The Detroit Pistons season-ending win over the Philadelphia 76ers was one of surprising statistical importance. This game marked not only the potential retirement of Pistons great Ben Wallace, it also reflected a season of progress over the troubled year that came before. The Pistons finished the season with a 37.9% win record, a slight improvement over the 36.6% record earned in 2010-11. Had the Pistons lost to the Sixers, they would have ended the season with a worse record against the season prior. While this might seem a bit arbitrary, it's an important point of note for a community that values objectivity-- the Detroit Pistons improved this season, and hopefully the worst is behind us.
Who was responsible for the team's improvement in 2011-12? Which players helped improve the team, and which players held it back? As we do each season, we'll explore the contributions of each player and grade their performance with fresh eyes. Since both coachand GM Joe Dumars played a part in this team's play in 2011-12, we'll take a look at their performance as well.
Greg Monroe | Center | 21-Years-Old
Sophomore center Greg Monroe was the story of the season, a genuine Most Improved Player candidate and an All Star snub from the 2012 reserve list. Right out of the gate, Monroe showed significant improvements over his rookie season in so many areas. His rebounding, passing, jump shot and free throw shooting all improved, as his averages climbed to 15 points, 10 rebounds, 2 assists, a steal and nearly a block a game.
After absolutely dominating before the All Star break, Monroe's production quieted down a bit to close out the year. While his offense and rebounding improved this year, his defense still appeared to stagnate. Despite these flaws, the improvements Greg Monroe showed in 2011-12 were remarkable, to the point that awarding him with anything less than an A- would be a crime. Fortunately for fans of the Moose, the growth isn't done yet. This 21-year-old is years away from his prime, and three or four more attempts per game might push Monroe into the coveted 20/10 territory that is so hard to come by in the NBA.
Rodney Stuckey | Guard | 25-Years-Old
It was finally looking like the break-out season we were all hoping for. For a period of about a month and a half, Rodney Stuckey was playing like a top five shooting guard, scoring at will from every panel on the floor and involving his teammates accordingly. Throughout a stretch that saw Rodney score 20 points on 49% shooting in March, he was second only to Kobe Bryant in free throw attempts amongst guards. For a moment, it looked like this streaky, never-quite-turned-the-corner guard had finally advanced to the next level.
Our collective excitement about Rodney Stuckey may have come a little too soon. After struggling with injuries in the middle of March, Stuckey never regained the heat he showcased for an unfortunately short stretch of games. Looking back at it, that strong stretch between January 21st and March 16th was punctuated by the long droughts of inefficiency we've seen in the kid since his rookie season. Stuckey's fifth year averages ultimately ended worse than his last, save for a slight uptick in 3-point efficiency that lost its sizzle thanks to 5/26 shooting in April.
Stuckey still showed promise this season, and despite the pedestrian individual numbers, he was one of a few net gain players for the Pistons this season. The team was much better with him on the court, and this was more true this season than it has been in the past. As is reflected in the advanced stats, Stuckey's "leadership" is finally starting to pay off.
Jonas Jerebko | Small Forward | 24-Years-Old
It can be argued that if the Pistons did not have Jonas Jerebko back this year, the team wouldn't have improved over the 2010-11 season. While Jonas' role was shifted from starter-to-bench, power-to-small, he produced well in the minutes he was given. As has been shown by players like Jason Maxiell, it's not easy to maintain consistent production when your playing time is yanked around, but Jonas performed admirably.
One note of disappointment was the lack of improvement in Jonas' 3-point shooting. If the Pistons are to play Jonas at his natural position, three-point shooting will be an important part of his role. Given his improvement at the free throw line (and the sharpshooting in his rare international games), it's fair to believe that Jonas hasn't scratched his ceiling yet in that department. If he can improve his outside shot and stay healthy, there's no reason he shouldn't be on his way to a permanent spot in the starting lineup at small forward.
Tayshaun Prince | Small Forward | 32-Years-Old
This was the worst season of Tayshaun Prince's career. Despite leading his team in field goal attempts, he shot a career-low 42.2% from the field. Despite dominating the ball for the Pistons, Prince only went to the free throw line 1.8 times per game. His defensive rebounding and passing rates were at the worst in six years, and the other advanced stats were the worst since his 10-minute-per-game rookie season.
If all of this was so negative, why the "+"? Tayshaun has no business being the team's offensive centerpiece, let alone its third option. While Tayshaun performed horribly this season, the real crime is that a) he's still on this team and b) he's been given such a predominant role by the coaching staff. If Tayshaun was paid for a reserve role and backed up Jerebko on the wing, things likely wouldn't have been this bad. Tayshaun shares the responsibility for this bad season with the guy who put him in the uniform and the other guy who put him in the starting lineup.
Ben Gordon | Shooting Guard | 29-Years-Old
If you watched most of Detroit's games this year, you saw another bad season from Joe Dumars' most costly free agent acquisition. It might surprise you a bit, however, to know that this was Ben Gordon's best season as a Piston. Ben shot a blinding 42.9% from three-point range, his best rate in seven years. This was largely buoyed by a handful of games that will go down in the record books, including a match of his own record of most consecutive three-point shots in a game, totaled at 9.
There's a lot more to a game than just 3-point shooting, of course, and Ben's contributions are about as empty as they've ever been. Ben was pretty horrible in penetration this season (he clearly needs to HEY! more), and his mid-range shooting was pretty ho-hum. Yet there were a few glimmers of promise when Gordon was on the ball in the backcourt, running the pick-and-roll. He and Greg Monroe combined for some excellent pick plays, and the moving defenders gave Gordon the separation he needed to shoot so well from outside. This is the kind of thing that, if exploited further, could make both Ben Gordon and Detroit's frontcourt players better. This and his slight improvements over the last two seasons keep him out of "D" grade territory, but just barely. Let's hope he can build on this in 2012-13.
Will Bynum | Guard | 29-Years-Old
It was an unfortunate year for this one-time crowd favorite. Will Bynum's game fell apart on all sides, as his scoring, passing and ball handling were not even NBA-caliber this season. Bynum shot just 38% from the field and his 1.8 assists per game barely edged his 1.5 turnovers per game. When Bynum was on the floor this season, the Pistons were at their worst. You've got to think this year is an anomaly at some level, and he is capable of bouncing back. Injuries did not help Bynum this season, and the final body of work he submitted in 2011-12 might be too much to bring him back for another year. Given what he's done for this team over the last few seasons, it's a hard truth to handle.
Brandon Knight | Guard | 20-Years-Old
The greatest failure of Brandon Knight is now and always has been the expectations about him. The thought that this shoot-first guard can run an offense is based more on hope than logic. The sad thing is that if you change your expectations for what Brandon Knight should be, he's still not provided any evidence that he can be very effective. To this date, if you want him playing on the ball or off, there is no conclusive data to suggest he can even approach the average, let alone flourish. That's not to say it can't happen, but it is to say that it is very difficult to see much light at the end of this tunnel.
Per minute, Knight's rookie season is nearly identical to his performance in college. Roughly 15 attempts, 38% 3-point shooting and exactly 4.7 assists per 40 minutes. Scary similar. Aside from the rather promising translation of three-point efficiency, Knight's 41.5% shooting average in Detroit is a problem. His lack of size and poor shooting cloud the opportunity of him one day playing off the ball. His poor passing numbers place him 86th amongst active rookie guards this century, despite having the playing time opportunity every rookie dreams for. Knight led the Pistons in minutes played this season, but despite that burn he did not capitalize on the opportunity to prove himself.
Some will argue about the lack of a Summer League, a training camp or other opportunities to get to know his team and coaches, but the same can be said of every other rookie point guard who started this season and played better basketball than Brandon Knight. Personally, I was hoping to find evidence that my opinion of Knight was wrong this season. Given how identical his numbers are to what he did in college, I haven't seen that evidence. He just appears too small and inefficient to play shooting guard, and he doesn't have the passing game to run an offense at the point. Here's to hoping that Brandon Knight is a rare anomaly that defies the numbers. For now, his grade is low due to a poor rookie season, but high because the greatest fault here is beyond his control-- the expectations about him.
Jason Maxiell | Forward | 29-Years-Old
2011-12 reminded Pistons fans why we love Jason Maxiell. His energy, toughness and presence in the paint is reminiscent of a lot of players Pistons fans have looked up to in the past. Finally, after a few tough years of underwhelming play, Lawrence Frank gave Jason the consistent role he needs to be productive. In 42 starts this season, Jason averaged 7 points on 50% shooting, 6 rebounds and a block in only 25 minutes per contest. Jason's grade would be higher if he wasn't so reliant on consistent minutes, because the 24 games he didn't start brought his averages down to just that-- average. Still, Jason should be applauded for his performance this year, and if he does decide to try the free agent market, I wish the best to him.
Ben Wallace | Forward-Center | 37-Years-Old
May you be the figure that every future Piston aspires to be.
Vernon Macklin | Forward | 25-Years-Old
Vernon Macklin's performance, when given playing time, was excellent for a rookie. In NBA garbage time or full-time in the D-League, Macklin surprised just about everyone who was scratching their head back on draft night. For a guy that's never been much of a rebounder, he rebounded. For a guy who couldn't score well, he was a model of efficiency. It's so rare for a pro player to erase their college woes, even in tiny samples. If a player is judged on what they did in the time they were given, Vernon Macklin deserves more than a pass, he deserves a solid grade.
Charlie Villanueva | Forward | 27-Years-Old
After a laughable mystery injury kept Charlie out for more than half of the season, he came back in a slimmed down form and did what he always does-- plays pretty well on one end of the court, fails on the other. The fact that his mystery injury kept him out of nearly all of the season factors into his grade. The fact that he did what is expected of him once he returned is the only thing keeping him from a failing grade. If anything, Charlie's OK performance in April is enough to think that he might be able to at least contribute a little in the season ahead. In Charlies case as well as our own, the worst may be behind us.
Damien Wilkins | Forward | 32-Years-Old
The crime here is not what Damien Wilkins did on court (or didn't do, then made you think he was going to do, then didn't, but then did), it's that he was even on court to begin with. It's hard to fail a guy when the real failure was signing him in the first place.
Walker Russell | Guard | 29-Years-Old
The story about Walker D. Russell Jr. was fun when he first joined the team after a D-League call up. Unfortunately, his play on the court was bad at every level. There is nothing he did well, and the team was at its worst when he was on the court. Hopefully he'll find a rewarding career elsewhere, because it's pretty clear that Russell Jr. does not belong in the NBA.
Austin Daye | Forward | 23-Years-Old
At first you're frustrated with the guy. Then you make fun of him. Then you just feel bad for him, then you make fun of him some more. Aside from those two games against Miami, nearly all of Austin Daye's 603 minutes on court were laughably bad. From impossible fumbles to ticky-tack-fouls to boneheaded turnovers and every other failure a player could make, Austin Daye was a nightly gag-reel that never ended. It's unfortunate, but it may be the case that Austin Daye was born for the preseason, and destined to fall apart once the regulation whistles began. Despite my own frustrations with Austin this season, I really hope its some sort of strange anomaly. He is a gifted player, but there's something that needs to be worked out upstairs before he can make it work on court.
Honestly, I kind of hope for Austin's sake that he is the player that one day drops 30 points on Detroit in another uniform. It's hard not to feel bad for the guy. It just feels like there's some weird hex on him that he just can't shake. More so than any Pistons player not named Brandon Knight, I really hope for his own sake that Austin Daye can turn it around next season.
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Lawrence Frank | Head Coach
On many levels, this is a tough grade to hand out. The final record for this team, despite the tough start, is favorable for Frank even if the schedule helped a bit. The team's defense improved over last season, and was its best (106.3 D-RTG) since Flip Saunders was with the team in 2007-08. These are positive signs, and I fully expect the team to improve under Lawrence Frank. As it does, his grade will improve with it.
The problem is that the offense (101.0 O-RTG) hasn't been this bad since the George Irvine teal years. It's also such a simple problem to diagnose. The centerpiece of Lawrence Frank's offense is Tayshaun Prince, who led the team with 797 field goal attempts this season. Prince has never played like a primary option, and he certainly didn't this season. He shot an abysmal 42% from the field, rarely ever passed (a six-year low 13.2% assist rate) and got to the line only 1.8 times per game. Does this seem like the player you want to build your offense around?
There are clearly other options on the floor. There are even better options at his position. As a result, there are only two explanations here-- 1) that Larry Frank independently looked at his roster and chose Prince as his go-to guy, or 2) he was given a mandate from above that he must use Tayshaun as his offensive centerpiece. The first suggests he's a poor judge of talent, the second suggests he has no backbone and either way, he never sought to change it after it clearly wasn't working. In spite of this, Greg Monroe deserved more looks all seasons long, Jonas Jerebko is more productive and a natural SF, and just a simple adjustment in the offensive playbook could have improved this team.
In total, the improvement on the defensive end and the improved record overall outweigh the frustrations with Frank's offense. I'm hoping he can build on what he accomplished in 2011-12 and that he can adjust the issues with this very broken offense. New personnel will help, and I have faith that Frank will continue to blossom as the team does around him.
Joe Dumars | General Manager
After a reasonable year in 2010-11 (and a chance at a fresh start due to the sale of the franchise), Joe Dumars returned with a series of bad decisions in 2011-12. The positive moves include the signing of Lawrence Frank (with a hat tip to Tom Gores) and the extension of Jonas Jerebko. On the negative end, it was more-of-the-same for Dumars.
In the draft, Dumars selected a guard who is an inefficient volume shooter that hasn't shown the ability to run a five-man offense. Later, instead of relying on the $3.8M qualifying offer for Rodney Stuckey, he bet against himself and paid Stuckey $24M before market value could be set, effectively overpaying for his services. Joe once again doubled down on duplicate talent and paid more than he needed to do so.
Next, despite having re-signed Jonas Jerebko, Dumars extended Tayshaun Prince for $27M in a deal that would pay Tayshaun $8M at age 35 in 2015. Like the extension of Richard Hamilton in 2008-09, this is a case of Joe Dumars paying for past performance instead of future expectations-- and doing so when a better option was already on the roster. In 2009-10, Jerebko came to relevance after starting in place of an injured Tayshaun Prince and leading the team to a better record during that run. Instead of younger and more productive, Dumars doubled-down on more of the same.
It could have gone so much better, but it couldn't have gone much worse. To bring back these two players, Gores bought out the remainder of Richard Hamilton's contract. The money saved here went to more of the same, two players who publicly feuded with their coach during last season's mess. This sends a signal to the Pistons locker room that players will always come first-- and it is their choice of whether or not they want to buy in to the coach's program.
Last, the Pistons haven't seen a single trade since July 13, 2009. Unlike last season, no one is giving him a pass since the ghost of Karen Davidson has long departed.