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Conversations with DBB: BigBensFro and Lazarus Jackson

BBF and Laz talk about what it would take to bring a championship to Detroit.

Laz: So was the Fro the thing that started your Pistons fandom?

BBF: Hey Lazarus!

I wouldn't say started, but it cemented it.

Growing up in France in the early 90’s, I didn't have any obvious favorite team to pick (there wasn't any French players in the NBA when I started watching), so I was mostly a fan of specific players rather than teams. Grant Hill was one of those players for me, and I also didn't like Jordan because everyone liked him, and I'm the kind of person to go against the grain like that.

After getting a bit more into the (recent at the time) history of the sports, I watched some Bad Boys highlights and fell in love with that team, its attitude, its identity. And later on with the city of Detroit for similar reasons, I just love a gritty underdog with an historical pedigree of greatness.

But the Goin' to Work team is when my fandom was really cemented. I got to watch more games at that time (thanks to a better NBA offering on French cable and later broadband internet), which soon turned into ALL the games.

I moved to Toronto a bit over four years ago, and never thought a second to switch allegiance even though I was now living in another NBA city.

Big Ben remains my favorite Piston of all time, and my favorite basketball player I've ever seen.

I see in your email address that you have ties to MSU. Are you Michigan born and raised, or did you get to the Pistons after attending MUS as an out-of-state student?

Laz: Yup, I am Michigan born and raised, but I live in North Carolina now. Went to MSU for undergrad. Most of my family is still in Michigan, though, so I end up going back pretty regularly for holidays and occasions and whatnot.

I already told my stepdad and my father-in-law to get ready, because I plan on going back for the first game in Little Ceasers' Arena. Even though I'm not even in Michigan anymore, I'm pretty excited to have the Pistons in actual Detroit - they haven't been there since before I was born.

I don't live in Charlotte, so anytime I want to see an NBA team in person it's a nice long drive there and a nice long drive back, which makes for a rough time at work the next day. You go to any games at the Air Canada "Centre?" Would've been nice to see that huge fourth-quarter comeback this year in person.

BBF: I'm excited for the Pistons' move downtown as well. I have never had the chance to go to The Palace, I don't drive myself, so the trip up there when I visit Detroit from Toronto (via train, and a quick bus ride from Windsor) was always too much for me. I have seen them four times in Toronto and one in London. But it will be exciting to finally see a home game next season!

I used to go to a lot of games (not just Pistons ones) during previous seasons, but the last two years Raptors tickets have become ridiculously expensive, so I've had to limit myself a bit. This year I only went to the season opener, I was pretty excited about it being Detroit @ Toronto when the schedule was released, I had pretty high hopes for this season...

We all know how that went down, and that first game was a bummer as well, with Andre Drummond getting dominated by Jonas Valanciunas once again.

I guess that's a good transition to talk about next season. What are your expectations for 2017-18?

Laz: I think, psychically, they have to pretend last season never happened, and try to build on the 44 win season from two years ago, just try and pick up where they left off. Avery Bradley is better than KCP at this very moment, Galloway is better than anyone they've had coming off the bench the last two seasons, Leuer can pretend nothing after January happened, and hopefully Reggie's knee is back to where he needs it to be to play well consistently.

It shouldn't be that hard - the East as a whole is so weak. Charlotte and Miami got better, but the Bulls are worse. The Pacers are worse. The Hawks are MUCH worse. You could argue the Bucks will be worse without Jabari Parker and with Malcolm Brogdan's inevitable regression.

Playoff spots are there for the taking, they just have to grab them. Right around 45 wins and somewhere between the 4-7 seed is what I expect. In my wildest dreams they eclipse 50 wins and are definitely hosting a winnable first-round series - one that I’d make the drive up for.

What about you? How do you think they'll do?

BBF: I am keeping my expectations very low after last year, but I guess I could see them around those 45 wins, if absolutely everything goes well, which means, to me:

  • Reggie Jackson coming back to at least a good impression of his 15-16 self and limited to around 28 minutes a night to keep him fresh, with Ish playing major minutes with the rest of the starters
  • Dre dropping the shitty hook shots and being more interested and consistent on defense
  • Getting 16-17 first half Jon Leuer instead of second half Jon Leuer
  • The new recruits actually shooting as well as they did before coming here - nearly every shooter becomes worth nothing once they get here because we've been lacking ball movement to get them good shots
  • Avery Bradley being an effective secondary ball handler. I loved that we got him to replace KCP, he's already what we hope KCP would become, but how much does he move the needle if the points about Dre and Reggie above do not materialize? I think he will need to be a bigger part of the offense than he was in Boston to truly improve that team. Can he handle it?
  • Our starting five defense doesn't suck, despite Avery Bradley being the only "plus" defender of the group. Especially if we start Leuer or Anthony Tolliver at the 4. Even the second unit that saw the reinforcement of Galloway, and has the better defensive PG in Ish Smith (and potentially Stanley Johnson if he doesn't start at SF) suffers from a serious lack of adequate paint protection without Aron Baynes. Boban Marjanovic has a good block rate, but he's as slow-footed as they come. Tolliver is not a good defender, Leuer isn't great either
  • No major injuries to key players

That's a lot of IFs, and even with that, I only see them getting to 45+ wins because, as you said, the East will suck after the top four-to-six teams. (I think the Bucks will be fine, with a full season of Middleton).

My main concern with this team though, is the long-term future, not the immediate upcoming season. Let's say everything does go well for this team, and we keep Avery Bradley... what is the path to contention for that group in the next two to three years? I just don't see them having much more long term potential than a No. 5, No. 6 seed and second round exit.

What's your opinion of their future potential?

Laz: That's a great question.

I'm down on the Pistons' championship chances in the next three-to-five years, barring something crazy like Stanley turning himself into a Jimmy Butler-level player through sheer force of will or Andre turning himself into a Prime-Dwight-level defensive player (Dwight won Defensive Player of the Year THREE straight years! He's a first-ballot Hall of Famer!). However, I'm fine with that. I don't think the success or failure of a season is based upon a championship.

If this Pistons group has a ceiling that maxes out at 55 wins and a conference finals, and you win 53 games and lose a competitive conference finals, that season is a success. There are really only four or five teams that enter every year with legitimate championship expectations - the other 25 teams aren't failures, they're just in different places on the contention cycle.

I know it sounds fatalistic, but this Pistons team really JUST got through the post-six-straight-conference-finals wilderness. Jennings-KCP-Smith-Monroe-Drummond was only three years ago. I don't have to go back far to remember thinking the Brandon Knight game-winner against Toronto was a turning point for him.

We were bad, really bad. So bad I turned my back to them - I took a break after the Chauncey trade, I knew it was a sign the wheels were coming off. I don't want to return to those days. Ultimately, I'm fine with being the late-2000's Atlanta Hawks for a while - it may not feel like it, but that'd be progress.

The obvious next question is how do you get out of being the late-2000's Hawks into being a championship contender, and I don't have a real answer for that. LeBron is 32 but spends a million dollars a year maintaining his body, he could still be torturing the East four years from now. The Warriors cap situation might blow them up, but that's in two or three years AND it's reliant on them not making enough money to pay for everyone despite their new stadium. Pop is 68, but as long as he is in place The Spurs Will Be The Spurs. Even if the Pistons rise, someone has to fall.

Do you have any answers on how to get a championship-level team in Detroit?

BBF: I like your term "place on the contention cycle," but I'd be very surprised if in five years, with the same featured players (Dre, Tobias, Bradley... Reggie... oh god I hope Reggie isn't still here in five years), this team approaches anything close to 55 wins.

I only see the difference in that group now and that group at its full potential going from a maybe playoff seed and first round exit, to a legit playoff team with a guaranteed second round exit. Which means for us the "contention cycle" does not go 360 degrees, and therefore, we'll have to start over.

That doesn't mean we necessarily need to have a firesale and tank for three years like Philly did. But everyone should be available (and if #roomers are true, SVB are in that mindset) and we should NOT be building to win a little right now, trying to fit role players around "stars" who aren't going to take us to the Finals (and the last two offseasons SVB have been doing just that, which seems contradictory to being open to shop Dre and Reggie around).

Unless we see major improvements in Dre's defense and offensive efficiency this season, we need to move on from him asap. With the changing league, and more seasons proving he's not someone you can build around, his value is only going to go down. Hopefully he can rebound (pun!) a little from last year to regain some trade value, because he's still an interesting player, just at that cost, and not as No. 1 or No. 2 option in an offense. It would be very hard for SVG to play Drummond in the role he needs after giving him this contract and Gores clamoring that they want to build around him, so parting ways seems the only move forward to me.

Reggie is obviously not a long-term solution, even if he comes back to 80 percent of what he was in 2015-16 (which I would say is an optimistic projection). I just don't think you can afford having a defensive black hole on your roster if you're a serious contender, unless offensively that player is at the level of Curry, Harden, or Irving.

I'm not a huge fan of Tobias either, he's a very good scorer but not a great three-point shooter, and not a good enough defender or rebounder to be a legit PF. And not quick enough on defense to be a good SF either (where his middling perimeter shot is a bigger issue than at PF). So I would definitely make him available as well for the right offer.

Avery Bradley, if we can re-sign him, is someone I would love to keep long-term as part of our next phase. He's a legit two-way player with elite defense and above-average offense. And if you think about it, he's the only player on the roster where you can qualify one of their skills of elite, and the rest of their game as above average (unless Dre's defense becomes above average at least).

We'll see this year if Stanley can be a building block or not, the odds are against him with his putrid offense so far, but we'll see. Luke Kennard and Henry Ellenson are very young, but I'm not high enough on either of them that I wouldn't ship them out if they are required in a trade package.

The rest of the roster is either meaningless, or decent but too old to be part of a contender in five years (Ish, for example).

I would have loved for our off-season to be the start of that process, but unfortunately that's not the way SVB went. Regardless of the outcome of the upcoming season, I think this NEEDS to happen next year though. You can't just stay a middling team for the next three years because "No one is beating GSW anyway."

Now is the time to build, so that you are an emerging team, one move away to pounce into the circle of contenders, when the wheels start to fall off for the current contenders. Things can change fast in this league, look at the Cavs, Kyrie and LeBron might be gone by this time next off-season... and the Pistons will be nowhere near ready to challenge for the top of East.

I personally don't see the point in being the late 2000’s Hawks, the playoffs are fun, but this isn't the NFL or MLB, the playoffs are not a crapshoot, and the goal should still be to win a title, especially with the team starting a new era in downtown Detroit.

I have a few more thoughts on how, and with whom, I would want us to "rebuild," but this reply is already getting a bit long!

Laz: I don't know. There's value in being decent but not transcendent. If you're trying to win a championship in seven years, the only young guy on the roster that helps you do that is Stanley, and that's if and only if he improves dramatically on offense. You can only hold a fire sale if people want what you have and are willing to give you picks/young lottery ticket players for them - there's evidence SVG is trying to sell, but the prices might not be right.

I believe in The Process, but I also believe that not every team can undergo the process. I see the value in throwing away three-plus years of your franchise, but there's no guaranteed rainbow at the end of it. Look at Orlando, who has been tanking for almost six years now, and because the lottery balls never bounced their way, they never got a transcendent player and are worse off than the Pistons.

I also am not sure how tanking would play in Detroit - attendance was sparse at The Palace when the team was bad, I'm sure you know some people who made the drive down for Toronto for super-cheap Raptors tickets. Maybe that's because of the drive out to Auburn Hills, maybe that's because the team didn't sell hope well enough, it could be a lot of things.

If you can't sell your current players, and you're entering a brand-new stadium that you're going to want to sell tickets in for a while, why not be good if it costs you very little?

BBF: Even if I mentioned that I would like most of our roster traded, that doesn't mean I'm in for a full tanking "The Process"-style, and as you say, it's probably not the right time to do that with the move downtown anyway... although I'm not sure how long a middling 40-plus-wins team will put people in seats either.

I would hope SVG could still get some decent value out of those guys, maybe not to help us win now, but to help us win in two or three years. I didn't want us to rebuild this offseason to win in seven years, I don't buy into the notion that no one besides whatever team LeBron is on and the Warriors are locks to win the next five titles. The next couple seasons are probably Golden State's to lose, but things can change fast (again, look at Cleveland! Oh the sweet schadenfreude).

Maybe it was foolish of me to hope we could actually get short/mid-term value from trading our guys this summer after last year's season... but you see other NBA teams make dumb trades all the time, don’t you?

Maybe SVG actually look for ways to reboot the way I wanted it, but the market just wasn't there and he opted to get slightly more competitive to drive up the value of our core players, which would be perfectly fine. If that’s the case, I'm not sure overpaying role players on not-so-short deals is the best way to go about that.

I'm not sure it just "costs you very little" like you said, as being capped out like we are could exclude us from being involved in some trades (the kind of trade that ended up getting us Avery Bradley for a 2020 second rounder).

Bottom line, we all want to see the Pistons win. And an interesting question that I would like to hear your opinion about, is how do you think a Detroit contender (not just playoff team) would need to look like in today's NBA?

We know we can't attract marquee free agents in Detroit. We're not getting a "Super Team" here.

What do you think is the kind of players, the kind of system (with or without SVG) that a team like Detroit needs to build towards to be truly competitive in today's NBA? Is it still possible? Or do we have to be resigned about the fact that we won't ever see a team like the Goin' to Work Pistons be successful in a league where you need 3 superstars to have a chance?

Laz: The Goin' To Work Pistons had two superstars - Ben Wallace was a superstar, and Chauncey + Sheed is basically another superstar. That team gets held up as an example of what's possible without a superstar, but I wager if SHEED DOESN'T DOUBLE MANU and they go back-to-back, people are forced to think much differently about the level of individual talent on that team.

You need superstars to compete in the NBA - you've ALWAYS needed superstars to compete in the NBA - but superstars who fit together/complement each other is rapidly becoming more important. It certainly seems like you have to play Warriors-style basketball (shoot and make a lot of threes, good amount of player and ball movement, and switch as much as you can defensively) to achieve Warriors-style results, the only issue is you won't be able to play that style well enough to beat the actual Warriors in a seven-game series - because they have too much talent. And that's not a problem any team can "fix," unless some team takes one for the league and offers the farm for Klay Thompson or Draymond Green - and even then the Warriors have to accept the trade, and you have to hope "the farm" makes the Warriors deeper but takes enough off their top-end talent to hurt them.

If you're trying to be a defense-first team, you'd want big men who can switch a 1-5 PNR and not get Enes Kanter'd, wing defenders who can switch 2-4, and your point guard to just not be a turnstile defensively - you want to be Milwaukee with an actualized, fully functional Thon Maker. If you're trying to be an offense-first team, you'd want a great point guard PNR creator, some good big men who collapse the D when they roll, and you'd surround them with wings who can shoot - you'd want to be the Rockets, but Clint Capela can magically play 35 minutes a night instead of 25.

SVG strikes me as the type of coach who wants to play defense-first, but he has no superstars. The closest thing he has is a big man who doesn't want to switch out on the perimeter often (for ... whatever reason) and who sees the game a half-beat too slow.

You're asking me a lot of variations of "What do the Pistons need to do to win a championship as soon as possible?" Only so many ways I can say that the Pistons aren't going to win a championship anytime soon - and only so many ways I can say that that shouldn't deter them from trying as hard as they can to be as good as they can.

BBF: Fair enough, Big Ben didn't get the league wide respect or the scoring numbers of your typical superstar, but he definitely produced like one. And so did Chauncey by himself if you look at something like win shares.

I guess it's more accurate to say we won't ever sign an established superstar, and finding undervalued ones will be our only chance... maybe Avery Bradley makes a gigantic leap this season? I just need some hope, man haha.

It's hard for me to just accept that there's no path to a Championship team in some way and that being decent enough to be somewhat relevant is the best we can hope, but maybe you're right and that's our only short and medium-term future. Are we now in a Detroit sports era where the Lions have the most realistic path to a championship? That feels weird.

Laz: It DOES feel weird, but the NFL is weird like that.