I think I speak for all Pistons fans when I say this: thank you. Thank you for ending a troubled season on a high note, and thank you for representing the collective hopes of us all in seasons to come. We're excited to have you, and we're looking forward to you leaving a mark of your own on this storied, successful franchise.
We used to have a chip on our shoulder in Detroit. We used to win a lot, and it was nearly impossible to find an empty seat in the Palace of Auburn Hills. Our team had a style of its own--we used to win championships by bucking the system, by frustrating the superstars and playing a tough, physical game with a dominant defensive identity. We didn't need a Kobe, a Michael, a Dwyane Wade or a Magic Johnson, we won as a collective unit, a team of lesser-known gems that worked hard every night to fight their way to the top. As a self-made Billionaire, I don't think you just understand our identity, you embody it.
You have a long-standing history of turning failed businesses into successes, so I'd be a fool to try and tell you how to do your job. But I can tell you what we as fans hope to see, and to suggest ways that the Detroit Pistons team can return to greatness. Since sports is a conversation of sorts between fans and talent, I figured it's important for you to hear the voice of us fans. With that, here are ten ideas on how your staff can help redeem the Detroit dream, to right this sinking ship and point it in the direction of its fourth championship.
Number One: a Complete Reboot
Currently, the Detroit Pistons are a losing team without an identity and without a star. The players are fighting with the coaching staff. The GM has designed a culture of failure, despite his successes long ago. The Pistons salary profile is a mess, with bloated contracts going to its least productive players.
Since wins are the currency that buys fanhood, a return to victory is paramount. In that regard, everything is broken right now, and nearly everyone involved with the team's on-court performance should be let go. The coaching staff, the players and the team's management should be purged to bring in new talent. I realize this can't happen overnight, but the changes should start with general manager Joe Dumars, continue with the coaching staff and end with the players who have worn out their welcome. While Joe Dumars may have had his hands tied during this sale process, he created this mess and he is certainly not fit to fix it. The characteristics of a winning GM are partially laid out below.
Number Two: One Sacred Cow, One Good Doctor
There are two exceptions to the rule of a complete reboot. Pistons rookie Greg Monroe has proven to be the best player of the 2010 NBA draft, a player that should remain a Detroit Piston for the remainder of his career. In terms of on court talent, he is the only player that the Pistons should not trade under any circumstance. I'll touch on this later, but efficient, productive big men and point guards are the hardest talents to come by, and Greg Monroe-- he is a keeper.
While the coaching staff and the management (John Kuester, Brian Hill, Pat Sullivan, Joe Dumars and Scott Perry) should be wholly replaced, there is one exception that should be retained. Strength and Conditioning coach Arnie Kander will have spent his 20th year as a Piston next spring, and his value to this franchise is unparalleled. His unconventional techniques have made him widely considered the best trainer in the league, and he has kept this team healthy and performing for decades. He is a rare talent, and since injuries can kill championship dreams, keeping him in Detroit is just good for business.
Number Three: Objective Management -- Statistics are the New Black
If Joe Dumars had Mark Cuban for a boss in the summer of 2009, Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva would not have received $90 million from this franchise. Cuban and other owners/GMs around the league use advanced statistics to determine the real value of NBA players. These statistics can help drive successful personnel decisions and provide contracts that fit into the team's salary profile, constrained by the rules of the NBA's collective bargaining agreement.
Advanced stats aren't available only to people like Mark Cuban, they're available to everyone. Most statistically-educated fans were vehemently opposed to signing Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva (and extending Richard Hamilton) before the contracts were even offered. As Pistons, they have been absolute failures, yet they are two of Detroit's highest paid players. These failures could have been prevented if the Pistons had a statistician in either the GM or Assistant GM positions like several NBA teams now do.
I imagine this is old news to you. You spent months combing over the details on whether or not to purchase this team, and you worked hard to find a price that not only benefited you, but we fans as customers. I'm confident that you'll use your capabilities as an analyst to make sure that personnel decisions are handled objectively. Statistics are vital in the world of sports management, and the Pistons could have prevented millions in losses had they hired a statistician years ago.
Number Four: Not All Talent is Created Equal
As mentioned above, efficient, productive big men and point guards are a scarce resource on NBA teams. Look at how the Lakers and Celtics have traded paint between champions the last few years. If both Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum are healthy, the Lakers are a lock for the championship. If both Kevin Garnett and Kendrick Perkins were healthy, the trophy goes green. The more numerous, dominant and long big men a team has, the greater their chances at a championship.
A great point guard is just as hard to come by as a great big man. While they are not as historically required for a championship, its the role of a point guard that is. Dwyane Wade and Kobe Bryant have won championships without a great point guard, but their control of the ball has made a true "point" guard unnecessary. If you don't have a ball-dominant shooting guard like those two, you need a productive point guard who can run an offense to bring home a title. The Pistons did that three times, twice with Isiah Thomas and once with Chauncey Billups.
But the point here isn't about the rarity of these resources, but the commonality of the opposite-- wing players. Shooting guards and small forwards are the most numerous and inexplicably overpaid players in the league. Detroit has $23M/yr invested in shooting guards right now when the salary cap is scraping $56M/yr. Ouch. These types of players are an abundant resource, and finding an efficient, productive shooting guard or small forward is a lot easier than finding a solid big man or point guard.
In the draft and via trade, aim for big men and point guards. There's no such thing as having too much of these, as they are the most sought after assets on the trade market. Stockpile and sell high. Wing players grow like grass in comparison.
Number Five: The Return of Detroit Defense
Bill Laimbeer, Dennis Rodman, Ben Wallace and Rasheed Wallace are the cornerstones of this franchise's success. They won by grabbing more rebounds than the other team could hope for, by shutting down every opposing big man they came across, by swatting guard penetration into the stands and by fiercely digging under their opponents skin. There were no other duos in recent history that were hated as much as these two groups. They were ridiculous, they were downright shameful. They were also undeniably successful.
These guys were so good at what they did that the league had to change the rules of the game to make them less effective. After the Wallaces sent Kobe and Shaq packing, David Stern added new rules that penalized big men from crowding the paint and added to the existing hand-checking rules. These rules castrated the defenses of NBA big men and gave unprecedented value to dribble penetration. I contend that these rule changes cost the Pistons at least one additional championship in the 2000s. But hey, I'm a bit colorblind as a fan, aren't I?
Thing is, defense still wins championships. Just ask Kevin Garnett, Kendrik Perkins, Rajon Rondo, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, Tim Duncan, etc. They hang their hats on defense, regardless of what rules the NBA throws at them. When you choose the GM of the future for Detroit, they need to put a serious emphasis on defense. Just watch what Joakim Noah, Kendrick Perkins / Serge Ibaka achieve in the years to come. If Detroit ever wants to contend again, we need to horrify our opposition in the paint, we need to scare away penetrating guards and shut down post ups like we did the three times we won championships.
Number Six: Build Through Trades and the Draft, Not Free Agency
When was the last time a major free agent purchase yielded a championship? Not since I've been a fan, to say the least. While this trend may change with the signing of LeBron James and Chris Bosh in Miami, winning teams have historically been constructed through the draft and trades. When looking at the Pistons themselves, Joe Dumars has succeeded only when he's spent the Mid Level Exception or less, and failed every time he's spent a penny more.
Loyal, existing players should be given fair contracts based upon future returns in performance. When spending on free agents, teams bid against other teams and generally reach far above the target player's return value. Chris Bosh's performance for the Miami Heat is one prime example, Ben Gordon's in Detroit is yet another. Spend to keep, not to acquire, as the best players are found in trades and the draft. Free agent signings are a tool to fill holes, not craft foundations.
Number Seven: Draft Domestic, Junk the Consensus
There's a serious disconnection in data value between college draftees and international draftees. For every Dirk Nowitzki, there are a hundred Darko Milicic's. International scouts may pimp The Next Big Thing based on style of play, on raw talent, on performance against international competition, but the stats behind these players just don't translate the way NCAA basketball stats do. A GM can look at an NCAA player's numbers and objectively estimate what they might produce in the NBA. International numbers just don't translate, they bring a much larger margin of error. The result is that GMs make decisions without reliable objective data that ends up burying their teams. Ricky Rubio, Andrea Bargnani and Darko Milicic are a few examples, while players like Stephen Curry, LaMarcus Aldridge and Dwyane Wade were glossed over. That's not to say there aren't foreign gems to be had, but that a greater risk is involved in that talent pool.
There are more problems with the draft that need to be taken into consideration. Pre-draft rankings are often determined by the consensus itself than the real value of the players within. Last season, John Wall was a sure-thing lock to be drafted number one a year before the draft even began (and before Wall even entered college). While Wall has had a decent rookie season, he's terribly inefficient and he turns the ball over constantly, making him a net negative while on the court. He was a slightly better shooter in college, but the rest of the song remains the same. The media and the fans had him pegged as the consensus number one pick last year, but he's been a disappointment this season and his team is no better with him on the court.
Detroit's future GM needs to take educated risks, those born in objective analyses that are totally ignorant to the consensus. The Pistons and other teams have repeatedly failed by giving international scouts more credence than the statistics, and by listening to the consensus opinion instead of valuing their own.
Number Eight: Stars May Sell, but Wins Sell More
If star players sold tickets, last year's Rookie of the Year Tyreke Evans may have helped keep the Kings in Sacramento. Stars don't sell like wins do, as fans pay the most attention to their team when things are going well. Seattle is another example-- they lost the Supersonics, but fans in Oklahoma City are quite dedicated to their underdog winners in the Thunder.
The Pistons might be the best example of this theory. Detroit won a championship without a superstar, but it held the longest streak of sell-outs than any other team in league history. This should keep a general manager from feeling the need to use the assets to bring a superstar to their team just to appease an ill-advised owner.
The problem with superstar players is their price tag. Teams give up too much to bring them in and have nothing to build around said player.
Number Nine: Filling Empty Seats and Fostering the Fans of Tomorrow
The Pistons are losing. The Palace is hard to get to for most fans. Should there be any surprise that the Palace is littered with empty seats? It doesn't have to be this way, even with the Pistons current record. With a bit of creativity and travel, the Pistons can fill all seats for at least five more games in 2011-12 if they want to. One way is to travel, the other is to bring new fans to the stadium.
Michigan is a large state, and Auburn Hills is not the epicenter of Pistons fanhood. There are fans in the Detroit area and there are fans in west Michigan that can't easily get to the Palace. Since the Pistons have roots at the Joe Louis Arena and they repeatedly sell out preseason games at the Van Andel in Grand Rapids, a bit of in-state travel could boost ticket sales and viewership throughout the state. If the Pistons plan a regular season game at the Van Andel, I'll bet you a nickel it'll sell out in a heartbeat. Furthermore, if the Pistons plan four home games at The Joe in Detroit, old (and new) fans will come out of the woodwork to support their team and an unprecedented visit to their old stomping ground.
Another way to fill seats is to bring new fans to the stadium. If you're going to have 40 or more unsold seats during these tough times, give them away to the most deserving set of new fans. Buy an old bus or two, give it a Pistons paint job, and send it to local area schools where students compete with grades to earn a free trip to a Pistons game at the Palace. Take Genesee High School for example. If a group of 40 students compete for improved grades in a month against other schools, the Pistons offer to bus them to the Palace for a free game. This encourages the Detroit area school system, potentially introduces new fans to the franchise... and they're going to spend at concessions and merchandising anyway.
Number Ten: Detroit Pride and the Palace Naming Rights
Detroit has been kicked, beaten, spit on and forgotten by many after the industrial revolution began to fade. Despite its rust and disrepair, the heartbeat of Detroit has began to thump loud again, thanks to a revitalized auto industry and a progressively focused public. The Detroit Pistons have been a symbol for what Detroit has been about for nearly a century, and they retain that meaning today.
Forgive me for being a big idealistic, but these Detroit Pistons have no logical connection to a "palace" of any kind. We're hard workers, we're built to sweat blood and at the end of the day, we're humble about everything but our pride in our own city. "The Palace of Auburn Hills" may have been a great place to spend time as the kings of the NBA, but we're not that anymore. We hope to be again, but for now, we need to sweat blood again to get back there.
If I were in your shoes and I had to decide on what to call the home of our Pistons, I would delve into that sense of pride for this great city. As I said in the beginning, I don't want to tell you how to do your job. But if it were me, I'd approach GM, Ford and Chrysler and invite the three to exclusive bidding for the Palace naming rights for a few years. The goal isn't so much to grab a few million, but celebrate what both the city of Detroit and these Detroit Pistons are about. The General Motors Palace, the Chrysler Arena or even the Big Three Arena each have a nice ring to them. And they celebrate what our city is about. It's a win/win, in that it brings in revenue to support the team and it celebrates Detroit DNA to the fullest. It may not be as objective as the rest of the ideas on this list, but hey, is there a better way to redeem the Detroit dream than to call upon the names of its founders?
Thanks for reading, Tom, Pistons fans and the community at Detroit Bad Boys. We're passionate about this team here and we're excited that you're joining our story. Good luck Tom, we've got a lot of hope riding on your shoulders.