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Offseason moves show Pistons more interested in complacency than contending

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The moves this summer certainly make sense. But they also point to a terrible roster building strategy.

Detroit Pistons Portraits Photo by Chris Schwegler/NBAE via Getty Images

It’s one of those things. You hear the words, and they sound really dumb.

Like, so incredibly dumb that the response from most of the word is to write them off as to being too stupid to actually be real.

Kyrie Irving talking about Earth being flat. Of course, he was just joking around with some larger point about how we should be more skeptical about the things we hear. I can get that.

But Ed Stefanski’s quotes about the Pistons “Big 3.”

“I look at what our core is right now. We have more than enough to compete. If we could get fortunate to add to that spot, that’s what we’ll do.”

”The philosophy right now is we have those three, and we’re going with them.”

Well! C’mon. He’s the GM (I guess). He can’t just come out and trash his players. That’d be dumb!

No. Ed Stefanski actually believes what he’s said about this roster. He thinks it’s enough to compete, he thinks Reggie Jackson, Blake Griffin, and Andre Drummond are the appropriate mix for sending out into a NBA season and being successful. He’s proved it with his actions this summer.

Despite winning just 41 games last season. Despite the fact that we have five partial years of Jackson/Drummond and to a lesser extent Griffin that have yielded zero playoff wins and just one season above .500.

And last year’s 41 wins was the result of things going really well! Blake was incredible, Jackson played all 82 games, Drummond had a very good post All-Star performance. It’s by no means guaranteed that all of that happens again next season.

This is a 41-win core. So if you optimize the pieces around it, maybe you can squeeze it up to 45 wins or so. Or, if you get really lucky, let’s say 47 or 48 wins.

This is the exact opposite of how you build a roster. Especially when every core player is in or past their prime.

There’s plenty of information available here that shows this group simply isn’t good enough to move forward with. Yet Stefanski thinks it is.

Tony Snell trade

The Tony Snell trade was the canary in the coal mine.

Yes, Snell is more useful to the Pistons than Jon Leuer. Yes, getting first round picks included in trades is good. So what’s the problem?

Stefanski has been telling us all along that the plan is to build around Jackson, Blake, and Drummond. This move fits perfectly with that motus operandi.

Snell is a perfectly fine player, though one who doesn’t move the needle on his own. He fits a position of need and provides a skill of need. But he also is a player that needs for the others around him to be really good. Like, better than Jackson, Blake, and Drummond.

Snell is a solid fit next to those three, but he’s by no means represents the missing piece, because there is no one missing piece. He’s just A missing piece. And this roster obviously needs more than that to be anything more than just a middling Eastern Conference squad.

The Derrick Rose signing

*pokes canary with a stick*

Poor little bird.

This one confirmed it. They really are looking at the Jackson, Blake, Drummond core and building from there.

There are some aspects of the Rose signing that certainly make sense. He’s still an explosive player, which this team needs. He can get to the rim, and he can be a dangerous scorer. There’s certainly no other backup point guard option who dropped 50 points last season.

He’s the type of high variance player that...well...shows a belief in the ability of the Jackson, Blake, Drummond core to be a contender with the right players around them. If Rose bombs, he’s going to bomb hard. For five straight seasons prior to his redemption year last season, he was an absolute liability on the court.

Plus, both of these guys are signed for the next two years. No, that’s not the kind of unnecessarily long-term deals that made Stan Van Gundy role player signings so harmful. But it is pushing the chips into the middle of the table on that core for another two years. And two years isn’t a short time.

Two shitty seasons is a long time. It’s really not fun going through two shitty seasons.

The whole thing is like opening up a game of chess with a strategy that you know has absolutely no chance of winning. Your only hope is to not get blown out. And when it comes to chess, that still goes down as a loss. It really doesn’t matter if it’s close or not. If you can’t even force a stalemate, you’re screwed. So moving forward with a shitty, losing strategy, there’s really no redemption in having solid tactics within that strategy. What’s the point? It’s still a loss. At the end of the day, it’s just a march toward the same end.

That’s what we’re looking at here.

Despite the fact that neither of these are particularly bad moves within the strategy, they verify that, yes, we are really trying to work this really terrible strategy.

Tim Frazier and Markieff Morris are two within that same idea. Both are fine players. But they represent a front office that thinks they have the kind of core that just needs surrounded by fine players. They don’t have that kind of core.

There’s always hope (except when there isn’t)

But hey, maybe I’m off here. Maybe Stefanski is actually right, that with this core the Pistons really do “have more than enough to compete.”

Maybe these signings are enough to put them in the mix in the East.

Maybe they...oh, what’s that?

The odds for the 2019-20 NBA Championships have been updated after free agency? How does it look for the Pistons? That might be helpful for getting an unbiased look at how this team looks as a contender, right?

Oh dear.

Sportbet has the Pistons at +25000 to win the championship, Bovada has them at +15000. Only two teams have higher odds than the Pistons on the prior site, four teams on the latter. Vegas has the Washington Wizards and Atlanta Hawks at better odds to win the title than the Pistons. For a team whose “Big 3” are 29, 26, and 30 on opening day, that’s not ideal.

So what’s the big deal?

Ok, so they’re not really going to compete for a title. That’s not really the worst thing in the world. There’s been Pistons seasons where chasing 45 wins wasn’t even close to realistic. It could be worse!

Except...kinda not really.

There’s a huge number of options for roster building strategies. Some might say that The Process is it, some might say you’ve just got to land a star. Ok. They’re not wrong in having a preferred strategy and those are certainly valid options. But there’s plenty of other reasonable routes to take.

There’s no certainty in any strategy. But still, some strategies are better than other strategies. Like, strategies that actually try to win a championship are better than strategies that just say “meh winning championships is hard, let’s just try to not suck.”

There is one roster building strategy that is universally considered the worst. The Mediocrity Treadmill.

Kevin Pritchard coined the term back at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in 2011, referring to a team that is good enough to get into the playoffs with the eight seed, get bounced in the first round, then land a middling first round pick.

Mark Cuban isn’t great, acknowledged up front. But he had the best quote about the mediocrity treadmill from the time. ““The worst position you can be in the NBA is to be mired in mediocrity. Your best chance to rebuild is to get the next Blake Griffin in the draft. You have to find that guy, and chances are you need a top-three pick.”

In case you missed that, he said YOUR BEST CHANCE TO REBUILD IS TO GET THE NEXT BLAKE GRIFFIN. In case you didn’t notice, THE PISTONS HAVE BLAKE GRIFFIN.

Sigh.

I honestly think this team can contend with Blake. But instead, they’re pushing forward with a proven .500 core. They’ve averaged 40 wins over the past four seasons. We’re on that treadmill. Nobody thinks this is a good idea. Yet it’s the path that the Pistons are pursuing.

Sometimes I feel like that dude out in the wilderness, hollering about stuff that seems so obvious to me but is so against the grain of public opinion. This is a really bad idea. This is a really bad strategy. It’s complacent, lazy, and incompetent. You don’t build a team that peaks at 45 wins. It’s just...so dumb.

Let’s talk more about tactics versus strategy. Strategy is the big picture, the map that gets you where you’re going. Tactics are the small wins that get you there.

Tactically, the Ed Stefanski regime has been fine. But the problem is the strategy.

Your strategy is your Google Maps destination. If you’re building a franchise, you should be punching into the destination line “championship.” Maybe you get there, maybe you don’t. Maybe you end up really close, but can’t quite get to the driveway. That’s the way to do it.

The way that isn’t to do it...that’s what the Pistons are doing. Their destination is just...what? 45 wins? Maybe we’ll be relevant again someday?

No. Your strategy should be to win. If you fail, ok. That’s fine. It’s hard to win. But still, try to win.

Next week, I’ll be climbing in the Paraclimbing World Championships in Briancon, France. It’s very unlikely that I’ll win. There are other one-legged guys who are more experienced than me, who are stronger than me, who are just better climbers than me. But just the same, I’ve trained my ass off for this. I’m not just going out there and saying “meh maybe I’ll sneak into the finals.” My goal is to look for what advantages I have - living at altitude in Colorado, climbing outdoors brutally heated conditions, being an endurance athlete - and making the most of them. And so I’ll climb hard and maybe it’ll just be my day.

When I see the Pistons front office settling for peaking in the middle, I have a hard time understanding it. Try to win. Even when you don’t think you can win, try. I don’t care about being the best one-legged runner or climber out there. But I do want to see how good I can be. I figure other athletes and franchises feel the same way.

Let’s talk about the draft

The Snell and Rose deals have been concerning, but the way the front office has handled the draft has just been perplexing.

The franchise is following a strategy focused on optimizing the pieces around the core of Jackson, Blake, and Drummond. Of which, the Snell and Rose deals make sense. But the rest of the pieces around that core are all a bunch of players 23 years old and younger, none of whom are blue chip prospects.

But what about Sekou Doumbouya, you ask. He’s a blue chipper!

Not really.

”More than Nowitzki, Gasol or even Divac, Darko has a nasty streak in him that will help him succeed in the post,” a league executive said. “A lot of the Europeans are really threes in the pros. He’ll be a true low-post player. His coach is doing us a huge favor by forcing him to develop those skills now. He already has moves that remind me of (Hakeem) Olajuwon in the post. Once we get a hold of him, the sky’s the limit.” - via Chad Ford at ESPN

On Darko Milcic.

”He’s already more advanced fundamentally, and I think he has the athleticism to compete with the elite players in the NBA. It’s always scary to make a leap like this on limited information, but he’s further along than any of the high school kids that have been drafted and his upside is still huge. I think, in five years, he could be better than Nowitzki because of his athleticism. Seven-footers like this just don’t come along very often. Someone will take the chance.” - via Chad Ford at ESPN

On Nikoloz Tskitishvili.

“I see Bender having some [Joakim] Noah in him and a more obvious similarity to Kristaps Porzingis.” via David Thorpe at ESPN

On Dragan Bender

We could do the same exercise for Frank Ntilkina, Thon Maker, Mario Hezonja, or Emmanual Mudiay.

Just being young, having good size, and an international player doesn’t mean you have superstar potential. No more than being an athletic, underproductive wing out of Oregon who has good size means Louis King has superstar potential.

There’s always the international man of mystery and for whatever reason, the standard common sense of prospect evaluation goes out the window for that guy. The 2015 NBA Draft is a great example of how that’s the case.

For many fans, Hezonja was a class favorite despite his lack of productivity. He couldn’t get on the floor, but even when he did it was only to the tune of 12 points per 36 minutes. Not exactly what you expect of a guy who is supposedly the European Kobe Bryant Wannabe. Meanwhile, Kristaps Porzingis averaged 18 points, 8 rebounds, 1.5 steals and 1.6 blocks.

There was plenty of information available at the time that suggested Porzingis would be the more productive player. And after being a late riser, he ultimately went ahead of Hezonja, the fourth pick to the fifth pick.

Generally, successful international picks like Luka Doncic, Rudy Gobert, Jonas Valanciunas, and Dario Saric have a clear difference than guys like Bender, Jan Vesely, or Dante Exum. There’s actually something - anything - in their statistics that show they’re good basketball players.

The numbers for the failed international prospects - they’re just numbers. Mediocre, unimpressive. Just basic NCAA prospect level stuff. For the ones who succeed, something stands out. The shot blocking of Gobert, the productivity of Doncic, the versatility of Porzingis.

For Doumbouya, nothing stands out. He’s supposed to be a great defensive prospect, yet his defensive numbers are pedestrian. His scoring numbers are mediocre. His playmaking is unimpressive. There’s not anything in the game that he’s actually good at. That’s not a blue chip prospect.

Generally speaking, that’s the recipe for a disappointing International Man of Mystery rather than a surprise superstar.

There’s exactly one international player who didn’t come into the NBA without demonstrating any clear skill during their overseas playing experience: Giannis Antetokounmpo. So yeah, maybe Doumbouya bucks the tradition of every other international prospect and becomes the next Giannis. There’s always the possibility. It’s just a razor thin possibility.

More likely is that he develops into a role player who’s decent, but nothing particularly special. Which is perfectly fine. But it’s inconsistent with the rest of the team’s building strategy. How are you optimizing the pieces around your core while bringing along a super raw 18 year old?

And he’s just one of eight of these mid-tier prospects on the roster! Some are more playable than others, like Luke Kennard versus Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk. But the majority don’t really belong on a NBA court.

Let’s talk about the GM job

A general manager’s job is to build a roster that can contend for a title. I get that this is a hard job. It takes a lot. Which is why it’s the most important job in a franchise.

This front office is doing the exact opposite of building a roster that can contend for a title. It’s trying both the reload and reboot. Which is the same route that the late tenure Joe Dumars regime tried with disastrous results.

Dumars blew up his 60 win roster with the intent of keeping the team competitive with a core of veterans in Ben Gordon, Richard Hamilton, and Charlie Villanueva, while also bringing along a group of young players in Rodney Stuckey, Jonas Jerebko, Austin Daye, and Greg Monroe.

In theory, it’d be the best of both worlds. Contend both now and in the future. The problem was that Dumars thought his veterans were better than they actually were and the young players were all just mid-tier prospects. Most went on to have perfectly decent careers, but with a veteran core as flawed as Gordon/Rip/CV, it was going to take players who were immediately ready to be plus players to pull off a true reloading.

Dumars wasted three years with that nonsense. Then, once he actually did land a blue chip prospect in Andre Drummond...sigh. He followed it up with the same strategy that failed him before, trying to contend with flawed veterans in Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings while also bringing along the young players.

The Jackson, Blake, Drummond core is certainly more talented than any of those cores Dumars put together. Which is just great. So it’s a 41-win core rather than a 28 win core. That’s awesome.

A mediocre core surrounded by a bunch of developing players just doesn’t work. We’ve spent the past decade seeing that. If you’re going to push all of the chips to the middle of the table on a mediocre core, OK. That’s dumb, but OK.

But if you’re pushing all of the chips to the middle of the table on a mediocre core while also thinking you’re going to develop a bunch of young mediocre prospects at the same time, congratulations, you’ve just crafted a perfect mediocrity cocktail.

The defining need of the Pistons strategy is luck. Luck that Jackson, Blake, and Rose stay healthy. Luck that Drummond somehow becomes a winning player. Luck that Doumbouya turns into a star despite showing literally no star potential. Luck that their flurry of midtier prospects sees one or two become top-tier players in the league at their position, and that their low-tier prospects become contributors.

With any one of these things, there’s no reason to believe with any amount of firmness that it will be the case. In fact, if you’re looking to bet, the safer bet is on the opposing side. And here, you need to hit on multiple underdog bets.

But hey, it’s just one year. It’s not that big of a deal, right? Might as well give it a try, see what happens. Maybe it all comes together.

Except, yeah, it is a big deal. Last year was a wasted season. This year is lining up to be another wasted one, with the Rose and Snell deals cutting into the flexibility for the following year too.

Time really doesn’t fly in purgatory. We learned that in the late Dumars tenure. But more importantly, there’s no reason to hang out there. The Pistons really can try to have a championship caliber team. No, it’s true! There’s no reason the Pistons are required to be content with sneaking into the playoffs.

The mentality of “championship or bust” or folks who think they have the only answer to building a title team, that stuff is nonsense. Don’t listen to it or any talk show hosts who purport it. There’s more than one road that can get you where you want to go. But where you want to go really should be contending for a title.

Ed Stefanski basically found himself on a road headed to someplace supremely mediocre - Ohio, let’s say - shrugs and says “Eh, I guess we’re going to Ohio!”

Pistons fans. You deserve better than Ohio.