They are the NBA’s lost franchise, a once-great power reduced to a half-decade of dispiriting, almost unwatchable basketball that drove away viewers — both in person and on television. Their 2009 free-agent splurge on Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva has become something like shorthand lingo among NBA diehards — the go-to example for how cap space can be more alluring as unspent money. “Remember Joe Dumars,” people say, shaking their heads. “Cap space has never won a game.” They are the only team to rank 15th or worse in both points scored and allowed per possession in each of the last four seasons, a span that saw the breakup of a popular contender; a herky-jerky franchise sale that took too long; a sellout streak that gathered an outsize importance and helped drive the franchise, addicted to trumpeting the streak, into its 2009 free-agency freakout; four coaching changes since the end of the 2007-08 season; and an unceasing dip in attendance that saw Detroit sell just 67 percent of its home seats last season on average — by far the lowest figure in the league.
And so when the Pistons signed Josh Smith, one of the league’s most polarizing players, to a four-year, $56 million contract, the reaction was swift and predictable — derision, mockery, and curiosity over how the Pistons could seemingly be the last people to realize playing Smith at small forward, alongside Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond, amounted to spacing death.
The concerns are real, even if Smith isn’t so different from Tayshaun Prince, Detroit’s longtime small forward, another lefty with a shaky jumper, some off-the-bounce creativity, and a useful post game he can break out against smaller defenders. Prince played 133 minutes last season with both Monroe and Drummond before the Rudy Gay trade sent him to Memphis, and the Pistons could simply slot Smith into Prince’s place within the motion sets they ran with those units last season.1 But teams will ignore Smith from outside 15 feet, and Monroe is only in the early stages of developing an NBA-level midrange jumper; he hit just 30.7 percent of his midrange jumpers last season, about the same as the sad rates Smith and Maxiell bricked up.
The Pistons as of now plan to start all three of their front-court studs, and that lane is going to be packed with bodies. Smith can help by squeezing clever passes through tight spaces — something Detroit’s guards can’t really do — and working his post game against overmatched small forwards, but there’s only so much breathing space for a team going ultra-big like this without even a single average jump-shooter among those bigs. Smith also needs the ball much more than Prince, which makes for a challenge distributing possessions in the right balance. That was tough already, since Monroe’s elbows-in game2 isn’t an ideal match with Drummond’s Tyson Chandler–style pick-and-roll rim-wrecking.
I mean, good luck threading this left-side pocket pass to a rolling Drummond — especially if Smith is standing somewhere along the baseline:
Spacing issues will make what looks like an entertaining dunk fest, starring Smith and Drummond, a bit less watchable. But there will still be plenty of fun stuff, especially if this team gets out and runs more, and smaller lineups revolving around Drummond and a stretch power forward scored at off-the-charts rates last season. Going this route means that Rodney Stuckey almost has to come off the bench; he’s a woeful outside shooter whom opponents ignore by having his man stand at the center of the foul line or at the edge of the paint. That leaves a starting spot open for some imperfect player — Will Bynum in a move that would shift Brandon Knight to shooting guard (again), Chauncey Billups (declining fast), or an unproven shooter such as Kyle Singler, Luigi Datome, or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.3
But these aren’t the same Pistons that blew the summer of 2009 and had no clear plans for how to rebound. They’ve drafted well south of the no. 5 slot, a difficult thing to manage on a consistent basis. Their new ownership group, headed by private equity giant Tom Gores, has invested a lot of time and resources into the team, bringing a more asset-based philosophy to trades and free-agent signings. They’ve dived into analytics, and they’re thinking several steps ahead in the team-building process, with lots of options in front of them.
And Smith is a real asset at a reasonable price. Even when disengaged, he’s a big man who contributes B-plus level ball on both sides of the floor — the rarest positional commodity in the league. He’s 27, he’s had knee issues, he can’t shoot, and he jumps for rebounds instead of boxing out, all of which raise the possibility of a scary Gerald Wallace–like aging curve — the freak who can’t adjust when his athleticism fades. But he’s a very good player, perhaps the best free agent after the Chris Paul–Dwight Howard duo, and he presents Detroit with a number of interesting paths going forward.
And the alternatives to nabbing an asset of this quality weren’t all that appealing. A Knight-Stuckey-Monroe-Drummond core is probably too good to tank, especially when you look at the the rosters of the teams in true tank mode. A more traditionally sensible free-agency strategy around that core — filling out the wing with experienced Kyle Korver/Kevin Martin types — would have left Detroit a mediocrity, likely holding a long-term contract attached to a sub-star several years older than Smith. The Pistons with Smith will still be mediocre, but they’re also set to have max-level cap room next summer and (as of now) in the summer of 2015. With cap room a certainty, the Pistons opted to sign the best trade chip available — even one that’s a dicey positional fit for now — instead of a couple of uninspired midsize contracts linked to aging players.
A second path would have been to throw big money at the two most interesting wings available — Andre Iguodala and Tyreke Evans. But I’m dubious Iguodala would have had any interest in coming to Detroit, a free-agent dead spot, and the Pistons likely would have blanched at paying Evans the $11 million per season the Pellies threw at him.
A third path is the sexiest and most nouveau — the Philly strategy of dealing an established young player (Jrue Holiday in the case of the Nerlens Noel trade) for two extra draft picks, including a first-rounder in the loaded 2014 draft, and taking a big step back this season. Monroe would have been the bait here, since Knight has raised more questions than answers through his two seasons. There were some potential fits for a Monroecentric deal like this at the top of the draft order.4 The Pistons obviously kicked around this route, but after four straight seasons in the lottery, they don’t appear to have prioritized it, per sources around the league; some teams inquired about Monroe before the draft and were met with a flat “no” as to his availability.
But the Smith deal doesn’t close off any paths for Detroit. The contract will place the spotlight on Smith, but within the organization, I suspect the stronger spotlights are trained upon Monroe and Knight. Smith makes trading Monroe palatable, and trading Monroe might be the easiest means of nabbing an above-average starting point guard — something that Knight emphatically is not, and no longer projects to be. Next summer’s free-agent class is light on quality point guards, especially with Phoenix likely to lock up Eric Bledsoe.5 The 2015 class has starrier names, including Rajon Rondo, Kemba Walker, Kyrie Irving, Jeremy Lin, Goran Dragic, and Tony Parker, but nabbing one of those guys via cap space is going to be difficult.6
Monroe is a very good offensive player, but he’s a glaring liability on defense in a league getting smaller and quicker. He’s a turnstile trying to contain the pick-and-roll out on the floor — a mess of bad footwork, poor timing, lazy reaches, and bad choices. When Detroit has him hang back at the foul line, ball handlers can zip around him with an easy crossover or launch wide-open jumpers as Monroe, petrified at giving up a rim run, retreats a step farther than most bigs would dare — often with his arms down. Pistons fans complained, with some justification, about Lawrence Frank’s reluctance to play Monroe and Drummond together for much of last season, but Monroe’s total inability to guard stretchier power forwards factored into that choice — just as it should factor into Detroit’s evaluation of things now.
When the Pistons asked Monroe to attack the ball higher on the floor, the mess was almost worse. Point guards can juke Monroe with laughable ease by faking toward a screener, watching Monroe lurch in that direction, and then crossing over the other way and into an unpatrolled lane. Monroe is often late in jumping out above a screen, meaning his momentum is going too hard the wrong way (toward half court) as the opposing point guard revs up to turn the corner. And when Detroit has asked him to hedge sideways, as in the still below, Monroe often arrives too late to cut off the ball handler:
His off-ball defense is similarly unintuitive. Monroe wants to help and has a rudimentary sense of where he should be as the chess pieces move around the floor, but he’s unsure of himself and prone to fatal hesitations and bouts of confusion. He has struggled to develop any chemistry with his big-man partners, so that a lot of Detroit possessions end with late help rotations or both bigs chasing one opposing big man — each under the impression the other would be elsewhere on the floor. Watching film of Detroit’s defense basically amounts to sitting through an hours-long reel of dunks, shrugged shoulders, and inattentive help; only eight teams allowed more shots at the rim last season, and only three allowed opponents to shoot a higher percentage than the ghastly 61.1 percent Detroit allowed.
To use one example of a simple play with which Detroit and Monroe had depressingly chronic issues: Monroe in the below photo (standing at the right edge of the paint) is only just realizing Nicolas Batum, having caught the ball after flying around a Joel Freeland screen and drawing Freeland’s man onto him, is about to hit Freeland for an easy dunk.
Most of Monroe’s issues are common among young big men. Drummond shares some of the same poor habits. But Monroe has three years under his belt, he’s up for a big-money extension, he’s shown very little (if any) improvement as a defender in the NBA, and he lacks Drummond’s motor or athleticism. A Smith-Drummond front-court pairing has massive potential on defense, but it raises the challenge of timing the next franchise peak with a roster built around front-court partners nearly eight years apart in age.
Drummond isn’t one of the NBA’s maniacal workers, but he has calmed concerns within the Pistons organization that he’d be a dog or lack NBA-level fire. He seems to care about the right things, and he has Chandler-level potential as a two-way force in a pick-and-roll league — provided he can solve his free throw issues. That’s not some small thing, by the way. Chandler didn’t emerge as an elite player until he vaulted his free throw percentage from the mid-50s into the low 70s, and the 37 percent mark Drummond puked up last season is a catastrophe that would absolutely hamstring his development. Teams will start fouling him intentionally more often, and he’ll be at a loss for points if he can’t develop a usable post game.7
But Drummond projects as a game-changing defender. Monroe does not, and offense-only big men on their second NBA contracts tend to become drains on a team’s salary cap who also place limits on their team’s ceiling.
That’s especially true for a team without a point guard. Knight has a clear future as a solid NBA rotation piece. He has already established himself as an above-average 3-point shooter, he’s fast, and he works his tail off on the practice court and watching film. But Detroit cannot have watched the last two seasons and concluded the franchise point guard is already on the roster.
Knight is usually a half-second late reading the floor, which is admittedly a very tough thing for a normal human being to do in real time. Pause any pick-and-roll at the moment Knight darts around the pick, and you’ll see 10 men in coordinated motion — Knight’s big man rolling into space, an opposing big man rotating along the back line to stop him, and everyone else adjusting in kind. There are openings in that moment. The big man rolling might come open, and if he doesn’t, that means the defense has tilted more than usual in his direction and left another of Knight’s teammates open someplace else. The same patterns unfold again and again, and the best point guards learn to anticipate openings ahead of time, or even to coax the defense into surrendering a specific hole.
Knight can’t do that — yet. You can see his eyes and brain working to understand how the defense is scrambling, and when you can see a point guard think like that — when he shows his work — that’s bad. Sometimes Knight will spot the right pass, only he’ll spot it a half-second too late, when the defense has already started to recover into position for a steal or deflection.8 Other times, he’ll make the wrong read, throwing a pass too early, or uncorking a tricky thread-the-needle job when an easier dish is staring him in the face.
He also has a troubling habit of short-circuiting pick-and-rolls before they have a chance to develop, mostly by pursuing his own shot. One maddening tic: Knight loves to go around a pick in normal fashion, only to immediately cross back over toward the middle of the foul line and attack from there. Getting into the middle of the floor is generally a good thing. But doing so 18 feet from the hoop at the start of a pick-and-roll creates some problems. It puts Knight right in front of his rolling big man, mucking up the floor and taking away the most important passing lane in the pick-and-roll. And by getting middle so early, Knight allows opponents to defend the play without tilting all five guys too far toward one side — the dramatic kind of contortions that stretch a defense to its breaking point. The floor has appeared so tight in Detroit over the last two seasons in part because Knight hasn’t been able to exploit the cracks that do appear.
Here are many of Detroit’s issues in one still image — Knight veering right into Monroe’s rolling path after a pick-and-roll, Kirk Hinrich abandoning the punchless Stuckey on the right sideline, and Drummond trying to generate space by standing out of bounds:
Knight also loves to split defenders on the pick-and-roll, often hurling the ball nearly 10 feet in front of him as he scrambles through an available crease, hoping to meet the rock on the other side. He can be very turnover-prone doing this; the Pistons might want to institute a no-splitting rule for Knight, as the Pacers did for Paul George early last season.9
Bottom line: Knight does not look like a point guard, and Monroe, though quite polished on offense and especially as a passer, does not look like a max-level player — not with Drummond and Smith there. And David Falk, Monroe’s agent, does not enjoy settling for sub-max deals in markets flush with cap space.
That’s why you’ll hear lots of rumors about Detroit’s interest in Rajon Rondo and any other top-15 point guard who may become available over the coming months. Smith can help that team-building process, either by making Detroit more comfortable thinking of a future without Monroe, or as the trade bait in Monroe’s place. And in the meantime, he’s an obvious roster upgrade for a team that badly wants to make the playoffs next season while maintaining its future cap flexibility. The next step matters even more.