Category → Myth
But as is often the case with promising Pistons, Drummond praise has drifted toward hyperbole. Many have said something along the lines of “Drummond should have been in high school last year.”
It’s not true.
Drummond did not graduate high school early. Many football players graduate midway through their senior year of high school so they can enroll in college in time for spring practice. That is not what Drummond did.
Like an overwhelming majority of American high school graduates, Drummond spent four years in high school.
When it came time for high school, Drummond picked out Capital Prep … Drummond, just about fully grown at 6-foot-10, stuck around the Hartford magnet school for two years before transferring to Oakdale’s St. Thomas More School.
For the last two years, Drummond attended St. Thomas More, a prep school in Oakdale, Conn. After graduating this spring, he is academically qualified to play in college this fall.
That’s two years at Capital Prep and two years at St. Thomas More for a total of four years of high school. The confusion comes because Drummond initially planned to take a fifth year at a prep school during the 2011-12 school year. Associated Press:
Middletown native Andre Drummond, considered by many to be the top prep player in the nation, announced today he will spend a post-graduate year at Wilbraham & Monson Academy (WMA) in Wilbraham, Mass.
So, could Drummond have been in high school last year? Yes. Should he have been? In the sense that maybe the unconventional route would have been best for him, sure. In the sense that he jumped to college sooner than other high school players? No.
Drummond is young for his class, and that makes him more valuable to the Pistons. But he’s not absurdly young for his class. I was younger for my graduating class than Drummond (and Kidd-Gilchrist), and in a clarification that I’m sure my teachers would find completely unnecessary even to acknowledge, I did not skip any grades.
There’s nothing wrong with saying Drummond is young, but let’s not go overboard and say he belonged in high school last year, or by extension, UConn next year. He’s right where he belongs.
Myth: By not playing him with a traditional point guard, the Detroit Pistons aren’t giving Richard Hamilton a fair shake
Too many think the Pistons, not Richard Hamilton nor his age, deserve blame for Hamilton’s struggles.
The argument goes something like this: Hamilton must play with a traditional point guard, a skilled passer. Otherwise, his talents go wasted. Neither Rodney Stuckey nor Will Bynum complement Hamilton, so it’s unfair to criticize Hamilton when he’s been placed in such an unfavorable situation.
Well, for the first time since trading Chauncey Billups, the Pistons have a traditional point guard: Tracy McGrady. Although he was a volume scorer most of his career, McGrady has incredible passing skills, and they’re the primary part of his game in Detroit.
Now, it took the Pistons time to figure out McGrady could play point guard, so he played wing early in the season. Once McGrady became Detroit’s backup point guard, Ben Gordon began to emerge from his slump. Many called for him to start over Hamilton. The Hamilton backers cried that wasn’t fair because Gordon looked good only because he played alongside McGrady. Gordon didn’t have to play next to Stuckey, like Hamilton did. If Hamilton got minutes with McGrady, he’d look good, too. Then, McGrady moved to the starting lineup with Gordon, only fueling those who claimed Hamilton wasn’t getting a fair shake.
Well, Hamilton has had his turn playing with McGrady as his point guard. It hasn’t helped.
I counted McGrady as the point guard for the Pistons’ November win over the Bobcats, when he started over a suspended Rodney Stuckey, and for every game since John Kuester adjusted his rotation in December. Here’s how McGrady’s presence at point guard has affected Hamilton’s points per 36 minutes, true shooting percentage and offensive rating:
|Point guard||MIN||PTS/36||TS%||O RTG*|
*Split by Hamilton’s total playing time with McGrady, not limited to the games McGrady played point guard
Hamilton has actually played worse offensively with McGrady as his point guard this season. He scores less often and less efficiently with McGrady at point, and the Pistons’ offense also suffers when McGrady joins Hamilton on the court.
McGrady, or any other traditional point, won’t act as a magic elixir for all Hamilton’s woes. Hamilton needs the Fountain of Youth.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before: At 35, Reggie Miller averaged 18.9 points, 3.5 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game. At 35, Ray Allen is an All-Star.
Many Pistons fans love those measures, because they see similarities between Richard Hamilton and Miller and, to a lesser degree, Allen. All three are in-shape shooters who move well without the ball. If Miller and Allen remained successful until 35, so can Hamilton.
But there’s a major flaw in that logic: at their peaks Miller and Allen were way better than Hamilton was at his peak. Just because Hamilton would do well to duplicate Miller’s and Allen’s later years doesn’t mean those two didn’t decline. And when Hamilton declines, his later years won’t be nearly as fruitful, because he’s declining from a lower peak.
Let’s compare how each player has evolved by age. PER isn’t a perfect stat, but it should give us a rough idea of each player’s ability. A major complaint about PER is that it overvalues and undervalues certain aspects of the game, but comparing similarly styled players alleviates that concern.
I set each player’s career PER to 100, so all values are relative to that.
The blue line represents Hamilton. The yellow line represents Miller. The green line represents Allen.
Miller’s decline began at 32, Allen’s at 31 and Hamilton’s at 30. It’s unfortunate Hamilton’s decline began at a slightly younger age, but it’s not unreasonably young when looking at Miller and Allen. Plus, Hamilton will turn 33 next Monday. Even if there were other reasons for Hamilton’s decline, that ship has sailed. He’s well into the declining range now.
Effect of age on shooting
I want to isolate a single factor of PER – effective field-goal percentage, which for players like these three, describes the bulk of their game.
Again I set each player’s career effective field-goal percentage to 100, so all values are relative to that. The blue line represents Hamilton. The yellow line represents Miller. The green line represents Allen.
Miller’s effective field-goal percentage fell in his later years, and Hamilton’s looks to be heading that direction, too. But Allen’s has shot up. Why?
His field-goal attempts per game have shot down.
Once again I set each player’s career field-goal attempts per game to 100, so all values are relative to that. The blue line represents Hamilton. The yellow line represents Miller. The green line represents Allen.
By joining the Celtics, who have several other capable scorers, Allen can become more choosy with his shots. With the luxury of taking mostly good shots, his effective field-goal percentage has risen.
Richard Hamilton’s career isn’t over, but he’s likely well past his peak. To maximize his value, he should play around better scorers and take fewer shots, perhaps as a backup. He could be effective in that role, but whether he accepts it is a different story.
Welcome to the last installment Myth Week.
Arguably no Detroit Piston player in this era has provided more signature moments than Chauncey Billups, most notably that halfcourt shot against the New Jersey Nets in the 2003-04 playoffs (although the Pistons eventually lost that game in overtime). The guy had a knack for the buzzer beater, it seemed.
The first time I remember the ‘Mr. Big Shot’ moniker he so famously wore for most of his Pistons career was in the 2002-2003 season. Billups was in the midst of one of his strongest stretches of play for the Pistons in March, averaging 26 points per game over the first nine games of that month. What sticks out to me the most is the game on March 9 of that season when, down one with seconds remaining, Billups calmly pulled up and drained a three-pointer over Chris Mills at the buzzer. Rick Mahorn almost peed his pants in excitement (a big accomplishment considering the monotone announcing stylings of Mr. Mahorn) and kept yelling “Mr. Big Shot!” over and over.
What I don’t remember, and I expect most others don’t either, is that just days before, Billups missed a shot that would’ve tied the game in the final seconds against those very same Warriors.
Now, this isn’t about me trying to claim Billups wasn’t a good player or I didn’t want him taking shots in the final minutes of close games. I think he’s still one of the more criminally underrated players in the league. I always loved his demeanor, loved the confidence he exhibited and loved how his personality was the Yin to Rasheed Wallace’s Yang (or is it the Yang to Sheed’s Yin?) on those Pistons teams. But I must admit, I’ve always wondered this: did Billups coast on reputation as a big shot maker because of a few really memorable ones that overshadowed big misses in crucial situations?
There aren’t end-all, be-all stats for defining what ‘clutch’ is. And the importance of clutch is a little overrated. After all, Flip Murray and Travis Outlaw were a combined 11-for 11 on game-winning shots between 2004 and 2009. I would still much rather have Dwyane Wade and his 27 percent shooting on game winners than either of those guys.
I’m going to use what we have, relying heavily on 82games.com. The site has a ‘game-winning shots’ stat that has data for the 03-04 season through 08-09 (Note: Billups was in Denver most of that season). Here’s their definition of a game-winning shot opportunity: “24 seconds or less left in the game, team with the ball is either tied or down by 1 to 2 points.”
The stat is not kind to Mr. Big Shot.
Something all Pistons fans would probably guess — Billups liked the ball in those situations. During those seasons, he took 37 shots that fit that criteria. Only seven guys — LeBron James, Vince Carter, Ray Allen, Kobe Bryant, Joe Johnson, Jamal Crawford and Dwyane Wade — have attempted more.
Billups has hit just six of those attempts, a 16.2 percent clip. Keep in mind, that the league-wide percentage is only 29 percent during those seasons, but Billups is still pretty significantly below that.
Of the four best offensive players on the Pistons, Billups had the worst percentage in those situations of the four. Here’s how they stack up:
• Hamilton: 8-for-22 (36.4 percent)
• Prince: 6-for-17 (35.3 percent)
• Rasheed Wallace: 5-for-30 (16.7 percent)
Sheed, obviously, isn’t much better than Billups when it comes to percentage. There are other arguments that despite his poor percentage, Billups did other things in those situations that were important. He had six assists and only two turnovers and got to the line for 19 free throw attempts. Compare that to Hamilton (4 FTAs, 3 assists, 3 turnovers), Prince (2 FTAs, 5 assists, 1 turnover) and Wallace (2 FTAs, 0 assists, 2 turnovers), and it’s clear that Billups did other things well in those scenarios in the final seconds. Shooting just wasn’t his forte at those points in the game.
Why the nickname?
As I alluded to above, we remember great plays often at the expense of not so great plays. Billups was a well-below-league-average shooter in game-winning situations, yet his ‘Mr. Big Shot’ nickname stuck because he hit four or five really memorable shots as a Piston.
Billups is certainly a player I wouldn’t mind having the ball in the waning moments of a close game. He’s a good decision maker, adept at drawing contact, he’s not scared of the taking the shot and he doesn’t turn it over much. But when he was on the Pistons, the general assumption became, “Billups has to get the ball late in close games.” Statistics show that the Pistons had other options on their team — Prince and Hamilton — who were much better bets than Billups to knock down that game winner if it was needed.
I love everything about Billups’ game. But Mr. Big Shot is a myth.
- Detroit Pistons picking Darko Milicic over Carmelo Anthony with the No. 2 pick in the 2003 NBA Draft was an avoidable blunder
- Bill Laimbeer should coach the Detroit Pistons
- Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva were horrendous signings by the Detroit Pistons
- The Detroit Pistons need a pure point guard to be an elite team again
- The Chauncey Billups for Allen Iverson trade made no sense
I’m glad everyone enjoyed Myth Week, so we’ve extended it a bonus two days.
I don’t know exactly why the Pistons traded Chauncey Billups for Allen Iverson.
Maybe they thought Iverson was a better player.
Maybe they wanted to create cap space.
Maybe they believed it was necessary to break up their core and took the first viable deal they found.
I think there’s a good chance all three of those pieces of logic played a role. But in hindsight, the trade was a disaster. Billups has been astoundingly better in Denver than Iverson was in Detroit. The Pistons’ cap space hasn’t paid dividends (although I haven’t given up that it might). And the Pistons core probably could have contended for another season or two.
The Pistons traded a star for dead weight. But when they made the trade, if I had to assign labels to each of those players, Iverson would be the star and Billups would be dead weight.
Billups got better when he arrived in Denver, and Iverson got worse in Detroit. There weren’t strong signs either of those transformations would occur, and that’s why I don’t completely blame Joe Dumars for the trade.
Allen Iverson: Star
Allen Iverson is only one year and three months older than Chauncey Billups. When traded to Detroit, Iverson had only played 26 more career games (including playoffs) than Billups.
Iverson’s playing time also indicated he was far from washed up. He led the league in minutes, minutes per game and games the season before the trade.
And that was arguably the best season of his storied career.
With a team-best 11.6 win shares, he led the Nuggets to a 50-win season. His adjusted plus-minus was 28th in the league. (And that’s an even more valuable contribution than it appears, because the stat is based on possessions, and Iverson played more than his adjusted-plus-minus peers.)
Known as a volume shooter, Iverson took his fewest shots per game since his second season in the league. But by posting career highs in true-shooting percentage and effective field-goal percentage, he still averaged 26.4 points per game.
That reduction in offensive output also made it more likely Iverson would reach his potential on both ends of the court. From a Jan. 25, 2008, USA Today article by Jon Saraceno:
Karl describes Iverson as a "very good" defender "at times" but adds he "doesn’t make the defensive commitment with an every-possession mentality." That is "not only psychological, it’s subconscious."
"Here’s a guy who has made his career scoring, and with big numbers," Karl says. "All great players figure out how to pace themselves and save their energy for what they do best. My feeling is, at times, (Iverson) ‘cheats’ the defensive end.
"I had Detlef Schrempf (in Seattle) and Sam Cassell (in Milwaukee), who took possessions off. But they had this great instinct when to take them off. AI, sometimes, doesn’t have that instinct. Sometimes he takes off a possession that I wish he wouldn’t. But when you’re asked to play as many minutes and score as many points (as he is), I don’t know if Superman could play hard every possession."
His off-the-court reputation was gaining steam, too. From that same USA Today article:
Karl says he "never has had one headache" with Iverson — unlike fellow North Carolina alumnus Larry Brown, who had everything but migraines trying to rein him in.
Playing at altitude, it is Iverson’s attitude that seems to have undergone a humbling transformation. Unlike when he chafed during frantic-filled days under Brown’s coaching in Philadelphia, Iverson appears more pliable, more coach-friendly. Talk of suspensions and fines have vanished into thin air.
Iverson’s increased maturity led him to observe in The Denver Post last month, "I’m just happy I got it before it was too late, before I was out of this league or dead or in jail."
The biggest misconception he says people have is, "I don’t care about nothing but myself."
"I think that’s my biggest problem — I care about other people too much," Iverson says. "At times, more than I do myself."
His controversial lifestyle as a young player, his scrapes with the law and some of his questionable relationships and bad decisions have prompted Iverson to rethink his life as the married father of four.
Perhaps most encouraging, he was reaching these heights without showing signs of aging. Saraceno wrote “the guard still vigorously attacks the rim with vengeance, creating havoc in the paint and getting to the free throw line.” Entering the season he was traded to Detroit, Iverson said he planned to play six more seasons. Chris Tomasson, then of Rocky Mountain News:
Why six seasons? Because that would take Iverson to his 39th birthday, the age he has said he wants to retire.
But now Iverson seems more open about playing until 40 and beyond. After all, Jordan did that.
"I don’t want to say (Iverson will be retired at) 40," said Iverson, who could move up to No. 2 on the all-time steals list before he’s done. "If I’m healthy, I’m going to play. I know it will be hard to hang the sneakers up because I just love the game so much. . . . But I’m not going to play if, when you look at the roster and (the opponent) is calling everybody’s name out, and they get to the seventh or eighth name before they mention me."
It figures to be a long time before that happens.
Chauncey Billups: Deadweight
The Pistons went from winning a title, to losing in the Finals, to losing a six-game series to the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals, to dropping four straight to the Cavaliers in the conference finals, to falling to Celtics in the Conference Finals.
At best Detroit was treading water. At worst, it was in decline.
Either way, Chauncey Billups was a big reason the Pistons weren’t moving forward.
In his last year with Detroit, his playoff performance dipped across the board from the regular season:
- PER: 23.6 to 20.8
- Offensive rating: 127 to 122
- Defensive rating: 105 to 109
- Win shares per 48 minutes: .257 to .202
- Points per game: 17.0 to 16.1
- True-shooting percentage: .619 to .564
- Effective field-goal percentage: .526 to .471
- Assists per game: 6.8 to 5.5
- Assist percentage: 34.7 to 30.8
That trend was only a continuation of the previous season:
- PER: 21.3 to 18.7
- Offensive rating: 123 to 117
- Win shares per 48 minutes: .216 to .183
- Assists per game: 7.2 to 5.7
- Assist percentage: 32.9 to 25.8
- Turnovers per game: 2.0 to 2.9
- Turnover percentage: 13 to 15.9
Playing tougher opponents, along with their being a slower pace, in the playoffs certainly contributed. But I don’t think those factors completely explain Billups’ playoff problems.
Injuries were a factor both years, too. But I think that speaks to the point. Billups played like someone whose body was breaking down. There are good regular-season players, and there are good playoff players. Billups appeared to be the former, not the latter.
When the Pistons made the trade, they still had a quality playoff core in Rasheed Wallace, Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince and Antonio McDyess (who was a lock to return after the trade). Adding Iverson – at least the Iverson who showed an unprecedented-for-him combination of talent and maturity the previous year – gave Detroit once last chance to salvage a shot at title, even if it was unlikely either way.
Allen Iverson wasn’t a star, and Billups wasn’t dead weight – as much as those appeared to be the cases when the trade was made.
Iverson was a malcontent with the Pistons. There were rumblings of problems at Detroit’s casinos. He wouldn’t come off the bench. His legs had given out, leaving him unable to finish on drives to the rim – essentially destroying his game.
Billups had the opposite experience. He was rejuvenated in his hometown. I don’t think Detroit could have had the Billups Denver got.
The best laid schemes of mice and men, go often askew. Let’s not beat up Joe Dumars because of it.
- Detroit Pistons picking Darko Milicic over Carmelo Anthony with the No. 2 pick in the 2003 NBA Draft was an avoidable blunder
- Bill Laimbeer should coach the Detroit Pistons
- Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva were horrendous signings by the Detroit Pistons
- The Detroit Pistons need a pure point guard to be an elite team again
I don’t want to be known as the Randy Orton of PistonPowered, so I’ll move away from the ‘legend killer’ reputation I may have established for myself a couple days ago with my first foray into this little ‘myths‘ series, and focus on a more contemporary topic: the Pistons point guard situation.
I’ve already weighed in this offseason with my argument that Will Bynum should start over Rodney Stuckey. But this post isn’t so much about who plays that "position" but rather whether that "position" even exists.
Point guards are romanticized so much. The greatest masters of the position are guys like Magic Johnson or John Stockton, who we associate with unselfishness, with leadership, with a poetic fluency in the offenses that their teams ran. They are guys who were fully capable of taking over a game with their ability to score, but instead they sacrificed so that their teams’ offenses had more fluidity, everyone stayed involved and the ball kept moving. Their styles of basketball were beautiful to watch, so it’s completely understandable why fans want their team to always be looking for that pure point guard. Pistons fans are no different, which is why Stuckey has faced an almost constant storm of "he’s not a point guard!" comments since he moved into the starting lineup after the Chauncey Billups trade.
The problem is, outside of the nearing-extinction Steve Nash and Jason Kidd, true points don’t really exist anymore. And while my preference would certainly be seeing Bynum in the starting lineup, I also believe that a team with Stuckey as its starting point guard can be an elite team. It would just require an upgrade in the talent surrounding him.
Isiah Thomas redefined the position
Isiah Thomas played point guard for the Pistons, but he very often was a scorer first. He took over games scoring the ball the way Johnson or Stockton never or very rarely did. Isiah could go out and get 15 assists on a given night, and on the next night he’d go out and score 40 points aggressively looking for his shot. And if that sounds familiar to current NBA fans, it should.
Look at some of the young crop of guards today — Brandon Jennings, Tyreke Evans, Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, Deron Williams, Chris Paul, Jameer Nelson — all of these players are at different times distributors and primary scoring options. They are budding star players, undefinable by the worn out positional definitions that we insist on giving players in NBA basketball, just like Thomas was. Thomas wasn’t Magic Johnson or John Stockton. He also wasn’t Michael Jordan. He was an extremely unique player whose success fluctuating between scorer and facilitator is the basis for how the position is played in today’s NBA.
Great point guards don’t = rings
If you were to count up the total number of rings Nash and Kidd, the two purest point guards of this era, have won, you’ll see that traditional point guard play doesn’t necessarily translate to championships. They are both winning players, leading their teams to several playoff appearances. Kidd has played in two NBA Finals (albeit in two of the weakest years in modern Eastern Conference history) and Nash has led his team to the Western Conference Finals four times. Stockton was clearly the best point guard of the 1990s, and he has zero rings to show for it. Teams whose franchise player is a pure point guard just haven’t won titles, not since Magic Johnson (remember: guys like Thomas and Chauncey Billups don’t count as "true" point guards in the traditional sense, since they both were responsible for large portions of the scoring load for their teams).
NBA Finals point guards over the last 20 years have included names like Derek Fisher, Ron Harper, Eric Snow, Kenny Smith and John Paxson. Guys like Mark Jackson, Jason Williams and Avery Johnson were "pure" pass-first points, although none would have been considered among the top three players on their respective Finals teams. Jameer Nelson and Tony Parker are guys who can be described as "shoot first" sometimes. Rajon Rondo is not definable by a position because his skillset is so extremely unique.
Having good point guard play isn’t the key to winning. Having a player who dominates some facet of the game, surrounded by a bunch of very good players, is the key to winning. There’s not a recipe anymore that says your point guard has to distribute, shooting guard/small forward have to score, bigs have to rebound and be strong post-up players in order to win. Those responsibilities are spread out all over the place — look no further than Billups, who was arguably the Pistons’ best back-to-the-basket player during their run of ECF appearances.
Many will point to the 2004 Pistons as evidence you don’t need a dominant star to win big. I disagree — Ben Wallace was as dominant as it got. He dominated defensively, altering shots and rebounding, but it was still total dominance of a facet of the game. He was their franchise player, he controlled games routinely, and he was surrounded by a bunch of very good players who did different things well.
In order to win big, teams absolutely need competent players starting at this theoretical point guard position. They need guys who are good spot-up shooters or good defensive players or good ball-handlers. But they do not necessarily need guys who are traditional point guards. Some of these teams have won with "point guards" who spend virtually no time running the offense.
Rodney Stuckey can be that guy
As I said above, it would require an upgrade in the talent around him, but Rodney Stuckey could be the starting point guard on a championship-contending team. He has a unique skillset. He’s a big guard who is potentially one of the better perimeter defenders in the league (he made great strides in his commitment to defense last year).
He handles the ball well enough to initiate the offense. He attacks the rim well enough to be an offensive threat while he’s on the floor (i.e. a guy that the defense can’t completely ignore). He’s versatile enough to defend either guard spot in case his backcourt mate isn’t a strong defender.
For him to fill this role, the Pistons obviously need a guy who they can run their offense through. That person is currently not on the roster (with apologies to Greg Monroe, who I think they will be able to run the offense through for stretches). If they are able to upgrade the roster via trade (assuming that trade doesn’t involve Stuckey) and bring in a go-to offensive player, the criticisms of Stuckey as a point guard would disappear.
Point guard is the new center
In the 1990s, when teams like the Knicks and the Heat were mastering the physical clutch-and-grab defense (and the thrilling 72-66 final scores) the league was known for at the time, big men were all the rage. It’s why stiffs like Eric Montross, Sharone Wright, Yinka Dare, Todd Fuller, Vitaly Potapenko, Adonal Foyle and Michael Doleac were high draft picks. It’s why guys like Jim McIlvaine got $30 million contracts. Teams were willing to gamble and gamble big on size, because if it paid off, the reward was handsome. Of course, what resulted is few teams uncovered hidden big man gems and instead ended up wasting picks and millions of dollars on guys who were good for not much more than 6 fouls a night.
In the current NBA, where zone defenses have made things harder on big men, and tightened hand-checking enforcement on the perimeter have made the league a slasher’s dream, the search for point guards is becoming a trend. It’s why guys like Randy Foye who can maybe kind of learn to play point guard get traded for Brandon Roy on draft day. It’s why Avery Bradley, another guy who occasionally flashed some PG-like skills, shot up draft boards despite a not great one year of playing college basketball. The trend is still relatively early in its stages — the 90s run on big men lasted a good nine years or so. It’s the same principle though.
Because these players only exhibit a skillset that partially resembles how the point guard position was traditionally conceived, I think it’s time for fans to stop thinking about the position traditionally. If you don’t have Nash or Kidd or Paul or Williams, just think of your team as having a couple of starting guards. Just like the big men of the 90s didn’t magically turn into Patrick Ewing or Alonzo Mourning, the point guards of the 90s aren’t going to be Williams or Paul (Or Billups, who Stuckey-as-PG-defenders frequently like to compare him to. BTW, I’m guessing within the first three comments on this post, someone will say, "Well, Chauncey Billups took a few years to become a PG, so Stuckey deserves another year too." It’s going to happen.).
Rodney Stuckey is Rodney Stuckey. He’s not exactly a point guard, but most teams in the NBA could describe their starting PG that same way. Barring a trade, the Pistons have to focus on finding a way to get enough point guard-like skills out of their collective five-man units to become a more cohesive team rather than worrying about whether Stuckey is a full-time point guard or full-time shooting guard. He’s just a guard. Live with it.
Let’s flash back to June 30, 2009. It was a simpler time. Sarah Palin was still Alaska’s governor. “JK Wedding Entrance Dance” hadn’t been uploaded to YouTube. Nobody had punched Snookie in a bar (at least not while televised).
Those two have quickly become the poster children of the Pistons’ downfall. On the surface, it makes sense. They’re guaranteed a combined $95.7 million, and for that money, the early returns have been pretty poor.
But those are only the early returns.
Look, I’m not going to say those signings were great. They weren’t. But they certainly weren’t the brain-dead moves so many people make them out to be.
Those signings are viewed too negatively for three reasons:
- People use the benefit of hindsight when assessing the initial idea of signing the pair.
- People misunderstand the salary-cap realities of Detroit’s situation.
- People assume Gordon and Villanueva won’t improve.
Class of the class
When the Pistons traded Chauncey Billups for Allen Iverson early in the 2008-09 season, creating the cap space used to sign Gordon and Villanueva, the free agent class looked much different. Around that time, ESPN’s Chad Ford listed the top possible 2009 free agents. The list was divided by type of free agent, and for one reason or another, several key players didn’t have their rankings hold up:
Carlos Boozer (No. 2 among early termination or player option candidates)
Despite Ford saying “Boozer is probably the biggest threat to leave his team in the summer. The Pistons also could be a serious option for Boozer if Joe Dumars decides to use his money,” Boozer never opted out.
Mehmet Okur (No. 4 among early termination or player option candidates)
Ford said Okur was unlikely to opt out, but with a solid season, I think there was a reasonable chance he would. Okur didn’t have one, and he didn’t opt out.
Eddy Curry (No. 7 among early termination or player option candidates)
Curry went from scoring 13.2 points per game on 54.6-percent shooting to playing three games.
Shawn Marion (No. 1 among unrestricted free agents)
This is the season Marion’s decline began. His number fell across the board.
So, that’s four players who the Pistons could have had in mind when they traded Billups, but none of those four were possibilities when summer hit. And when you consider not many players on Ford’s list had breakout seasons, the free agent class was pretty disappointing.
In fact, Gordon and Villanueva were among the cream of the crop.
Two days before free agency began, Dave D’Alessandro of The Star-Ledger ranked the 2009 free agents by position. Gordon was the No. 2 shooting guard behind Kobe Bryant, who wasn’t leaving the Lakers. Villanueva was the top No. 2 power forward behind Carlos Boozer, who didn’t opt out.
For comparison’s sake, Andre Miller and Raymond Felton were the top two point guards. Allen Iverson, even after his disastrous season in Detroit, was the No. 3 shooting guard. Hedo Turkoglu and Shawn Marion were the top small forwards. Besides restricted free agents and Detroit’s own Rasheed Wallace and Antonio McDyess, Brandon Bass was the top power forward. Anderson Varejao (before his transformation from flopper to stingy defender) was the top center.
As stated above, this ended up a pretty weak free agent class.
Just before free agency, Yahoo! Sport’s Johnny Ludden ranked the free agents. Gordon was No. 2, and Villanueva was No. 13.
Sports Illustrated’s Steve Aschburner had a similar view, ranking Gordon second and Villanueva 12th.
Ford wrote the Pistons had the league’s fourth-best offseason, saying of Joe Dumars:
He signed Ben Gordon, arguably the best free agent on the market, and quickly followed that up by signing Villanueva, probably the best free-agent power forward he could get with the money he had left. The combination of Gordon and Villanueva is an upgrade over Iverson and Rasheed Wallace.
That praise made sense at the time.
Gordon led the Bulls in win shares the previous two seasons. Stealing the best player of a division rival appeared to be addition by addition and subtraction by subtraction for an opponent.
Villanueva was also coming off what appeared to be a breakout season:
- He scored more points per 36 minutes (21.7) than Chris Bosh, Zach Randolph and Amar’e Stoudemire.
- He grabbed more rebounds per 36 minutes (8.9) than Udonis Haslem, Marc Gasol and Nene.
- He posted a higher defensive rating (106) than Luc Mbah a Moute, Jason Kidd and Bruce Bowen.
Besides, who would you rather have had the Pistons sign? Hedo Turkoglu (five years, $52.8 million) or Shawn Marion (five years, $39,879,660)?
A common answer is David Lee, but he was a restricted free agent (not to mention, overrated, because his defense is poor and his numbers are inflated by Mike D’Antoni’s fast-paced system). As Alessandro showed, not only was this free agent class lackluster at the top, it thinned quickly. The Pistons couldn’t afford to wait 10 days for the Knicks to match an offer to Lee.
That leads the next problem with criticizing the signings.
The Pistons couldn’t have simply waited for the Class of 2010 – or at least it didn’t seem that way at the time.
If the Pistons hadn’t signed Gordon and Villanueva (or Chris Wilcox), they would have had the following players under contract this summer:
- Richard Hamilton ($12.5 million)
- Tayshaun Prince ($11,148,760)
- Jason Maxiell ($5 million)
- First-round pick (we’ll use Greg Monroe’s $2,798,040)
- Rodney Stuckey ($2,767, 126)
- Austin Daye ($1,803,720)
- Jonas Jerebko ($762,185)
If the Pistons went this route, they probably wouldn’t have picked up DaJuan Summers’ option, so he wasn’t included. Adding five roster charges for having fewer than 12 players ($1,894,416), the Pistons would have had $39,147,861 committed in salary.
That would have meant $18,896,139 to sign free agents, enough for a max contract for anyone under 10 years experience. But it’s not so simple.
Shortly after the Pistons signed Gordon and Villanueva, the NBA sent a memo to its teams saying the salary cap was estimated to between $50.4 million and $53.6 million. Unless the cap was set at the high end of that range, Detroit wouldn’t have been able to match the contract, say, Carlos Boozer received.
In the end, the salary cap was actually $4.5 million higher than the July estimated maximum. But it’s probably not fair to criticize the Pistons for not seeing that coming.
Room for improvement
I’ve covered this before, so I’ll be brief.
Gordon missed 20 games last season, and when he returned he played hesitantly. Villanueva only missed four games, but he played most of the season with plantar fasciitis and back problems.
It wasn’t a fair season to judge those two, but so many have already done that.
Gordon is 27, and Villanueva is 26. They can still improve.
But that’s not even necessary for the signings to be looked at in a different light. What if Gordon could shoot 3-pointers and Villanueva could rebound? Well, before last season, both did those things well.
Let them get healthy, then judge.
Also, don’t just use hindsight to bash the signings.
When I wrote yesterday’s post pointing out why I think it’s flawed reasoning to assume Bill Laimbeer will make a great NBA head coach, I knew it would be a controversial opinion, probably one that puts me in the minority among Pistons fans. So, in fairness, here are a couple of ‘other side’ perspectives.
First, an Outside the Lines piece where former nemesis Charles Barkley says it’s a shame Laimbeer is not a head coach.
Second, there’s definitely a counter-argument to be made, and lo and behold, one showed up in the comments section from a very reputable source, Keri Laimbeer. Here’s her well-thought-out and argued comment:
Althought i respect your opinion and the fact that this IS an opinion piece – I’d have to say its flawed in many areas. Its disturbing to know that someone can write a piece although it is just YOUR piece (clearly not a PUBLISHED piece)that has so many fictions, portraying as fact.
It is true that my dad is not everyone’s favorite person. That comes with the territory that he stepped in when he decided that his role on the Pistons would be that it was. Love him or hate him, he accepted his role and he performed to a T.
Your opinion is based on his coaching ability, so I will try to focus my attention on that part of your piece. Your opinion about his “X & O” are clearly based on someone who did not spend time watching him coach or really understand what his team accomplished. He is a BRILLIANT X & O coach. Ask anyone with a basketball background, or someone who has coached him, played with him, or was coached BY him. Being his daughter, I spend MANY nights up with him in highschool reviewing tapes of upcoming teams and games that were just played. He could see what was going to happen before it happened and it was EVIDENT in the record of his team when he coached. There were many times when he would come up with a play on the fly in a 30 second time out (see the 1st championship Deana Nolan’s shot in the corner last minute of the game). Your opinion is yours so it is respected, but it is wrong.
Regarding his players:
Katie Smith – what you fail to mention is that he negotiated the trade of Katie to the Shock from Minnesota where she played he whole career for basically NOTHING. His ability to GM a team in the league was 2nd to none. You also failed to mention the 15 lbs he demanded she lose so that she could fit the role of point guard for the Shock instead of shooting guard as she played her whole life. (her performance speaks for itself).
Swin Cash – yes, she is a FANTASTIC player. She deserves all the credit in the world. However, you were not privy to the behind the scenes involving her time with the Shock (and i will not make that information public) so you do not understand the dynamics of his coaching of her.
Cheryl Ford – a strong physical player who THRIVED in the Shock’s system. a GREAT PLAYER who had a great system to play in.
His players were brought into Detroit BY HIM. He knew what would work and he made it happen. Hes OFTEN accredited with changing the way the league was played and the way it was coached/GMed because the league had to keep up with his examples.
The 2007 finals were a complete disaster. As the head of the team, he took blame for its collapse – never disclosing the real reasons that the season ended the way it did. (in the WNBA Finals going for a back-to-back) I suppose if its not a championship, its a failure.
I wont even comment on your OPINION of the Swin situation. I am in NO position to comment on it nor would I ever. But my only advice would be to not believe everything you read and to understand that the league is a business - with ALL parties attempting to have their “brand” shown in the best light possible. No winners or losers in that situation. The NBA/WNBA is a players league. No coach is or should be the face of the franchise. They do not sell tickets and they do not win games..its a PLAYERS game. To blame the demise of the Shock on him is pure foolishness. The Shock hold the WNBA attendance record for their finals appearances. He was open and approachable to ALL the WNBA fans. He understood his role in the league and he at times became the leagues ‘dog and pony’ show as they flaunted him around to various appearances and events which he was OPEN to doing. PLEASE do not undermind the work he put into helping the league survive. The WNBA is a money pit. No team makes a profit. It is the sole decision of the owner to decide the fate of a franchise and with all the “changes” and talk about the Pistons and their future… I believe the blame for the team moving belongs on another woman’s shoulders. IMO.
Your opinion is your opinion. Do I believe that he will make a great head coach? ABSOLUTELY. is it because I am his daughter? NO. it is because I know, just like his players, his former coaches and former teammates know what he has the capability to do. he will eventually get his shot and I hope then you are singing another tune.
Welcome to Myth Week at PistonPowered. This is the second in a five-part series of posts addressing what we see as myths involving the Detroit Pistons.
Bill Laimbeer is a tough subject for me.
I firmly believe he is one of the most underrated players of his era who, because of his reputation as an instigator (and punching bag of Robert Parrish), never gets the credit he deserves for how much he contributed to those Pistons back-to-back title teams. He was a great rebounder, great defender, great passing big man, nearly flawless fundamentals and obviously had great range as well as a solid post-up game. He’s basically the prototype for how all big men with limited athleticism should aspire to play.
I also hate everything he represents to most Detroit fans. I hate that the extracurricular stuff — his surly attitude, his cheap shots, his dirty little tricks — have made him a cult hero in this state and overshadowed the nuances of his game. He’s one of those athletes we have here — think Brandon Inge or Darren McCarty — who a segment of fans defend so vociferously, whose contributions they constantly skew and overrate and whose glaring deficiencies they constantly gloss over or flat out ignore.
I don’t hate Laimbeer at all, far from it, but the unflinching love he gets for basically being an asshole is tiresome. And what’s really tiresome is those ardent defenders — most of whom I would guess are nothing more than casual NBA fans — would love nothing more than to see Laimbeer coaching the Detroit Pistons.
Bill Laimbeer as head coach of the Pistons would likely be a disaster.
Can he handle the X’s and O’s?
Bill Laimbeer won three championships as coach of the Detroit Shock. I can’t and won’t argue with the results. What I will argue is that Laimbeer didn’t have to do anything special to win with the Detroit Shock. Maybe another coach wouldn’t have won as many titles or produced the exact same results, but that team, with its talent, was going to win a lot of games regardless of who was coaching.
His Shock teams were not the 2003-04 Detroit Pistons — a bunch of hard-working, tough, overachievers. The Shock were definitely tough and hard-working, but they also had as much (or more) talent than any team in the league from their first title team onward until Laimbeer stepped down as coach to pursue NBA opportunities. The names are probably not familiar to people who don’t have at least a casual interest in the WNBA, but rest assured, they are talented. I’ll roll out some WNBA/NBA comparisons to help make the point:
Katie Smith, who was on the last two title teams, has made more three-pointers than anyone in WNBA history and is the league’s third all-time leading scorer. Think of her as, oh, I don’t know, Ray Allen.
Swin Cash, a team captain for six years, was a top 10 scorer multiple times, a multiple time All-Star and a winner — she won two national titles at UConn in college, played for a title team in Detroit and currently has her Seattle Storm in the WNBA Finals. We’ll call her Manu Ginobili.
Deanna Nolan was one of the best all-around players in the W her entire career. She was on all three title teams in Detroit, she can score, she defends, she’s tough and she’s a leader. Let’s say she’s a bit like Chauncey Billups — a big, strong hybrid guard who can score, distribute and defend.
Cheryl Ford, also a member of all three title teams, averaged a double-double three of her seven years in the league. Two other seasons, she was just tenths of a point or rebound from doing it. She’s a strong interior presence, a great rebounder and helped make Detroit’s front line one of the toughest in the league. Think of her as Al Horford.
Sprinkle in a cast of great role players along the way like Plenette Pierson, Alexis Hornbuckle, Ruth Riley and Elaine Powell, to name a few, and coaches didn’t have to do much but roll out the balls (ahem … basketballs) to get that team to have some success.
This isn’t to say that Laimbeer or the coaches were bad coaches or didn’t do anything to help the team improve — as I said above, he was one of the most fundamentally sound players in the NBA. He knows how to coach defense, knows how to preach intensity and competitiveness and knows how to play winning basketball. But as far as getting this team to perform on the court? He didn’t have to do much because there was a hierarchy in place where the team leaders and stars policed things, and if you don’t believe me, look what happened when the team moved to Tulsa.
Nolan, Smith and Ford elected not to play in Tulsa. Holdovers included Pierson, Kara Braxton, Hornbuckle and Shavontae Zellous, all key players in Detroit. New coach Nolan Richardson runs a defensive oriented system just like Laimbeer did. And minus Nolan and Smith, the unquestioned leaders in Detroit, the team was a colossal flop, the remaining players had their flaws exposed without stars around to take pressure off and draw the defense’s attention and all of them were eventually traded.
There were certainly other factors at play, but I tend to think the impact of coaches is a bit overrated when they win and underrated when they lose (except for Michael Curry … he sucked in every way). The Shock won titles first and foremost because they had several great players and a couple legit franchise cornerstones.
That was one of the worst coached basketball games I’ve ever seen in my life. From poor adjustments, poor play calling and poor shot clock management it was hard to believe this was a finals game. There were several long stretches where neither team scored and yet watching the game you really couldn’t attribute it to tough defense. The Shock played tough, kept the game close and forced Phoenix out of their rhythm and still lost which has got to be slightly demoralizing.
In fact, if you read the whole series of DBB posts on that summer’s finals, there seemed to be plenty of questions about Laimbeer’s schemes, his rotation (more on that in a minute) and his ability to control his team. He obviously won in Detroit. His teams were obviously among the best in the NBA. But to act as if the team didn’t have major issues or questions at times is revisionist history.
Can he deal with today’s stars?
Laimbeer, as a major local star, had a large say over personnel as coach of the Shock. He was able to bring in players that fit what he wanted to do and able to get rid of players he didn’t think fit, he didn’t like or he openly clashed with. He did a good job of this — as I said, the Shock were one of the most talented, complete teams in the W.
As an NBA coach, he would not likely have this luxury though. Coaches, even successful and well-known ones, are not true stars in the NBA, even if they are famous. If Kobe Bryant walked into Lakers owner Jerry Buss’s office tomorrow and said, "I won’t play for Phil Jackson," Jackson would most likely not be coaching the Lakers. Not that it would happen, but if Tim Duncan suddenly believed Gregg Popovich was holding the Spurs back and wanted him gone, he could force the Spurs hand. That’s a reality of NBA coaching — hell, even faux star players (Penny Hardaway?) have helped push coaches out the door in the NBA. To a large extent, NBA coaches who take jobs don’t have a large say over their personnel. Re-working or building a roster in the WNBA is much different and Laimbeer had much more freedom to create a team in his mold.
Getting along with the top players on a team is vital, and based on his time in Detroit, there are legit questions as to whether Laimbeer can make due with players whose personalities clash with his. His relationship with former Shock player Swin Cash rapidly deteriorated.
This was Cash in profile in the New York Times before the 2007 season:
“If you don’t know Bill, you think he’s the biggest jerk walking,” Cash said. “I can see past it all. He played. He knows the game. He’s competitive and he wants to win. He’ll go to war with you every day.”
Smiling, Cash added: “I like him. Do I think he’s dysfunctional? Yes. But is he a heck of a coach? Yes.”
By the 2007 Finals, that relationship was damaged beyond repair. Cash was traded after the season and had this to say:
"When a coach loses their respect for you, and treats you the way he did me … it’s tough to deal with. … I can deal with a coach attacking me to make me better, but I cannot deal with someone attacking my character, or my integrity. That was the hardest part for me."
What did she consider attacking her integrity and character? Well, this was part of the problem (from the Seattle Times):
A June 2007 article in The New York Times quoted Shock coach Bill Laimbeer and assistant coach Rick Mahorn referring to her as a "crackhead" and "crack."
Laimbeer blamed the media and said he was joking:
"With the ‘crack’ comment, it was playful. It was, I think, until it got in the media. Then it became an issue."
Joking or not, Cash was obviously offended:
"If a man said that or called your daughter that, how would you feel? It became a public thing," Cash said. "When that happens, you not only offend me, you offend my family and people who know me. That comment doesn’t go with me, and that’s why it became that big of an issue."
An argument over calling someone a ‘crackhead’ is kind of silly, but it does show a lack of understanding that this particular star player might be more sensitive than others Laimbeer deals with, so perhaps he should’ve tread more carefully. Other insults, however, cut more deeply. Namely, according to Cash, Laimbeer behind closed doors questioned Cash’s heart and whether or not she was washed up as a player while she was battling back from a serious injury. Her final season in Detroit, he cut her minutes to 22 per game and the most prominent incident in the deterioration of their relationship occurred when he gave her a DNP-CD in game four of the finals.
And to be clear, Laimbeer got it wrong on this one: Cash is still a very productive WNBA player who (as of writing this) has helped the Storm to a 1-0 series lead in the WNBA Finals against Atlanta.
Cash is not a player with a reputation of being a malcontent. She’s not a player who has a history of not doing what it takes to win. She’s won everywhere she’s played and, if the Storm win this series, she’ll add a third WNBA title to her collection as a prominent player on all three and the best player on two of the three title teams.
The Shock still won without Cash, and Laimbeer and the remaining players deserve credit for that, but Laimbeer absolutely mismanaged his relationship with Cash and that would not end well for him had it been as a NBA coach with a star NBA player. And more importantly, while Laimbeer had the luxury of simply trading Cash when he didn’t want to be bothered with her for good value (fourth pick in the draft), he won’t have that same freedom in the NBA. The coach is the more disposable asset, and even if the star gets traded, it usually doesn’t bring close to equal value in return.
Maybe he knows that there is a difference between what a WNBA coach can get away with players and what a NBA coach can. But I don’t think we should just assume that he knows this.
Can he be a franchise face?
The alternative to having star players is having a team of pretty good under-the-radar players, kind of like the 2003-04 Pistons. So why not bring Laimbeer in as coach and assemble a team in that mode, with no stars?
The problem, then, is that Laimbeer becomes the face of the franchise. To his adoring fans, that’s wonderful news. People in Michigan love him and the style of basketball he represents. But it’s not so great from the team perspective, and once again I point to the Shock as evidence.
The WNBA is a mixed bag of colossal franchise flops financially and franchises that understand their fanbase, market their team extremely well and have stars who are giving of their time and committed to working hard off the court, promoting their league and team, as well as on it. These teams (Seattle and Los Angeles are good examples) develop a following that allows the individual franchise to flourish even if the overall financial success of the league is a constant source of debate.
The WNBA failed in Detroit, and it did so despite having arguably the most success of any WNBA franchise and two people involved who were major stars in their market in Laimbeer and Rick Mahorn. On-court success and two beloved people in prominent roles within the organization should’ve led to at least marginal financial success for the Shock. So where did the team fail?
As a NBA player, Laimbeer was not only known for not being all that accessible, but he was sometimes downright annoyed by having to deal with the media. Honestly, I don’t blame him — who wants the hassle? He’s a basketball guy, I’m sure he just wanted to play/coach basketball and leave the other exterior stuff to others. But in the WNBA, a league where it’s a necessity to plead and beg to get any press, that is a recipe for disaster. In Detroit, with his beloved reputation, I firmly believe that had Laimbeer went above and beyond to promote the team, to talk to the media and encourage his players to do the same, the Shock would still be around. If Laimbeer was easily accessible, the Detroit media would’ve written/covered that team extensively, not because people are especially interested in the WNBA, but because people are very, very interested in Laimbeer.
But we’re talking about a NBA job, right? Laimbeer would be the biggest star on the team if the Pistons hired him. The roster is not that good right now. Having a star like Laimbeer as the coach would ultimately help generate interest in the team, but it would require the cooperation of Laimbeer to actually make the appearances and do the interviews. The non-basketball demands on him and his time would be magnified and increased. Based on his history as a player and a coach, I don’t know if that’s a responsibility he would embrace, and I don’t say that as a criticism — again, I very much respect people who just want to focus on the game rather than the business/promotional aspects that go along with being in the league. But the NBA is a very image and PR-conscious league, and Laimbeer would be expected to meet those demands whether he wanted to or not.
Why am I so harsh on a Detroit icon?
As I said, I have great respect for Laimbeer as a player. And I don’t even think he’s bad as a coach, I just think he’s a coach who hasn’t shown the flexibility to deal with many different styles of play and players. It doesn’t mean he’s not capable of it, it just means there’s evidence to suggest he has a strong view of how the game should be played which requires personnel that buy into it.
If he’s going to coach in the NBA, where coaches can’t get away with regularly demeaning and calling out their players constantly, I think he’s much better suited as an assistant. In fact, until David Kahn gave away Al Jefferson, Laimbeer was a perfect choice to help tutor Jefferson and Kevin Love, two big men who aren’t elite athletically but have great skillsets that Laimbeer could help develop.
I care about legacy. Being a head coach in Detroit would be bad for Laimbeer’s legacy, because he would get fired. I don’t know how long he’d last. And given the right roster (i.e. not the current roster), he might even find a mix of players he could have success with. But there’s a good chance that things wouldn’t end well (see: Trammell, Alan). What I dislike is the assumption that just because Laimbeer was a tough player who is beloved by fans that he’d naturally make a good coach. Even with titles in the WNBA, he hasn’t proven enough as a coach, motivator or understander of the modern player to deserve that assumption.
Myth: Detroit Pistons picking Darko Milicic over Carmelo Anthony with the No. 2 pick in the 2003 NBA Draft was an avoidable blunder
Welcome to Myth Week at PistonPowered. This is the first in a five-part series of posts addressing what we see as myths involving the Detroit Pistons.
I firmly believe most teams in the NBA would have drafted Darko Milicic with the second pick in the 2003 NBA draft. In fact, although I’m less sure of this, I believe every team would have taken Darko second.
Of course, Darko was a tremendous bust. The three players taken after him – Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade – are stars. Those are facts I won’t dispute.
But it’s not fair to blame the Pistons for picking Darko. They were just the team unfortunate enough to land the No. 2 pick.
Not an unknown
Too many people think Darko was a late riser, who overtook Melo with a couple dazzling workouts. That wasn’t the case.
Yes, Darko wowed in his individual workouts, but that only confirmed what everyone already (thought they) knew. Darko was the second best player in the draft behind LeBron James.
Sports Illustrated first mentioned Darko on Dec. 23, 2002. The magazine wrote:
One scout counted at least 10 times that James failed to get back on defense. Added one G.M., "You have to worry that his sense of entitlement is so great after being spoiled by the AAU system, the agents and all the publicity."
There are no such worries about the potential No. 2 pick, Darko Milicic of Yugoslavia, who sleeps on a pullout bed, is warmed by a space heater and earns approximately $20,000 for the small club Hemofarm. A 7-foot lefthander with size-18 feet, Milicic can do it all—score inside and outside, run the floor, pass and block shots.
Tim Leyden wrote an article on Melo in the same issue, but it made no mention of the Syracuse forward’s draft position. Rather, the story hit on the uncertainty of the freshman’s place in basketball.
It wasn’t until March 31, 2003 that a scout declared Melo’s draft position had solidified:
He’s going to be the Number 3 pick in the draft [after LeBron James and Darko Milicic] because he’s a throwback guy with the skills to play multiple positions.
LeBron was the consensus No. 1 pick since his junior year of high school. Darko became the consensus No. 2 the winter before the draft (and important to note in this timeline, before Detroit “won” the second pick in the lottery). Carmelo solidified his No. 3 spot in the spring, on the way to leading Syracuse to a national title. During the pre-draft process, Chris Bosh set himself apart as the fourth-best player in the draft. The real mystery began with the Heat’s fifth pick.
And I don’t think any of that would have changed – no matter which teams had the first four picks.
Obviously, no player is a sure thing. But calling Darko the high-risk, high-reward pick and Melo the safe pick can only be done with the befit of hindsight – or a lack of understanding of the draft at the time.
Let’s start with the latter.
When the Pistons landed the No. 2 pick in the lottery, many fans assumed they would take Anthony, the player who had just spent a season dominating the college game. But those fans thought that way because they had never heard of Darko.
Darko wasn’t playing on national television. He wasn’t carrying a well-known Syracuse team to six wins in March. He wasn’t written about in newspapers across the U.S.
So, most of those fans who wanted Melo at the time felt that way because they didn’t know Darko. Melo was a safe pick because they knew him. Darko was risky because they didn’t.
But NBA teams knew Darko, which leads us to the problem with using hindsight.
At the time, Europe was seen as the place to find polished players. Pau Gasol, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili had recently entered the NBA ready to compete after earning their stripes playing against older competition abroad. The 2003 draft probably ended that line of thinking, and the notion had begun to unravel beforehand – but not completely. Ian Thomsen of Sports Illustrated:
But several years of fishing by the NBA has depleted the talent pool. Other than 7-foot Darko Milicic, an 18-year-old from Serbia-Montenegro who will probably be one of the top three picks, there is no player overseas perceived as a safe choice.
Thomsen wasn’t the only one smitten with Darko’s apparent ability to make an immediate impact. ESPN’s Chad Ford:
Darko is really one of a kind. He runs the floor, handles the ball, shoots the NBA 3 and plays with his back to the basket, so you can slot him in at the 3, 4 or 5 positions. OK, a few other guys can do that too; what sets Darko apart is his toughness in the post. You have to love a guy who has the footwork to spin by an opponent but still prefers to lower a shoulder and bang. Fact is, Milicic plays in attack-mode at both ends of the floor. The more you push, the more he pushes back. While he won’t be asked to carry the Pistons, he’s capable of doing this earlier than you think.
Ford also wrote an entire article full of Will Robinson praises for Darko. Among them:
"He’s going to own the game. Own the game," Robinsons exclaims. "We’re going to have to build a new arena. The only thing that could destroy a kid like that is a woman."
"I’ve seen a lot of kids come through here in my day," Robinson says. "And none of them have ever played like that. That kid’s going to be a star. He’s a 7-footer that plays like a point guard. That kid’s something special."
Yes it is. Like just about anything else Robinson says, it’s awfully hard to argue with 92 years of experience.
In a league that can be swayed by the whims of trends and fleeting success stories, it’s nice to have an anchor that keeps the ship from straying too far beyond shore.
Will Robinson is sold on Darko Milicic. The question, for the unbelievers still out there, is why aren’t you?
Like I stated above, I think the first for picks would have been LeBron-Darko-Melo-Bosh no matter which teams had them. But that doesn’t mean everything was certain at the time – and I don’t mean just according to the uneducated “The Pistons have to take Melo because I’ve heard of him, and not this Dorko guy” fans.
"He has the makings of the most dominant center in Europe since Arvydas Sabonis," says an NBA scout who isn’t sure that James should be picked ahead of Milicic.
And as much as I’ve been pumping up Darko, it’s not like Melo was perfect. ESPN’s Jay Bilas found a couple faults:
“does not blow by people off the dribble and is suspect defensively.”
In fact, the Nuggets actually toyed with the idea of taking Pavel Podkolzine, according to both ESPN’s Andy Katz and Chad Ford. Ford:
After Pavel Podkolzine’s unbelievable workout in Chicago, a few were quietly whispering that Nuggets’ GM Kiki Vandeweghe might grab the 7-foot-4 Siberian.
If Anthony were such a sure thing, that never would have happened. Clearly, the Nuggets had some pause for the same reasons the Pistons knew they didn’t want Melo over Darko.
The Tayshaun Prince factor – or lack there of
I don’t believe the Pistons having Tayshaun Prince had anything to do with their decision to pass on Anthony.
As I’ve detailed above, I think the reason was solely based on Darko being seen as the best player available.
But the Pistons have never seemed bothered by letting their rookies sit on the bench, anyway. Larry Brown was coaching them at this point, after all.
If Dumars thought Melo was better than Darko but not as good as Prince, the Pistons would have drafted Melo and played him behind Prince.
In fact, they did something similar with Darko. The Pistons signed Elden Campbell that summer, and he started. Mehmet Okur was the backup, and Darko was out of the rotation.
The Pistons also traded for Rasheed Wallace that season, but you could argue they only did that after they knew what they had in Darko.
Either way, the Pistons didn’t shy away from Darko because they already had a crowded frontcourt. So, I doubt they would have passed on Anthony only because they believe they were set at small forward.
What went wrong
Darko was a colossal bust. I’m not sure whether the pre-draft reports of his humble attitude and mean streak were exaggerated or he lost his edge in America, but he never showed those traits in Detroit.
The big question I have whenever a draft picks fails is whether it could have been avoided. In this case, I think the answer is a resounding no. Although the Pistons could have picked Melo, Wade or Bosh, that would have gone against the very strong conventional wisdom of the time.
Blame chance for the Pistons getting stuck with the No. 2 pick in a 1-3-4-5 draft. But don’t use hindsight to blame them for picking Darko.