Every Piston fan recalls the first exhilarating month of the "Post-Smith Era," when Detroit went on an incredible 12-3 tear that reversed its previous 5-23 descent. Stunning back-to-back road conquests of San Antonio and Dallas even gave rise to fervent hopes for a playoff berth. Anything seemed possible!
While many players made key contributions, the leader of this amazing ascent from the abyss was none other than Brandon Jennings. While he had played capably at points in November (18.5 points and 6.1 assists per game, with .394 percent three-point shooting), a hand injury late in the month soon obscured that early promise. He missed three games and did not return to form until just before Pistons’ President and Head Coach Stan Van Gundy decided to waive Josh Smith.
The rise and fall of Jennings
Smith had played a major role in the Pistons’ offense up to that point, with his 4.7 apg second only to Jennings’ 6.4. Now Van Gundy put the ball in Jennings’ hands. What ensued was one part "Swag" and one part excellence, as Jennings led a high octane attack that increased its scoring average from 94.4 ppg to 105.3. And no one fired on more cylinders than Jennings himself, who posted 20 ppg and 7.2 apg. His energy and enthusiasm were infectious for both his teammates and the fans.
And then, almost as quickly as it had begun, the epic turnaround ended, just as Jennings turned to chase the Milwaukee Bucks’ Brandon Knight and ruptured his Achilles tendon. Detroit lost its leader and the game that night. The Pistons also dropped their next three contests.
Life without Brandon
While they had seldom played together, Jennings and D.J. Augustin had often combined to form a two-headed monster at the point. In the near miraculous defeat of San Antonio, it was Jennings who made the winning basket. But Augustin scored 19 points and dished out five dimes in relief. And the following night he scored 26 points as Detroit downed Dallas.
Augustin also filled in admirably as the new starting point guard. In the next 10 games he averaged 20.3 ppg and 8.2 apg, shooting .432 on his threes. John Lucas III was signed to bolster the backcourt, as only rookie Spencer Dinwiddie was otherwise available to spell D.J. But adding Lucas was not enough to replace the loss of Jennings, and they limped into the All-Star break with a 4-7 stretch that left their record at 21-33. The Pistons’ prospects of making the playoffs had clearly dimmed.
The pivotal decision
Entering the All-Star break, the question was what approach Van Gundy should take to his squad’s new situation. Should he "stay the course," believing that the playoffs were still in reach? Should he pin the team’s future on an eventual return to full health by its emotional leader? Or should he chart an entirely new direction? It was at this point that Van Gundy made a critical decision, according to a recent article by Keith Langlois of Pistons.com:
"Brandon’s injury really made us adjust our thinking right from the time of the injury, really," Van Gundy said. "Brandon was playing so well. I’m not sure we would have been in the market for a point guard last year – or even this summer. But when he went down, clearly we had to protect ourselves at a really vital position."
The trading begins
The choice van Gundy made was radical. He sent two starters – Augustin and Kyle Singler – to Oklahoma City in exchange for Reggie Jackson, whose path to a regular starting job had been blocked by All-Star Russell Westbrook.
As Langlois noted, "Getting Jackson almost certainly doesn’t happen if the late-January injury that ended Brandon Jennings’ season doesn’t happen, either."
But the Jackson trade was also the key move that got the snowball rolling, with the result being a radical remake of Detroit’s whole roster. Consider how each subsequent move was a result of the trade for Jackson (which was made in response to Jennings’ season-ending injury):
Trading Singler left a hole at small forward. So Jonas Jerebko and Gigi Datome were traded to Boston for Tayshaun Prince.
Jackson’s pick-and-roll skills meshed very well with center Andre Drummond, but his penetration game and less than optimal three-point shooting created spacing issues when Greg Monroe was also on the court. When a knee injury sent Monroe to the bench, the Pistons reversed a 10-game skid with a 7-4 run. Anthony Tolliver took over the starting role, shooting .417 from three. In retrospect, it seems apparent that those results signaled that the end was indeed near for Monroe’s tenure in Motown.
Faced this summer with the likely prospect of losing Monroe in free agency, Van Gundy traded Caron Butler and Shawne Williams for the Bucks’ Ersan Ilyasova, a power forward who has connected on .370 percent of his three pointers for his career.
With Butler gone and Prince a free agent, Van Gundy moved to fill the re-opened chasm at small forward by looking west to the Grand Canyon State, drafting Arizona’s Stanley Johnson and trading for Phoenix’s Marcus Morris, Reggie Bullock and Danny Granger.
With Monroe leaving for Milwaukee, San Antonio’s Aron Baynes was signed to serve as the primary backup center. Van Gundy anticipates that he can also serve occasionally as a power forward against teams with larger frontlines.
And to come full circle, Van Gundy’s most recent personnel move was also a result of Jennings’ January injury. Concerned that he might not yet be ready to play when the season opens, and not wanting to rely on Dinwiddie alone, Steve Blake was secured from Brooklyn in return for Quincy Miller.
In all, only three players – Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Drummond and Jennings remain from the roster that Van Gundy inherited when he replaced Joe Dumars last year. And of those who began the 2014-15 season on the team, only Joel Anthony, Dinwiddie, Cartier Martin and Jodie Meeks remain. And they were all 2014 additions.
Since Jennings' injury, eight players had been added to the current roster whose arrival can be traced back to that seminal event: Jackson, Ilyasova, Johnson, Baynes, Morris, Bullock, Granger and Blake.
Of course, there is no way to say definitively what the Pistons’ roster would look like today if Jennings had not been felled by this crippling injury. But by Van Gundy’s own admission, Jennings "was playing so well. I’m not sure we would have been in the market for a point guard last year – or even this summer."
In that case it seems very unlikely that the trade with the Thunder would have been made. So Augustin would remain a Piston, and perhaps Singler, too. There would also have been no pressing need to trade Jerebko and Datome for Prince, though it’s questionable if Van Gundy would have wished to retain Jerebko this summer.
The biggest question mark is whether a bigger post-season push would have been made to hold on to Monroe. Let us suppose the Jennings-led squad had made the playoffs. The team’s record stood at 17-27 when he went down. If he could have helped them to a 22-16 finish, Detroit could have grabbed the eighth seed at 39-43. With three shooters on the floor at the start of games, and with Tolliver giving them a fourth when Drummond or Monroe rested, space to score in the paint was not a problem. (Monroe averaged 16.0 ppg and 11.8 rpg, and Drummond averaged 12.9 ppg and 14.1 rpg., during the 12-3 era.)
With the Pistons a young team on the upswing, their young core having tasted the playoffs for the first time, and Monroe the only major free agent on the roster, could a mutual decision have been reached to keep him in the Motor City? In that case, Detroit might have entered 2015-16 with its starting line-up and key reserve spots essentially intact from last season.
We may never know to what heights a healthy Brandon Jennings would have led the Pistons. But like a snowball rolling down hill, his fateful injury has led to a dramatic reshaping of the team that he led so gloriously for one magical month.