Welcome to Film Don’t Lie: The Definitive Video Breakdown of the Detroit Pistons. For more on this comprehensive video series, please see our intro post. In short, I broke down hundreds of hours of video, analyzing how the Pistons did against each team in the Eastern Conference.
The Toronto Raptors finished 58-24 and won the 2019 NBA Championship. Detroit, for what it’s worth, won all three regular season games against the champs.
I’d like to make a quick detour away from film and discuss the current direction of the team.
A few immediate ramifications become evident.
Under these guidelines, the front office, led by Ed Stefanski, will be handcuffed to a roster featuring expensive bigs - Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond - for today, and seemingly beyond.
We all love Blake, and some of us don’t mind Dre, but we all know that one-two punch has a generous ceiling of second-round playoff participation. Can we all agree this roster isn’t contending for a championship?
If there is an understanding by everyone with eyes and ears the front office is hamstrung by a 45-win core, how can the job they’re doing be adequately judged?
Taking into account the circumstances they’re dealing with, below is what I’d like to see accomplished during the remainder of Blake Griffin’s contract (player option for the 2021-22 season at nearly $39 million).
Build the best team around Blake Griffin without committing to anything long-term or gifting assets away
How did Detroit get to this point?
Trading for Allen Iverson in 2008 was the official start of the Pistons’ rebuilding efforts, but more relevant to today’s conversation, the Pistons are in a financial mess thanks (in large part) to the decisions of the previous regime.
Between bidding against himself for free agent mediocrity and stretching Josh Smith’s contract, Stan Van Gundy never met a long-term solution for a short-term problem he didn’t like (h/t Laz).
To be fair, SVG’s overall impact on the Detroit Pistons is far more positive than he’s typically given credit for. He turned a complete catastrophe into manageable mess and should always get local love. But, like I said, Stan also did some dumb shit with the numbers. Unfortunately for Stenfanski and the boys, the inherited money squeeze is a problem only time can truly solve.
Owning near-empty pockets this summer meant the Pistons had to swing for contact during free agency instead of doubles, let alone home runs. Detroit signed the epitome of seeing-eye singles as Derrick Rose, Tony Snell, and Markieff Morris, and hardly moved the interest-needle at any level.
Boring? Sure, but it’s better than the “fun” route.
The absolute worst direction Detroit could veer toward in the final three years of the Griffin-contract era is to chase relevance by going after a Russell Westbrook type.
Let’s be clear. Not going after Brodie isn’t a Brodie issue, it’s a Pistons problem.
Considering Westbrook’s age, contract, and assets needed to secure his services, it’s not the most responsible fit. Which Eastern Conference teams would Detroit actually jump behind a Russell-Blake partnership? They’re close to financial freedom, why dive right back into an option-less hamster wheel without a decent opportunity to accomplish something special?
Age: Westbrook will be 31 when the season begins.
Contract: A lot of money. Player option for $46 million during the 2022-23 season.
Assets needed: The Houston Rockets gave up Chris Paul, protected first-round picks in 2024 and 2026, and protected rights to swap picks in 2021 and 2025.
Trading for Westbrook would’ve violated the “without committing to anything long-term or gifting assets away” part of my wish list.
Detroit makes this move for the 23-year-old Westbrook, or if they were a Westbrook away from anything winning worthwhile. After ten years of rebuilding, the climax should be a tad higher than two thirty-something-year-old alphas who need the ball in their hands, thirteen other guys, and no assets.
I’m assuming the only people that wanted Westbrook in Detroit were those concerned about the Pistons’ lack of air time on shows like ‘First Take’ .....because nothing else about the move made much sense.
Hard to blame anyone for wanting something, anything, to get excited about, though. The idea of Russ runnin’ wild at the LCA is about as tantalizing as it gets. But the actual payoff?
How many teams around the league begin rebuilding (any way: Processing, from the middle, etc.) only to carve out a new path a year or two later? Then follow an improved and shinier “can’t miss” route the next season. Does that sound familiar? Because it’s how the Pistons rolled from 2009 through Stan Van Gundy.
The 76ers’ Process worked because the front office had large enough balls to stick to their guns. Detroit will be rewarded with options at the end of Blake’s contract (which could include bringing him back, hopefully, it does), but only if they refrain from putting wrong em-PHAS-is on the wrong syl-LAB-le of their plan.
While the definition of “success” can be subjective, having options, no matter the context, is a decent indicator of achieving it.
Establish a culture of player development
With so many annual uncertainties in free agency, the trade market, and NBA Draft, it would be foolish for the organization to ignore significant governable issues requiring immediate attention.
The lack of player development, for example, over the course of the last decade has been truly appalling to witness firsthand.
First-round draft picks arriving in Detroit with hopes of resurrecting a dead franchise are soon seen leaving with suitcases full of disappointment and stagnated skill sets. The vets that have begrudgingly migrated to Motown wither away faster than a snowball at The Schvitz.
In short, no one is improving.
Dwane Casey, thankfully, has been preaching player development since he arrived and seems to grasp the urgency surrounding the situation. There is no bigger box for the coaching staff to realistically fill during their tenure in Detroit than establishing a culture of helping players achieve their goals.
If Thon Maker, bless his heart, wants to make an All-Defense team, then Casey and his staff should move mountains to put Maker in a position to reach that goal.
Bruce Brown wants to expand his game to include point guard duties? Give him every opportunity to scratch that itch.
Commitment recognizes commitment.
There are no secrets in the league, players talk to each other. Yep, they’re just like you and me!
Texting, group chats, IG, charity events, summer workouts, you name it. For far too long, no one had anything good to say around the watercooler about the franchise. Post-Iverson, anyone who took their hoops craft seriously wasn’t interested in what the person on the other side of that 313 or 248 phone call had to say.
Whether or not Maker is actually selected to an All-Defensive team isn’t the point. Whether or not Detroit did everything they could to assist in his development, is what we’re talking about. Casey and his staff have an obligation to the franchise to find out what motivates their players and begin pushing those buttons.
The players’ needs come first, but aiding the coaching and training staff, the nerds in the analytics department, and everyone else in-between in achieving their career goals also makes for a healthy hoops culture too. Am I to believe that for ten years no one told the Pistons organization that investing in your fucking employees is kind of important?
At the end of the day, this is a business and their lack of acumen towards the easy stuff begs the question: How, exactly, are the Pistons still in business?
Detroit didn’t need to follow some basketball version of The Conjoined Triangles of Success for the last decade, they needed to enroll in Wayne State’s Business 101 classes.
Of course, that’s the abstract effect of prioritizing development. The concert value is that the players will actually get better. Duh.
So, over the next three years, I want to see responsible spending, an ingrained culture dedicated to player growth, and a professional work environment ran by forward-thinking adults. When’s the last time the Pistons had any of those? How the front office delivers on those items is how I will judge them.
If Team Stefanski isn’t “allowed” to shake the snow globe in any sort of meaningful fashion, and you’re not a fan of what I’m selling, what are your expectations?
Instead of a franchise-wide Process purge, Gores is electing to continue with the incremental change route. Make no mistake, just because it’s not The Process, doesn’t mean it’s not a process.
Yes, that means 45 wins for next couple years. But, hopefully, they will spotlight and address the heart of the problem(s) instead of continuing to invest in short-term band-aids that will eventually fray.
The Pistons cannot consistently rely on fancy names in free agency, the crapshoot draft, or a volatile trade market to increase their likelihood of winning a championship. Detroit can win, and won in the past, by nurturing and focusing on an environment based not only on development, but accountability and authentic badassness as well.
The Pistons are still short on accountability and development, but are finally trending in the right direction.
There are two ways NBA teams consistently manufacture winning opportunities: great local weather or a great culture. Neither guarantees championships, but good luck winning without at least one of them. If Detroit is fortunate enough to find themselves on top again, which one do you think changed first?
A cliched topic like winning culture is a tough sell on the internet, I get it, but I’ve also seen enough head-scratching ESPN trade machine receipts to last a dozen lifetimes. It doesn’t matter who the team acquires if the roots of the franchise remained rotten.
The unfair part for Ed Stefanski, Dwane Casey, and Blake Griffin is that under Gores’ rebuilding from the middle timeline, when (if) the Pistons are back to competing at a high level, they’ll be gone. But if they’re doing this right, the trio will usher in the next winning era of Detroit Basketball.