Detroit Pistons

What even are the Detroit Pistons?

The Detroit Pistons are taking a unique path to the middle of the NBA standings. What even is this team?

Every once in a while, I like to sit down with a list of all 30 NBA teams for a little thought exercise: I put myself in the shoes of each team’s lead decision-makers and ask, “Where are we going?”

I do this not just as a tribute to the final two episodes of Sports Night, but also because it’s a useful prism through which to view the near- and long-term horizon for each team. You get a better idea of where they are at the moment and how far that is from where they ideally want to be. In the most recent instance where I did this and actually wrote about it, one of the teams whose direction I questioned was the Detroit Pistons.

Stan Van Gundy’s bunch appeared to have figured something out in 2016, but they took a massive step backwards last season. Now Stan’s heading into Year 4 as the head coach and president of basketball operations, and he’s still haphazardly swinging from vine to vine.

This offseason, the Pistons sent out signals that they were willing to match any offer made to restricted free agent Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, only to sign Langston Galloway in the opening days of free agency to a three-year, $21 million contract that hard-capped the team and would leave them unable to match any max offer that might come through for KCP. Instead, Van Gundy sent Marcus Morris to Boston for Avery Bradley, who is a better player than KCP but is also a pending free agent due a hefty raise next summer. The Pistons then renounced their qualifying offer to Caldwell-Pope, allowing him to sign wherever he wants.

Upgrading from KCP to Bradley is nice, but Bradley’s acquisition also came after the signing of Galloway, who is also ideally an off-guard, and after drafting Luke Kennard, who plays that position as well. This is also the same franchise that last summer drafted a power forward (Henry Ellenson) when it was already paying one double-digit millions of dollars a year (Tobias Harris, who can also thankfully play on the wing), and then gave another power forward (Jon Leuer) a multi-year, eight-figure deal. They’ve now brought in combo forward Anthony Tolliver to fill one of the final two spots on their roster.

The Pistons are capped out this year, likely to be capped out next year once they give Bradley a new deal (assuming they didn’t trade for him as a rental, which seems like it should be a safe assumption but who knows), and could be capped out the year after that if they decide to bring Harris back for another go. All this for a team that might make the playoffs? It boggles the mind.

The Pistons started the ensuing season red-hot, winning 10 of their first 13 games. They then slowly cooled down over the course of the year, enduring two separate losing streaks of at least six games. The second of those actually lasted eight games, dropped the team’s record to 22-26, and inspired them to make a blockbuster trade for Blake Griffin.

The Griffin trade injected some life but ultimately could not save the Pistons’ 2017-18 season. They finished 39-43, four games out of the playoffs. The offseason brought change as Van Gundy and Jeff Bower were replaced by Dwane Casey and Ed Stefanski (who has been in charge of the front office on an “interim” basis and supposedly tasked with hiring the next president and/or general manager since being hired as a special advisor to the owner more than 18 months ago), but the following season mostly brought more of the same.

Griffin was spectacular during his first full season in Detroit, but even his brilliance could only carry the Pistons to a 41-41 record. Worse yet, he played through an obvious injury to drag the team to the playoffs, then played through that injury to try to buoy a team that was never going to come close to beating the Milwaukee Bucks. The injury lingered throughout the summer and even into this season, and since Griffin returned to the floor after missing the Pistons’ first 10 games, he has been a noticeably diminished player. He simply cannot move the way he once did, and it has neutered his effectiveness. There are still flashes of the old Blake every once in a while, but the flashes are both infrequent and far less bright than they used to be.

His teammates have not quite been able to pick up all the slack. Detroit is 12-21 at the moment, sitting in 11th place in the Eastern Conference. The Pistons have gotten a bit unlucky, as their point differential suggests they should be a 14-19 team, but a squad with a middling offense and a below-average defense is probably not going anywhere special, anyway.

Driving the point that they are just a run-of-the-mill below-average team home, the Pistons rank 20th in Basketball-Reference’s SRS, which adjusts point differential for strength of schedule. They’re also a solid 6-7 in clutch-time games compared to just 6-13 in games decided by double digits — which are often more indicative of a team’s true strength — and 5-10 in games against above 0.500 teams. Detroit’s got a 17 percent chance to make the playoffs, according to FiveThirtyEight’s playoff odds, with a projected final record of 32-50.

Even if you ignore Griffin’s struggles, it’s difficult to argue that all that much has gone right for the Pistons this season. The way I see it, there are basically four main positives:

  • Andre Drummond grabbing every conceivable rebound (and some inconceivable ones for good measure). Drummond has tailed off some over the past two weeks and is now averaging “only” 16.0 rebounds per game, but he’s still having an all-time boarding season.
  • Derrick Rose combining scoring and playmaking better than he has at any point since his original injury. Rose’s 30.8 percent usage rate is in line with where it was back in his Chicago days, and his true shooting percentage is actually better this year than it was in his 2010-11 MVP campaign. Rose is also on track for a career-high assist rate. He has been, for the most part, legitimately good on offense.
  • Better than expected shooting from Tony Snell (42.5 percent from 3) Markieff Morris (41.1 percent), Langston Galloway (41.3 percent), and especially, Bruce Brown, who is up to 37.0 percent after clanging his way to a 25.8 percent clip last year.
  • Most of the all-too-infrequent time Christian Wood has spent on the floor. (He is somehow 10th on the team in minutes played.)

Beyond that, you have to start stretching for things like, Luke Kennard is getting to the free-throw line slightly more often; or Kennard and Brown are showing a bit more as playmakers, but largely because they have to play co-point guard a lot of the time due to Reggie Jackson’s nearly-season-long injury absence and also Brown is turning it over like crazy.

If there’s a foundation for this team’s future to be built around, it’s not readily apparent. Griffin is the only player under a guaranteed contract beyond next season, as his sure-to-be-picked-up player option pays nearly $39 million during the 2021-22 campaign. The team still has some bad money on the books next season (Griffin’s $36.8 million salary and Snell’s $12.2 million player option spring to mind, and there’s a chance Andre Drummond picks up his own $28.6 million player option), but unfortunately, none of the aforementioned players who are showing well this year are actually under contract for all that much longer.

That means that by the time the Pistons are set to get out of this mini cap strife, they’ll have to make decisions on whether to pay Kennard and Brown as restricted free agents. (They’re each up for new deals following next season.) Before they even get to that point, they’ll have to make a series of decisions regarding what to do with Reggie Jackson’s expiring contract, whether they should cash in on Rose’s strong play this season to acquire assets that would help them build their uncertain future, and the lack of clarity regarding the futures of Drummond, Galloway, Snell, Wood, and even Morris.

These are not easy decisions to make in the best of circumstances. And the Pistons are not in the best of circumstances right now. They are going to come to an inflection point at some time in the near future. They’ll need to decide, “Where are we going?” The team’s performance combined with its cap situation demands it. They came to a similar point two years ago and decided to go all-in with Griffin. It doesn’t seem to have worked out. The principals have changed and so has the team’s situation, so the decision should probably be different this time around as well.

Next: On Zion Williamson and the importance of proper biomechanics

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