What could’ve been…
For many reasons, optimism and excitement were prominent throughout the Detroit Pistons organization and fan base during the off-season. This positivity wasn’t unwarranted, either, as the team had made upgrades throughout the roster following just the franchise’s second playoff appearance since 2009.
Derrick Rose, following a resurgence with the Minnesota Timberwolves last season, was brought in expected to be a substantial upgrade over Ish Smith. Markieff Morris, a starter for the majority of his career to this point, joined the team after his twin and former Piston, Marcus, helped him see the seamless fit he could have with the team. The seemingly no-brainer decision of retaining the unproven, but potential-filled Christian Wood over a past-his-prime veteran in Joe Johnson was also made, giving the Pistons even more depth behind the team’s All-Stars. This slew of financially-savvy and under-the-radar acquisitions by the front office were supposed to be what catapulted the team into the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race.
While these additions were looked at as obvious talent upgrades, everyone knew that the Pistons’ season would come down to the health of their most injury-prone players – Rose, Reggie Jackson, and, most importantly, All-NBA forward Blake Griffin. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen, our worst fears have come to fruition, especially with the latter two. Following the first two contests of the season in which he looked like a shell of himself, Reggie Jackson was sidelined by a back injury – one he has yet to return from. Meanwhile, Griffin surprisingly missed the first 10 games of the season, as the hamstring injury that limited him toward the end of last season still apparently affected him.
These early injury woes were concerning, but with a healthy Blake expected back within a couple weeks, there was no reason to panic. However, the version of Blake Griffin we’ve seen since his Nov. 11 return has been… concerning. Whether it’s a conditioning issue, lingering soreness, or a combination of both, last year’s version of Blake has been nowhere to be found through his first slate of games. Griffin’s points (24.5 to 18.2), rebounds (7.5 to 4.9), and assists (5.4 to 3.3) per game have all seen a steep decline thus far. A slight decline in his stats would have normally been a good thing for Griffin, as the plan was to lower his workload this year to avoid any further injuries. However, the lift on his jumper just hasn’t looked the same, and, without the ability to effortlessly glide to the hoop like the old days, this has drastically lowered his positive impact on the court. With the majority of his points coming from bullying smaller defenders with isolation post-ups or the only occasional three-point make (31.0% this season), Griffin’s offensive arsenal has seemingly weakened.
Now, the Pistons sit at an underwhelming 10-14 with their highest expectations in years. Notably, it’s the franchise’s worst start since their infamous 5-23 beginning in 2014-15 – which eventually culminated with the waiving of the team’s highest paid player, Josh Smith. Blake is obviously way, way better than Smith – the previous statement wasn’t hinting anything. However, it does show that it might be time to make a similarly drastic move.
While the Pistons’ record may not look as bleak as I’m describing, remember that Detroit has the easiest schedule in the NBA pre-All Star break, followed by the league’s toughest remaining schedule. In other words, this team needs to capitalize on a light schedule to compensate for what will likely be a rough final stretch. Detroit hasn’t done that, already dropping three games to the Charlotte Hornets, two against the Chicago Bulls, and contests against the Atlanta Hawks and Washington Wizards. Every one of those teams currently sits with a worse record than Detroit, which goes to show the match-ups they’ve let slip.
With that said, the Pistons are likely on pace for another high-30s to low-40s win total, a range that the franchise has unfortunately become accustomed to over the last half decade. That trend needs to stop sooner rather than later, and it won’t if this roster remains untouched. So, what needs to change?
December 15 marks the day when free agents signed this past summer (roughly 40 percent of the league) can be traded. Opportunities should be available to ship off a number of players; but only time will tell if they jump on one in the coming weeks, wait until February’s trade deadline, or continue to sit on their hands.
Expiring contracts who can also contribute on contenders, such as Langston Galloway – who has performed admirably for Detroit this season – could net the franchise a useful asset for the future. Team’s might also be clamoring for cap space this summer – despite the weak free agent class – in the form of Jackson’s expiring contract as well. Rose, Tony Snell, Markieff Morris, and All-Star center Andre Drummond each have either a team or player options following this season as well, making for interesting trade chips.
Despite the Pistons’ recent success – they’ve won four of their last five games – they certainly have awhile to go before becoming a true playoff contender again. It could happen, but realistically this roster’s ceiling isn’t much higher than last year’s. Therefore, to avoid another decade of mediocrity, it should be in the Pistons’ best interest to make moves sooner rather than later.
There’s no way of telling how team’s value Detroit’s players, but Galloway, and especially Rose, should be able to grab a mid-to-late first rounder – and possibly more – from a contending team. With the recent development of “Point Bruce”, Stefanski and co. should also take whatever they can for Reggie Jackson – who now seems out of place on this roster. We all knew the Pistons acquired Blake Griffin with huge health risks while also being an unorthodox fit with Andre Drummond, and now that decision is haunting the franchise. Blake is still a great player, but he’ll need to prove it again for a period of time to attract even one potential suitor. If that production comes, it feels imperative that Detroit jumps on the best offer it can find.
Just as important it is to capitalize on the value of their veterans, it’s just as necessary that Detroit hangs on to the right players. Luke Kennard, Bruce Brown, Svi Mykhailiuk, and most surprisingly – Christian Wood, have shown that they need to be key parts of this core. Meanwhile, 18-year-old Sekou Doumbouya and fellow rookie Jordan Bone have looked like absolute studs with the Grand Rapids Drive:
Lastly, and likely the most controversial opinion in this column, the Pistons need to retain Andre Drummond this summer. Dre has continued to improve his game, as he seems to do every season, and has solidified himself as the team’s obvious best player in the wake of Blake’s continued health issues. The Pistons haven’t been losing games because of Drummond, they’ve lost contests in spite of his play. His defense continues to trend towards elite, averaging career highs in steals (1.7) and blocks (1.9), while also limiting offensive players to shoot 12.1% worse than average at the rim, per NBA.com. Drummond’s biggest flaw? He shouldn’t be the team’s best player, and the Pistons may finally have the cap space to make sure that he isn’t.
Be patient, don’t hand away a first round pick to try and salvage this season just as Stan Van Gundy did in 2018. Tanking shouldn’t be an option, either, and losses are inevitable with the growing pains that come with empowering the youth, anyway. Detroit has more young talent than expected prior to the season, and arguably a top-five center in Drummond, something the Pistons – and their fans – shouldn’t take for granted. There’s something here, but it’s time to acknowledge past mistakes and attempt to move forward rather than try to force a winning product with a roster that hasn’t clicked as expected.
It’s time for the Detroit Pistons to retool, not rebuild.