Psst, Pistons fans. Still out there?
The NBA is not the NFL. When times are tough for fans and the team, the building isn’t going to fill itself out like Jessica Simpson 48 weeks into pregnancy. That goes double for a team without a highly marketable star.
But the fact that there’s still a noticeable pulse reacting to the team’s struggles, growth and recent NBA Draft Lottery fate is discernible proof that all those who packed The Palace during the first Ben Wallace run are still looking for signs of daylight atop the Eastern Conference. There’s been a general knee-jerk reaction to many of Joe Dumars’ chess moves over the past year, accurate or not. The Tayshaun Prince re-up? Many opposed, partially based on the fear of blocking younger talent like Austin Daye, and hit on that notion. Most seemed opposed to re-signing Rodney Stuckey, too. For the price, Stuckey certainly proved to be worth his weight.
Now, for the third time in as many years, the Pistons will remain exactly where they should be, picking ninth overall on June 28. This time, reactions ranged anywhere from relatively neutral to downright apocalyptic. Hey, some of it makes sense, no? The retirement of Nicklas Lidström, the struggles of the Tigers, and a lifetime of rooting for the Lions probably brews skepticism naturally.
It’s obvious that the first overall pick would’ve been a rousing success (sorry, MJ), but to expect that is to be exceedingly foolish from a mathematical standpoint. The apparent drop-off after surefire No. 1 Anthony Davis is tangible, also. Brad Beal and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist both appear to be long-term starters who may land in a few All-Star games, and they’re both unlikely to fall outside of the top five, so even if the Pistons had moved into one of those other coveted top spots, prospects sans Davis still looked fairly solid and mostly sure.
Is the worry from the fan contingent related directly to Joe D? Perhaps it’s fair to question Dumars in terms of drafting talent (see: Cleaves, Milicic, White), but has Matt Millen colored everyone a bit negative? Countering those were solid hits on Mehmet Okur (37th overall), Aaron Afflalo (27th), and the aforementioned Prince (23rd) and Stuckey (15th). The past few years have been a somewhat mixed bag, albeit seemingly more makes (Jerebko, Knight and certainly Monroe) than air balls (perhaps Daye, Summers).
As much as NBA Draft expectations are created unreasonable, the ninth overall pick is not created equal from draft class to draft class. Certainly this year proves to have some tantalizers combining size and talent like Harrison Barnes, Perry Jones III and Terrence Jones. Aside from Barnes, both are likely possible fits in Detroit. John Henson or Arnett Moultrie both measure up as probable candidates as well. Considering Stuckey is a quite moveable asset, I personally like Austin Rivers’ skill-set. Picking for position rather than best available player is foolish, but for good measure, next year’s free agency class (of the unrestricted sort) looks to sport more bigs like Josh Smith and Paul Millsap than guards.
To go somewhat full circle, the criticism becomes fair for Dumars is in his trades and signings. The pair of Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva handcuffed the Pistons financially thanks or no thanks to mostly sub-level production. Here’s my argument: Pistons fans need not expect a 10-time All-Star or anticipate a bust, but rather hope for a long-term starter in the vein of Dumars’ last two lottery selections.
In today’s NBA, teams boasting a top 10 overall player or two like the Chicago Bulls or Miami Heat rule the roost. That theory proves to be no different in the West with the Clippers and OKC. But just as the Pistons proved against the Lakers a decade ago, the Spurs are proving (again) that you can be a favorite with players not named James, Paul or Rose. That blueprint, of course, requires pinpoint precision, like drafting great players late (DeJaun Blair), and even trading one of those (George Hill) for another (Kawhi Leonard).
The Pistons’ outlook shouldn’t be bleak. Just know that the room for error on the path to another NBA Title is slim. He might not say it, but the man who guarded Michael Jordan as good as anybody surely knows that, too.