now with an eye on success in the future?

Dan Feldman: Four years ago, the Pistons’ best player was a 35-year-old Ben Wallace. Even though I love watching Wallace play, the team’s results weren’t pretty. That was rock bottom, but the Pistons — until this season — had been working with a talent deficit since. Imagine a team with Drummond, Monroe, Smith, Jennings, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Singler and a top-eight pick in the best draft in a decade. That’s a massive talent upgrade. Say what you will about how the pieces fit and how that talent translates to production, but talent is a starting point. Through coaching and trades, teams can make any talent work. They can’t, as the 2009-10 Pistons showed, make a team full of bad players into anything. That hypothetical team is worth one more season of misery. Suddenly, the Pistons would have one of the NBA’s stronger talent bases.

Brady Fredericksen: I really don’t know. I think it’d be hard watching a team aim to lose games, even if the eventual goal is success next season. But, as we all know, it’s hard watching a team try to win and still lose a lot. That’s been the Pistons over the past five years — consistently trying, rarely succeeding. Outside of John Wall and Kyrie Irving, tanking never would have gained the Pistons a better prospect in past years. This year, though? The difference is get a very, very, very good prospect or getting no prospect whatsoever. Just give me a catchy hashtag like #SorryForJabari, #RigginForWiggins, #ShartingForSmart or #DumpingForDante and I guess we’ll hope Adam Silver and his ping-pong balls take pity on the Pistons once the NBA Draft Lottery rolls around.

Patrick Hayes:  I understand why teams tank — the league has incentivized it (get on that, Mr. Silver). I still hate it, and wouldn’t necessarily want to follow a tanking team. But if the Pistons actually do have some elaborate tanking plan in place and are carrying it out, I would respect the artistry they are doing it with. It’s truly breathtaking. And at least that’s a plan. The alternative is that what we’ve seen — adding ill-fitting players in the offseason, possibly reaching in the draft for need over talent and hiring a woefully unqualified coach — is an actual strategy that the front office thought would work to make the team to get better. Woof. I’d take a year of tanking over that.

3-on-3: Deciphering the Andre Drummond-Greg Monroe combo

Modeled after ESPN’s 5-on-5, three of us will answer three questions about a Pistons-related topic. Please add your responses in the comments.

1.  It appeared that the Pistons’ focus during their rebuild was to craft a team around their talented duo of Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond. Do you think that’s still the plan today?

Dan Feldman: I don’t think that has ever been the plan, at least not to the extent it should have been and should be. It took the Pistons way too long last season to play Drummond enough and somehow even longer to give him reasonable minutes with Monroe also on the floor. Then, the Pistons signed Josh Smith, who has unsurprisingly clogged the floor for Drummond and Monroe on offense and surprisingly given them a tougher time on defense, too. Drummond and Monroe have played just 119 minutes together this season without Smith. It’s almost as if the Pistons are going out of there way not to build around those two.

Brady Fredericksen: Judging by the Pistons consistent denial that they’re shopping Monroe, yes. We’ve blamed Lawrence Frank, Jason Maxiell, Joe Dumars and Maurice Cheeks for the lack of Drummond-Monroe action, and alas, they’re still not a go-to duo. Both are talented, but both are flawed. The only way to see if they can play together is to, well, play them together. They’re two of your best players, and you’re trying to win, so playing them together feels like it should be an obvious decision.

Tim Thielke: All the coverage coming out seems to suggest that that is still the plan. But I personally believe they should be more flexible. The Pistons have three good big men who don’t fit well. If they can get full value in trade for any of them, they should do it.

2. Even with the ill-fitting roster, Drummond has solidified himself as one of, if not the, best players on the Pistons this season. Monroe, on the other hand, has struggled. How can Drummond’s play help get Monroe back on track?

Dan Feldman: The biggest advantages come on defense. When Drummond is focused on protecting the rim like he has lately — nine blocks in his last three games in just 79 minutes — Monroe can risk going for steals. Monroe has never been the best positional defender, but his quick hands have terrorized opposing big men at times. Unfortunately, Monroe has gone for fewer and fewer steals as his career has progressed.

Brady Fredericksen: Monroe is a big man who needs room to operate. He’s not athletic enough to go over defenders, so he has to be crafty in that open space he has on the block. With Drummond, Smith and a lot of non-shooters surrounding him, he’s literally suffocated in the paint. That’s an issue that Drummond can’t help with, but where he can assist Monroe is on the defensive side of the ball. Monroe’s struggles with athletic forwards is well documented, but the faster Drummond can improve as a help defender, the better Monroe — and the rest of the Pistons — defense will look.

Tim Thielke: Monroe has to keep on doing what he does well and avoid the things he does poorly. He isn’t a plus defender, but he is big body that is hard to move out of the middle, while either Drummond or Smith makes an excellent weak-side shot blocker. When playing with Drummond, Monroe just has to keep on going down low and putting up shots near the rim. That is his best skill. And even when he misses, that creates a lot of put-back opportunities. When playing with Smith, he should be plying in the high post to leave driving lanes open, use his passing ability, and be crashing the offensive glass.

3. Do you think we’re any closer to knowing whether or not Drummond and Monroe are a viable “twin towers” that the Pistons can build around?

Dan Feldman: Barely and not nearly as close as we should be. But I know enough to believe Detroit should build around those two. For one, they’re both extremely valuable, and if it doesn’t work, the Pistons should have no trouble getting value for either or both if the duo must be broken up. Regardless, I think it would work. Drummond and Monroe haven’t played together enough to fortify their production together, but there are at least signs they can lift each other on both ends of the floor. Last year, the Pistons were equal offensively and better defensively when those two played together. This year, the Pistons are way better offensively, fairly worse defense and significantly better overall when those two play together without Smith. There has been a lot of noise regarding Drummond’s and Monroe’s fit the last two years, and sometimes it can be helpful to look back on the reason for pairing them in the first place. Here’s what I wrote the Pistons drafted Drummond: “Drummond, stylistically, fits the exact profile of an ideal Greg Monroe complement. Drummond  has the size and athleticism to protect the rim, defend post-ups and sky for dunks in ways that Monroe simply can’t.”

Brady Fredericksen: I honestly don’t know. I’d like to think so, but the current construction of this team doesn’t really play to either of the big guy’s strengths. They need space, they need shooters — Jonas Jerebko for Jared Dudley, anyone? — and they need to have role players that fit around them. Good teams aren’t just a collection of players, they’re a collection that accentuates the strengths of their teammates. Monroe and Drummond can do that for other guys, they just need the right pieces are around them.

Tim Thielke:  We are no closer. We have seen precious few minutes of Monroe and Drummond playing without Smith. That trio is awful, but just Monroe and Drummond could go either way. On paper, they have some complimentary skills and some redundant ones. And Cheeks refuses to give us any evidence to work with.

Tanking wouldn’t be easy for Pistons

Should the Pistons tank?

They’ve been gunning for a playoff berth since trading Ben Gordon to the Bobcats – allowing them to upgrade the roster this season rather than next. From Tom Gores down, the edict has been playoffs.

But whether or not they’ve actually discussed it, tanking has remained on the table. Though the Pistons have already immensely upgraded their talent in the last year, another top eight pick – whether they use it or trade it – would be a tremendous asset.

Unfortunately, it’s top-eight pick or bust. Due to the Gordon trade, Detroit owes the Bobcats a first-round pick that’s top-eight protected this year, so only full-fledged tanking will do.

As long as the Pistons avoid The Disaster Zone, they can’t go too wrong – at least not relatively. A postseason appearance would be nice, as would a top-eight pick.

Which should they shoot for?

Because the East is so awful – the Bobcats are on pace to make the playoffs with 36 wins – the Pistons have gotten more time than expected to make that choice. Somehow, the 19-28 Pistons are right in the thick of the playoff race, just 1.5 games behind Charlotte for the No. 8 seed (and half a game up on the Knicks in what’s becoming a three-team race).

But making the playoffs still seems unlikely. ESPN’s formula gives Detroit a 30.5 percent chance, and though that seems low because the system doesn’t account for the odds the Pistons make greater-than-average internal improvements throughout the year, it’s hard to spitball that above 50 percent.

Here’s the bad news for the pro-tanking crowd, though. The bottom of the NBA standings are even more difficult to break into than playoff position:

  • Pistons: 19-28
  • Knicks: 19-29
  • Cavaliers: 16-32
  • Lakers: 16-32
  • Jazz: 16-32
  • Kings: 16-32
  • Celtics: 16-33
  • 76ers: 15-34
  • Magic: 13-37
  • Bucks: 9-39

The league’s seventh-worst record would offer a 98.1 percent chance of the Pistons keeping their pick in the lottery. Eighth-worst would mean 82.4 percent – still likely, but enough to cause a few sweaty palms on lottery night.

Ninth-worst, though? The odds plummet to 6.1 percent.

Simply, the Pistons must finish with one of the NBA’s eight worst records to justify tanking.

How the heck can they do that?

If they put their minds to it, the Pistons could definitely finish worse than the Knicks, who’ve already traded their first rounder, and with it, incentive to lose.

But look at those other teams on the list.

The Cavaliers are in disarray. The Lakers’ top players are all hurt, and they seem to realize their slim playoff hopes have vanished, making tanking increasingly appealing. The Jazz have been better with Trey Burke, but they’re still getting knocked around by the West. The Kings made their big splash acquiring Rudy Gay and remain dismal. The Celtics have gone just 1-6 with Rajon Rondo, and though he needs more time to find his groove, it’s getting too late for them to make a run. The 76ers and Magic were expected to tank and are. The Pistons might have already won more games than the Bucks will all season.

That’s a tough bottom eight to crack.

It’s not impossible. The Pistons have lost to the Bucks, Magic, Jazz and Lakers (twice). They’ll have another chance against a bottom-dweller tonight, when they play the Magic. The Pistons, at times, can definitely look like a bottom-eight team. But relative to the actual bottom eight, they also look like a playoff team far more often.

I see the merits in tanking. You don’t need to convince me how valuable a top-eight pick in this draft would be, how this young team could surge forward next season and send Charlotte a worse pick in a worse draft (even though entering next year owing the Bobcats a top-one protected pick is risky).

But tanking would be really, really, really hard. It’s probably one of the few things these Pistons are too good for.

Winning the turnover battle: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s most unheralded skill

Everyone loves to watch a dazzling array of moves resulting in a big stop or a breath-taking basket. Or better yet, an end-to-end play that does both. We make a big deal about a box score bursting with numbers across the board or unseemly large ones in a category or two. But the things players don’t do to help their teams win often don’t get enough recognition.

That’s not surprising, you’ll never see a highlight reel of LeBron not taking a shot when he has no room to breathe or Chris Paul hanging onto the ball when a defender swipes at it or Paul George not biting on a pump fake or Steph Curry not air ball a free throw. After all, you and I have never committed a turnover in the NBA or had an embarrassing miss or taken a bad foul or stupid shot. How hard can it be to just not do those things? Well, a lot harder when you have hundreds or thousands of opportunities to mess up.

Avoiding turnovers is an incredibly valuable skill, especially against the top competition in the league that make every live-ball turnover more significant (live ball turnovers account for about half of the total, league-wide, in case you were wondering). It’s even more so for players on good offensive rebounding teams because a turnover completely ends the possession whereas a missed shot still keeps it potentially alive. In case you haven’t heard, Drummond is easily the league’s best offensive rebounder and the Pistons are handily the best offensive rebounding team in the league. But somehow, nobody seems to know that Caldwell-Pope is the best player in the league at winning the turnover battle; and, quite frankly, it’s not that close.

KCP never turns the ball over. Seriously, already this season he has had three stretches of over 150 minutes of playing time in which he never coughed up the rock:
166 minutes from November 17 to November 27
155 minutes from December 10 to December 20
214 minutes from January 10 to January 24

There are only 16 players in the league with lower turnover rates. Ten of them are guys who have played fewer than 36 minutes and have accrued zero in that time frame. Of the remaining six, only Battier has played more than 300 minutes. Battier is absurdly good at not giving the ball to the other team, slightly better even than Kentavious. But he’s no match for KCP in taking the ball away from them.

If you need an idea of how much better KCP is than the rest, have a look at ESPN’s leader board for STL:TO ratio. No “qualified player” is in his stratosphere. But I don’t really like ESPN’s “qualified players” filter, especially for stats like this where they don’t tell you what it takes to qualify. And in general, it tends to be a bit iffy midseason. Check out how many players qualify for leading the league in offensive rebounds or turnovers per game. Looking at how KCP fares in a field of 65 just isn’t that meaningful. So let’s look at everyone who has more steals than turnovers:

However, there is definitely a big difference between a Ronnie Brewer who plays 7 minutes per contest and has racked up six steals to two turnovers and a player who has maintained that ratio while accumulating both stats faster for over 1,000 minutes of court time. So let’s look at the absolute scale. How many extra opportunities have players generated for their teams by taking it away from the opponent and hanging onto it themselves: total steals minus total turnovers. After all, what’s more valuable, 3 steals and 1 TO or 7 steals and 3 TOs? In spite of being the worse ratio, I ardently maintain the latter, it creates four extra scoring chances for your team instead of just two.

There are only 39 players in the league with more steals to their name than turnovers. That’s not too surprising. After all, every steal is a turnover, but only about half of turnovers are steals. So there are a lot of extra turnovers to go around. Of those 39, only 11 half a double digit differential. Here’s a complete list:

Player Steals Turnovers
Shane Battier 21 7
Jimmy Butler 65 49
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope 49 17
DeMarre Carroll 57 36
Jae Crowder 42 32
Dante Cunningham 33 18
Moe Harkless 50 36
Kawhi Leonard 68 48
Rashard Lewis 43 27
Pablo Prigioni 35 23
Thabo Sefolosha 55 42

Sometimes, the numbers speak for themselves. Nobody can touch KCP with a ten foot pole.

If you’re curious about the other end, that would be Dwight Howard at -109 followed by Steph Curry and LeBron James at -99. So it’s not like this is the most important number for assessing a player’s value. You’re not going to carry a team by failing to turn the ball over. But KCP isn’t in Detroit to carry the team. He’s a role player.

That role, play defense and catch-and-shoot on offense, is one that puts him in an advantageous position to avoid turnovers. So it’s not really fair to compare him to many players in the league who are creating offense. But there are also a lot of players with similar roles to Kentavious’. We could debate over who does and doesn’t belong on that list. But regardless of which players those are, KCP has outdone them all in this regard.

He still has room for improvement in his (good, but overrated) defense and especially his (not great, but improving) shooting. But when it comes to turnover margins, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is better than anyone could have hoped. And it’s about time fans started noticing.

*all statistics current to Jan 30, 2014

4-on-3: Sniffing for success

Modeled after ESPN’s 5-on-5, three of us will answer three questions about a Pistons-related topic. Please add your responses in the comments.

1. After a rather depressing stretch of losses, the Pistons seemed to have found their way a bit in their last two games against Orlando and Philadelphia. Did they do anything particularly special?

Dan Feldman: They played two teams worse than them. If anything, these games showed how difficult tanking into a top-eight pick will be. The Pistons have talent — plenty more than Philadelphia and Orlando. But Detroit didn’t do anything special to convince me a playoff berth was any more likely than I believed before these two games.

Brady Fredericksen: They played some defense. Philly and Orlando aren’t anything special (they’re actually the opposite of special), but they both shot under 43 percent from the field. The Pistons aren’t pretty in any way, but they score enough points to win games, and as long as they find a way to play some defense, that should be a decent formula for success.

Patrick Hayes: The combination of playing poor teams along with the fact that Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond figured heavily into the offense was really about it. I’d love to see the Monroe-Drummond frontline continue to blossom, but until they perform like they did vs. Philly against better teams, I’m pretty skeptical the team has figured out anything substantial just yet. It was definitely more fun to watch though.

Tim Thielke: Just as fans of the Heat, Pacers, Thunder or Spurs shouldn’t get worried if their team drops back-to-back games, we have no reason to get excited about back-to-back wins. That will happen sometimes, especially against two of the worst teams in the league. If the Pistons can win seven of ten against a range of opponents, we can discuss whether they’re doing anything special.

2. Yeah, yeah, the Magic and 76ers aren’t wins to brag about, but when things are going as bad as they were prior to those wins, do you think any sustained success is welcomed from a struggling team?

Dan Feldman: Sure. It’s a long season, and not long ago, everything was getting extremely ugly. The players aren’t robots, and I’m sure two straight wins — no matter the opponents — were welcome. Will that be a turning point or just a brief reprieve? I’d guess the latter is more likely, but there’s nothing wrong with hoping for the former.

Brady Fredericksen: Of course they’re welcomed. Believe it or not, the opinion that the team should just tank and be bad is probably not shared by the guys on the court. Who knows what these wins mean — my guess is nothing — but there’s never a bad win for a team/franchise that desperately wants to be good.

Patrick Hayes: Absolutely. We all know the team’s flaws. No win is an easy win for the Pistons based on their body of work this season. They’ve blown leads against bad teams before, so seeing them build and hold leads against Orlando and Philly is still progress, even if it is only minimal progress.

Tim Thielke: Yes, but this isn’t yet sustained success. I mean, I’m sure the wins are welcome to the players. But to the fans? They’re only worthwhile if the Pistons can get all the way up to the sixth seed. Then they’ll have a realistic shot at the second round. Otherwise, they might as well pile on the losses. I find the prospect of a 7-10 seed most unwelcoming.

3. With Miami, San Antonio, Denver and Brooklyn on the docket in the next week and a half, the Pistons are going to have a chance to try to carry that success into games with playoff-caliber teams. What’s the key?

Dan Feldman: Keep motivating and involving Drummond. Drummond is the Pistons’ best player right now, and he probably still has more room to grow than anyone on the team besides Tony Mitchell. Since Maurice Cheeks benched him twice against the Mavericks, Drummond has dominated. Against Orlando: 13 points on 5-of-7 shooting, 17 rebounds, two blocks. Against Philadelphia: 22 points on 10-of-11 shooting, 14 rebounds, five blocks. Alone, Drummond has the ability to lift the Pistons into another level as a team.

Brady Fredericksen: Defend and you’ve got a chance. The Pistons’ scored 20-plus points via fastbreak baskets in those two wins. You don’t get easy, fastbreak baskets without playing defense. This team is a stick in the mud when they’re forced to play slowly. The more defense they play — or simply, the more turnovers they can force — they more fastbreak chances they’ll get. If the Pistons run-run-run, and they’re a good team on the break per Team Rankings, we’ll see less jumper-jumper-jumper (and clank-clank-clank) from Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings.

Patrick Hayes: More dominant efforts from Monroe and Drummond would be a start. And supplementing that, Smith and Jennings slinking out of primary roles and playing within themselves would help too. The Pistons offense seems to be bouncing back from more than a month of terribleness. If they’re going to play well against better teams coming up on the schedule, they’ll need some defensive progress, too.

Tim Thielke: Fully leverage their talent. The Pistons actually have quite a lot on the roster. I am still fully convinced that this roster, if well-coached, could be at least an above average team. But the players have to be put in a position to have their strengths emphasized rather than their weaknesses. And they really need to defend the arc.

What’s wrong with the Pistons’ offense?

Not long ago, the Pistons offense functioned at least moderately effectively.

Not anymore.

Me at the Detroit Free Press:

Through Christmas, Detroit ranked No. 12 in the NBA in points per possession. The Pistons’ offense wasn’t pretty, but it worked.

Since then, the Pistons have the NBA’s 26th-most-effective offense.

It has gotten so bad, Detroit’s offense (20th in the league for the season) has nearly caught its defense (21st) in ineptitude. Since Christmas, the units are running even: 26th and 26th.

What has changed from before and after Dec. 25? Three areas stand out, one positive and two negative.

On the bright side, the Pistons have gone from above average to very good at getting to the free throw line. Unfortunately, the benefits are muted when Detroit makes a league-worst 66% of its free throws.

The negatives are much more pronounced.

To start, the Pistons have gone from making a woeful 32% of their three-pointers to an abhorrent 27%.

They’ve also started turning the ball over much more. Doing it at slightly better than the median rate before Christmas, Detroit ranks among the NBA’s worst ball protectors since.

These are the perils of building a team that is led by Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings in field goal attempts, three-point attempts, assists and turnovers. The offense is bound to be erratic — particularly in the halfcourt.

The Pistons went from a strong fifth in fast-break points and eighth in second-chance points before Christmas to first in both categories after Christmas. They’re cleaning up when it comes to those defense- and rebounding-fueled methods of scoring.

That means the set offense has become the issue.

Turnovers and three-point shooting are both the root and symptoms of the problem.

Running the offense through Jennings and Smith, the Pistons frequently get themselves into trouble. If Smith and Jennings don’t turn the ball over or force a three-pointer early in the possession, the play too often still goes nowhere. That leaves mere seconds on the shot clock and little option to do anything but force a risky pass or a long shot.

Why do people believe the Pistons don’t make decisions based on statistics?

Imagine an NBA team that:

  • Hired a Director of Basketball Operations who’d gotten an MBA from Duke and risen through the league thanks to his focus on analytics
  • Drafted a player in the first round who was rated so highly by a statistical formula, not even the formula’s creator believed the player should have been selected there
  • Received a projection of 49-33 and fifth in its conference from one statistical formula and was expected to finish 46-36 and fourth in the conference by another, independent statistical formula

However, this team fell nine games below .500 early in the season.

The head coach had repeated run-ins with the team’s highest-paid player. The first-round pick showed solid potential, but he struggled after the team vaulted him into the starting lining up because it failed to acquire viable alternatives at his position. The top three players had no chemistry together.

Wouldn’t that seem like a team too reliant on analytics?

As I’m sure you’ve figured out by now, I’m talking about the Pistons.

For a team that supposedly pays minimal attention to analytics, the Pistons sure put together a team that just happened to rate well in preseason statistical prognostications.

ESPN’s SCHOENE projection predicted 49 wins, and a projection based on Wins Produced yielded 46.4 victories. Kevin Pelton’s WARP projections placed Caldwell-Pope No. 4 overall, but Pelton ranked Caldwell-Pope behind Trey Burke and C.J. McCollum in his own subjective rankings.

And the Pistons hired Ken Catanella three years ago as their Director of Basketball Operations – a move The Palace president Dennis Mannion said was not forced on Joe Dumars.

Yet, David Mayo of MLive recently wrote:

This is largely a top-down approach and the Pistons have a couple of old-school guards in the top chairs. I’ve never heard Joe Dumars utter the word “analytics,” much less apply one. Maurice Cheeks, asked about advanced statistics earlier this year, responded with something about 3-point percentage. They govern by eyeballs.

Lawrence Frank was attuned to analytics and who/what succeeded/failed under specific conditions or stimuli. He had a coaching staff that was attuned to it, too. Cheeks’ coaches are, too. Cheeks has admitted his coaches would inundate him with such statistical analysis if he showed interest in it, which he admits he generally doesn’t. Cheeks’ stated approach is that he’ll listen to anything interesting that’s brought to him. If you bring him good information, he’s more likely to listen. That’s the analytics department here.

Perhaps, Mayo knows enough about how the Pistons truly run to make that assessment despite the circumstantial evidence to the contrary I presented above. But, if he does, he doesn’t credibly make his case here.

Dumars has never applied an analytic? NBA teams are especially secretive about their use of advanced stats, and the Pistons are secretive about everything, anyway. I don’t expect Dumars to run around talking about his use of analytics.

He doesn’t need to use the word “analytics” to apply one, anyway.

When Dumars says of Brandon Jennings, “We like his ability to score off the bounce,” that might have been determined through analytics. Maybe Dumars just watched game film without taking any notes, but I’d say it’s more likely he at least complemented that method with Jennings shooting-off-the-dribble statistics. You don’t have to talk in numbers to have numbers influence what you say.

As far as Maurice Cheeks, I’ve never seen him as a beacon of statistical understanding, but I don’t know how bringing up 3-point percentage disparages him – as if 3-point percentage is unworthy of the higher minds of basketball analytics. Perhaps, Cheeks embarrassed himself with his answer on the topic – it wouldn’t be the first time – but there’s nothing inherently wrong with mentioning 3-point percentage. If Cheeks’ answer lacked insight, it needs to be explained more thoroughly than Mayo did.

Regardless, this goes back to the first point. If another member of the staff crunches numbers and determines something about a player and then tells Cheeks in plain English, the analytics are working. There’s a value in translating numbers to digestible form.

On a related note, from the outside, it’s impossible to tell exactly how much the Pistons – from Dumars down – use the information Catanella and other statistically inclined members of the organization give them.

But it sure seems Catanella is the type of statistical analyst Dumars would listen to.

Catanella, who used to work on Wall Street, spoke at the 2009 New England Symposium on Statistics in Sports. He called communicating with co-workers who aren’t necessarily statistically inclined “by far, the most important part of the job.”

Catanella, years before the Pistons hired him, essentially described how he’d make an impact on a team run by Tom Gores and Joe Dumars:

Implementing that in the sports world is even more important, especially if this a new position to the team you’re joining, which it was when I was in New Jersey. … You’re developing a trust level with the organization, with the coaches, with the GM.

And that takes time, but if you’re open to telling them when you don’t know the answer and telling them why, I think they’ll trust you more. As opposed to, ‘I know the answer every time, and this is right, and this is what you have to do.’

Also, choosing your battles wisely. When it’s a really important decision in your mind, it might not be a really important decision to the general manager or to the coach. Be sure to make that clear.

And then, at the end of the day, if you actually are getting those things implemented, then you know you’re being successful. You could be the best statistical analyst in the world, and you know you’re right 100 percent of the time, and you knock the ball out of the park every time you do an analysis. But it only gets implemented one time out of 10, the guy’s who’s a little bit, not less aggressive, but not as accurate, but gets things implemented five times as often is probably the better analyst, in my mind.

It is trending more and more towards an analytical approach, partially due to the changes in ownership that have occurred in our teams. So, a lot of times, the owners of today are coming from backgrounds where they own businesses or they ran hedge-fund companies, and they’re used to seeing in-depth analytical studies on every major decision that their companies make. And they want to see the same type of work at their sports organizations.

I supposed it’s possible, despite his preparation for and focus on having influence, Catanella hasn’t achieved meaningful results in Detroit. But he spoke about that very subject during last year’s MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.

Here are a few things he said:

I found the most benefit from having divergent backgrounds, especially in the front office, because each person lends a completely valuable different and valuable perspective that, at the end of the day, it probably comes down somewhat of a wisdom-of-the-crowds philosophy, right? And a lot of the times, we’ve seen more literature, that the best decisions are often made from completely different opinions.

In our organization, it’s exactly that way, and I think it’s structured beautifully to have someone that’s focused purely on, perhaps, the background element of a player or someone that’s focused purely on the coaching elements. We have former coaches that are scouts. We have former players that are scouts that get into the personal side of people. The analytical piece. And perhaps somebody that’s more experienced. And at the end of the day, the chief decision maker has much more information to make that final decision.

I think it gets back to the human element, because, if you think about somebody coming into your office and grandstanding and putting on a show and saying, “I’m 100 percent right, there’s no way that you could possibly be right, there’s no way you could possibly have something to add to this discussion” or that it couldn’t get better – doesn’t that make it eminently hard for you to accept the idea and then not only internalize it, but then make it an actionable item? That’s what we’re really trying to do. That’s what analysts are trying to do. They’re trying to make an impact on an organization by transferring their knowledge to somebody that will actually make use of it.

Whether it’s trying to get information to a player who’s about to guard somebody that has to be able to internalize it to the point where he doesn’t even have to think about it. He knows exactly the way he wants to guard that individual so that it’s reflex. To the GM that gets faith in the information and the decision that he’s ultimately making from that discussion, and he actually, potentially, partakes in the ultimate conclusion by adding to the discussion and tinkering with the idea, like you said.

A lot of times, our ideas are not entirely fully formed, even. Sometimes, I come into someone’s office looking for guidance. So, I think that just allows other people to gain greater acceptance and embrace your ideas when you have that type of approach.

That was a very challenging one, because you think about, I had played some professional basketball in Europe and worked in the front office over there. But here, there’s a program and a coach that had credentials, infinite credentials and a prestigious program. And how could I add value walking in as a graduate assistant at that time?

I noticed a few things in terms of their pregame prep, and I was doing some video logging of opponent games. And I automated a process that created what now is commonplace, but over a decade ago was a rarity, is a shot-zone chart that had visuals and colors. At that point, I gave it to the coaching staff and thought nothing of it. And the next thing I knew, at the practice later that day, in preparation for the next day’s game, Coach had blown it up to an infinite size, brought it over to the bench where the guys were sitting. Of course, it was a proud moment for a geek like me, but he showed it to the guys and said, ‘This is what we have to do to stop this team if we play this player this way.’

And at that moment, I realized, if you can just find that niche of something that is missing or that you can add an element that can make them better at their job, they’re going to really appreciate you and trust that you have their best interests at heart, like you were saying Alec. And if you can show that you have a passion for the game too and winning and that you’re a person that has a similar mindset and similar goals, those things also have a powerful impact.

Data really has a hard time with context. I can have as much information as I want, but if I don’t – I’ve explained this to you.

A term we use a lot is, ‘Smell the gym.’ Just get in there and feel the game again and feel what the player is seeing and what his interactions are like with his teammates and his coaches. Those are data points.

We just have to think about data in a different way and try to develop as much information around the core base of information that we use to evaluate a player. It might be on the periphery. It might be weighted heavily. It might be weighted lightly. But we definitely want to consider it.

Doesn’t that sound like the exact type of analytical specialist who can persuade Dumars?

Again, it’s still possible Dumars has ignored Catanella.

But would Catanella really choose to sit on a panel about having influence within an organization if that were the case? It’s possible, but that seems unlikely.

Would Gores compliment Catanella by name before while praising Dumars before the season for meshing with Catanella? Gores, via Dave Pemberton of The Oakland Press:

“Early on I said to Joe, ‘We got to make changes.’ I think the thing Joe has done is he’s adjusted along the way,” Gores said. “Just like in my own business, I have to grow, I have to adjust, it’s all about getting better and not getting stuck in the old way. Joe has shown every sign of a person who can grow.

“He’s done amazing things with his own basketball operations. Ken (Catanella) and George (David) and that group, those are great young men that are smart. They compliment Joe’s talents. We had success in the offseason.

I still can’t say with total certainty the Pistons don’t “govern by eyeballs,” but the circumstantial evidence is piling up that they don’t.

Analytics are not a magic bullet that solves every problem. A team can apply analytics and still make bad decisions. After all, the Pistons are competing with other teams that definitely use analytics.

We can have another discussion about whether the Pistons use analytics effectively. That’s not the question I’m addressing.

Do the Pistons use statistics in their decision-making? I definitely believe the answer is much more likely yes than no.

3-on-3: All Star Edition

Modeled after ESPN’s 5-on-5, three of us will answer three questions about a Pistons-related topic. Please add your responses in the comments.

1. The All Star reserves will be announced tonight on TNT. The Pistons haven’t had an All Star since Allen Iverson in 2009. Is there any chance that changes this year?

Dan Feldman: Only Andre Drummond has the slightest chance, and I’d be very surprised if he’s selected. Since Drumond’s stock was relatively highest, Roy Hibbert, Chris Bosh and Joakim Noah have come around strong. Hibbert is a lock, and the other two will likely get more votes than Drummond, too.

Patrick Hayes: No chance. It’s a popularity contest where wins, name recognition and national TV appearances matter more than merit (and that goes for both fans and coaches making selections). The Pistons aren’t exactly doing well in those categories.

Tim Thielke: Definitely a chance, but I wouldn’t bank on it. Even in the East, there are 12 players more deserving than Drummond (the only realistic option in Detroit). But never count out the possibility of injuries forcing the pool to stretch a bit deeper.

2. Which Piston, if any, should be selected for the game this season?

Dan Feldman: Drummond. Hibbert, Bosh and Noah should snag the three backup frontcourt positions. If Kyle Lowry and John Wall are the backup guards, as they should be, Drummond should get one of the two wildcard slots. I’d take Drummond over Arron Afflalo, Lance Stephenson, Paul Millsap, DeMar DeRozan or any other contender.

Patrick Hayes: Drummond. He’s leading the league in total rebounding percentage, averaging a double-double and he’s even improved his free throw shooting this season (OK, so it’s only improved from 37 to 40 percent … but still, progress!). Drummond won’t make it because the Pistons continue to be their irrelevant selves, but he’s having a brilliant second season in the league and he’ll be a fixture in All-Star Games when his basketball IQ catches up to his immense physical talents.

Tim Thielke: If any, it’s obviously Drummond. He has easily been the best Piston this season. Should he be selected? Probably not, but he’s so much more fun than more worthy candidates like Noah.

3. They’re always a polarizing topic, but do All Star games serve a purpose in professional sports or are they just a simple popularity contest that yields a half-hearted game?

Dan Feldman: They should serve a purpose – honoring the NBA’s “best” players at that given moment. After that, let the players turn the game itself into whatever they want. The best measure of who’s had the best season, what many purport All-Star Game selections to be, are really All-NBA teams.

Patrick Hayes: Does anything in professional sports really serve a purpose? Let’s face it, following sports (and I’m as guilty as anyone) is an extreme waste of time that, more often than not, leads to misery. You watch for the handful of times in your lifetime that the teams you love provide incredible moments like the 2004 Pistons championship. Those moments are few and far between though. The rest of the time you’re spending time debating whether or not Mark West should start over Oliver Miller. I don’t like to label, but I would be highly suspicious that someone who is anti-All-Star Games is probably a fascist. Who doesn’t love blocks and dunks? Or even the occasional iconic moment (like Magic getting the MVP in 1992)? All-Star Games are light-hearted fun. Even the NFL Pro Bowl, by far the worst of all pro sports all-star games, occasionally provides you with highlights like this. Anyone who gets bent out of shape about an exhibition game meant for laid back enjoyment is way too into sports. Relax.

Tim Thielke: The fan vote tends to be a popularity contest, but rarely do you get some one egregiously voted in (it does happen, I know, I remember Iverson). By and large, it’s at least debatable that everyone who gets in is a top 30 player in the league at that point for that season. That’s why we use terms like “six time all-star” when discussing how good a player’s career was.