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The Pistons’ Leadership Void

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Can Avery Bradley and Anthony Tolliver inspire their teammates to play at a higher level?

Detroit Pistons v Boston Celtics Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

There were two key differences between the up-and-coming Pistons team of 2015-16 and last year’s dumpster-fire-in-the-middle-of-a-train-wreck.

One difference was Reggie Jackson’s health. And that’s received plenty of attention. It clearly hurt the team more when he was playing than when he was sidelined.

The other difference was the lack of veteran leadership. The Pistons’ starting five had an average age of 24 years old in 2016-17. That was younger than all but the 76ers, Nets and Bucks in the Eastern Conference.

Stan Van Gundy saw it coming.

From Keith Langlois on August 9, 2016:

In letting go of their own free agents Anthony Tolliver, Steve Blake and Joel Anthony, the Pistons lost a combined 30 years of NBA service and their only players 30 years or older. It was more than just their experience, though, but the way they carried themselves with thorough professionalism that leaves a void for the Pistons.

“Absolutely. Absolute concern,” Van Gundy admitted earlier this month. “If you look at what we did (over the off-season) and said, ‘OK, where’s the problem?’ – that would be it. We had three outstanding veteran leaders who were all about the right stuff.”

"Those guys provided a lot of leadership for the team in general and the younger guys in particular and now with all of those guys gone, are these guys ready? Can they get themselves ready? Can they lead each other? Who’s going to emerge?”

Answer: No. No. No. No one.

Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson weren’t ready to be leaders, and no one else on the team had the presence needed to bring the team together.

In fact, one could argue that Andre and Reggie didn’t merely lack leadership - they actively led the team in the wrong direction.

Reggie’s horrendous defensive effort and willingness to shoot first and pass much, much later… and Andre’s sulking-down-the-court-after-missing-awkwardly-from-the-post routine very likely caused their teammates to play worse instead of better.

While we can look at the team’s shooting percentages as evidence to explain the season’s failures, what those numbers don’t explain is why the team so often came out flat to start the game or the second half. They don’t explain why Andre Drummond appeared to lack energy on the defensive end more often than in previous years. They don’t explain why Jackson, Drummond, Stanley Johnson and other young players regressed instead of progressed last season.

SVG had this to say about Andre shortly after the season: "I think that he needs to have a sense of urgency to elevate his game.”

About a month earlier, he made the point even more clearly: "He’s capable of playing and we’ve seen times where he plays at a high energy level that’s virtually unstoppable for other teams. Then there’s times where he doesn’t bring that; in his case, it’s a maturity thing of bringing it every night.”

After the season-ending loss to Orlando: "If we can be consistent every night and bringing that effort every single night, we’re a 50-win team.”

I think he’s right.

Remember, this was a .500 team last year before Reggie came back (perhaps just hitting their stride), and might have made the playoffs if he’d sat out the entire season.

With the benefit of hindsight, it looks like Stan Van Gundy made the same mistake with Jackson that he previously made with Josh Smith; he waited too long before pulling the plug.

Unless SVG repeats the mistake of allowing a less-than-healthy Reggie Jackson to play significant minutes, a .500 record should be this team’s floor.

Just how important is leadership?

Some might say the problem is that Andre himself isn’t leadership material. But not every player has that presence. And while you’d love for your max player to have it, well… you can’t have everything. What you can have is guys like Caron Butler, Joel Anthony, Anthony Tolliver and Steve Blake to help steer younger players in the right direction.

To say that leadership matters is not controversial. But I think there’s a pretty good chance the value of leadership is underestimated in the NBA.

As a hypnotherapist who occasionally works with athletes to improve focus and performance, I can attest to the value of mindset. I’ve personally helped athletes improve their performance by producing changes in their thoughts and awareness. Strong leadership can also have a powerful impact on mindset.

Every athlete has peaks and valleys in his performance. Mindset impacts how frequently that athlete plays at or near his peak. Many players will have an exceptional game or series of games in which they play at a high level, merely by chance. It won’t be driven internally; it’s more of a happy coincidence due to the stars aligning properly.

I think Andre Drummond is that kind of player. A guy who can put up three 20-20 games within a week and then play the better part of a season without reaching that level of dominance is not bringing consistent effort. His fire is being lit by an external flame.

I’d speculate that the rumors about SVG being “dissatisfied” with the big man are probably true. Van Gundy is a very frank and direct coach who’s probably told Andre “I need you to give it 100% every night” dozens of times, only to be continuously disappointed when Drummond doesn’t respond. “It’s a maturity thing” means Andre is lacking maturity. Not good. So he’s open to trading him, but also knows Dre has too much value to simply move him without getting significant talent back in return.

There are athletes who play at a high level with great consistency. They may have an off night shooting the ball, but focus and effort remain consistently intense.

Ben Wallace was that kind of player. The Bad Boys were all that kind of player. I think Avery Bradley is that kind of player.

Mindset impacts what happens on the court, as well as what happens off the court.

You might think that a professional basketball player should know better than to stay out late partying the night before a game, but without the right guidance, it’s incredibly easy for rich young men to make mistakes and fall into bad habits. This is especially the case in the absence of a “big brother” or mentor to help steer them in the right direction.

Aside from Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s DUI, I’ve seen no real evidence that the Pistons were involved in any reckless behavior last season, but their play on the court seemed to indicate their priorities weren’t in the right place.

And this is where guys like Tolliver and Bradley may be able to help out.

From a recent article at the Freep about the Tolliver signing:

“That was something that I could see from afar was missing here, no disrespect to anybody that was here,” (Tolliver) said. “It’s just guys need leaders. Guys need people who are willing to speak up and guys who are going to talk to them in situation that they don’t really want to be talked in.”

“The combination of being able to come to this team, be a leader, be a professional, help some of these younger guys to mature into better basketball players but even better young men,” he said of his goals. “Those types of things I take a lot of pride in helping guys develop off the court as well as on the court.

While Tolliverse may be speaking in generalizations here, if you read between the lines, you could infer that the Pistons’ young core needs to grow up and mature a bit, both on and off the court.

Another Freep piece about the Bradley signing:

“I’m going to play hard,” (Bradley) promised. “I’m going to bring it every single game. I want the fans to know that. I want to lead by example … (I’m going to) try to help us become better and build better habits."

Reading between those lines, you might infer that Avery and Stan had a chat about the kind of bad habits present on last year’s squad, and maybe even about how some guys (*cough* Andre and Reggie! *cough*) weren’t bringing effort every night.

Health + Leadership = Reason for Hope

While the Pistons lack superstar talent, we all saw what they could do when playing at their peak in the “most competitive sweep” in recent NBA memory. Yet we also saw how terrible and listless that same group looked at times last year.

Yes, Reggie wasn’t 100%. But he was out there. At least half the time.

Healthy Reggie, Avery Bradley, Andre, Tobias Harris and their fairly deep supporting cast (every other player except Eric Moreland could realistically crack the rotation) do have the talent to compete for a top 5 or 6 playoff seed in the increasingly weak Eastern Conference.

The current cast should be superior to the one that went 44-38 just two seasons ago, and this year’s Eastern Conference might be even weaker.

They’ve at least assembled a group of players capable of knocking down threes at an above-average rate. Bradley, Tolliver and Langston Galloway are all solid 3PT shooters. Reggie and Tobias are at least average from downtown. Jon Leuer is just a year removed from shooting 38% from three. Henry Ellenson and Luke Kennard have great offensive ability but need to prove it in the big league.

A healthy Reggie who can penetrate and score in the paint will create easier looks from three for everyone, and should bring the team’s percentages up a bit. But even if he doesn’t return to form, Ish Smith, Galloway and Bradley can likely handle point duties sufficiently to make this a winning team.

And let’s not disregard the impact of SVG The Coach. As Steve Hinson recently pointed out in extensive (and painful) detail, Van Gundy’s insistence on force-feeding Drummond in the post may have been even more destructive to the team’s success than his insistence on force-feeding an obviously less-than-100% Reggie Jackson into the starting lineup.

[My thoughts on Dre’s post-up-gate... an NBA player should be working to improve or expand his game in the offseason, not during actual games. You learn to be a better three-point shooter by shooting them relentlessly during practice, not by chucking up 20 per game and hitting 20%. It makes no sense to devote precious possessions to a work-in-progress. Either Dre enters the season with the ability to score efficiently in the post, or he should remain a PNR and putback threat until he proves otherwise.]

Whether the young players progress, regress or remain stagnant will be somewhat dependent on leadership and culture. Clearly, SVG alone doesn’t have the ability to coax maximum effort out of his players. The hope is that with Bradley and Tolliver providing some much-needed guidance, their teammates will respond with greater enthusiasm and consistency.

If so, they could be a very competitive team in the East and maybe even swing a trade for an All-Star (or at least a solid upgrade) at the PF position. [I do dream of a Good Reggie, Bradley, Tobias, Love, Good Andre lineup. That’d be five guys who could score 20 points in a game, four solid 3PT shooters, 2-3 All-Stars, two fantastic rebounders, and one guy who can actually score in the post. But defense might be an issue.]

If they don’t play hard every night, Reggie and Andre might be shipped out of town by the trade deadline, K-Love ain’t happening and Avery Bradley might be more inclined to skip town next season.

So yeah, leadership is kinda important.

And about Reggie’s knee?

One can only hope it holds up.

Given the two key factors I see greatly influencing this upcoming season, here’s my completely non-statistically-influenced, way-too-early, mathematical-equation-style prediction:

Play hard + Reggie healthy = 50-win season

Play hard - Reggie healthy = 44-win season

Play soft + Reggie healthy = 42-win season

Play soft - Reggie healthy = 37-win season

Hopefully, AB and AT bring some much-needed heart and leadership to the Pistons as the team returns to downtown Detroit and, just maybe, respectability.

Fingers crossed.