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The Detroit Pistons have gone through hell and back since Joe Dumars was named the President of Basketball Operations in 2000. Big-time free agents walking away, six straight Conference Titles, an NBA Championship, monumental draft busts, lockerroom turmoil, coaching changes, awful free agent signings. You name it, it’s happened in Detroit since the new millennium began.
After a moderately successful run (I say moderately solely because of the lone title) with their legendary star-less core of Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Rasheed Wallace and Ben Wallace, the Pistons should be in a clear rebuilding stage. Instead, a myriad of bad decisions, both in the free agency and the draft, by Dumars have Detroit in an odd stasis with a cloudy future in sight. Even the inclusion of the amnesty clause in the new CBA won’t help Dumars undo half of the mistakes he’s made. Even worse, Dumars doesn’t seem to be hip to the fact that he’s crippled almost all of Detroit’s financial flexibility until 2014.
Since Dumars traded Billups to the Denver Nuggets in November of 2008, the event that should have signified Detroit’s transition into a full rebuilding mode, these are the moves he’s made (via Basketball Reference’s excellent Executive Record feature):
Hit the jump for the rest of Mark’s piece…
June 23, 2009: Traded Amir Johnson to the Milwaukee Bucks for Fabricio Oberto.
June 25, 2009: Selected Austin Daye (1st round, 15th pick), DaJuan Summers (2nd round, 35th pick), Jonas Jerebko (2nd round, 39th pick) and Chase Budinger (2nd round, 44th pick) in the 2009 NBA Draft.
June 25, 2009: Traded Chase Budinger to the Houston Rockets for cash and a future 2nd round draft pick.
July 8, 2009: Signed Ben Gordon as a free agent.
July 9, 2009: Signed Charlie Villanueva as a free agent.
July 13, 2009: Traded Arron Afflalo, Walter Sharpe and cash to the Denver Nuggets for a 2011 2nd round draft pick (Vernon Macklin).
July 22, 2009: Signed Chris Wilcox as a free agent.
August 12, 2009: Signed Ben Wallace as a free agent.
September 28, 2009: Signed Chucky Atkins as a free agent.
June 24, 2010: Selected Greg Monroe (1st round, 7th pick) and Terrico White (2nd round, 36th pick) in the 2010 NBA Draft.
August 16, 2010: Signed Tracy McGrady as a free agent.
December 10, 2011: Signed Damien Wilkins as a free agent.
December 17, 2011: Signed Rodney Stuckey as a free agent.
December 14, 2011: Signed Tayshaun Prince to an extension.
Even after making one of the worst combinations of signings ever in the summer of 2009, Dumars continued his mean streak of signing veteran players to long-term deals rather than prepping for the future. Dumars even lucked into a terrific situation when he drafted Greg Monroe, one of the very few young centers capable of being a franchise cornerstone, and Brandon Knight, a point guard with potential to grow alongside Monroe, in consecutive years. But instead of dropping everything and committing to those two as their building blocks, Dumars decided to re-sign Prince and Stuckey, thus taking away minutes from his younger players, at least in theory, like Austin Daye and Knight.
I’ve been critical of every free agent signing Dumars has made since 2009, including the decision to keep Rodney Stuckey around this off-season on three-year, $25.5 million deal. Stuckey presents a direct competitor for Brandon Knight in the minutes department. In a year that is clearly lost for the Pistons, the last thing you should want to do is steal key developmental minutes from your rookie point guard. And yet, Dumars seemed to have no qualms bringing in Stuckey, who had been the team’s nominal point guard ever since Billups was traded (creating minutes for Stuckey was the hole reason Detroit traded Chauncey in the first place). That was not a smart decision in my opinion.
But as things stand today, it would appear that Dumars has stumbled upon a pretty good combo and it involves Stuckey. After years of waiting for Stuckey to have a breakout season and not getting one, months after they gave him a sizable contract, Stuckey is having a career year. That’s normally the opposite of what you’d see, as players tend to go all out in contract years in hopes of earning a bigger payday, but it seems like Stuckey has truly improved this season.
Stuckey’s improvement has a lot to do with Knight, which is exactly the opposite of what I thought would happen. Lawrence Frank made a great decision at the beginning of the year to use Stuckey and Knight together, allowing Stuckey to adapt to his more natural role as a two-guard that isn’t forced to distribute. Stuckey played 50% of Detroit’s available minutes at point guard last season while playing just 4% of their minutes at shooting guard. This season Stuckey has played 40% of the Pistons’ minutes at shooting guard while playing just 14% at point guard.
Of Detroit’s five most used line-ups this season, the Knight/Stuckey PG/SG combo is used in three of them. The complete ineffectiveness of Ben Gordon (he has an 11 PER this season) has given Knight and Stuckey some very valuable time to play together and the result has been productive for the Pistons, relative their situation as one of the worst teams in the league, that is. Stuckey has the second lowest assist rate of his career this season but he’s compounded that by posting a career high in points per 40 minutes, true shooting percentage and PER as well as career low in turnover percentage. Having Knight on the floor with Stuckey has allowed Stuckey to do a bit more scoring while relieving him of the duty of setting up his teammates constantly.
As the age of six-foot-six shooting guards that began with Michael Jordan dies as Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Joe Johnson, Manu Ginobili, Rip Hamilton and Ray Allen lose effectiveness, Stuckey helps usher in a new kind of shooting guard that Allen Iverson brought into the limelight a few years ago. There are still a few young and traditional shooting guards out there like James Harden, Paul George and MarShon Brooks but the undersized two-guard is becoming more and more prominent as players like Stuckey, Monta Ellis, Marcus Thornton and O.J. Mayo emerge. Similar players like Jeremy Lamb, Bradley Beal and C.J. McCollum will be in the NBA soon, too.
We’d normally think of these players as combo guards – players that can run an offense but are more adept at scoring while lacking ideal size to play the “two guard” position on the defensive end. Over the next few seasons we will probably start seeing an increase in small backcourts, or a decrease in the average backcourt size. Having two smaller players both capable of handling the ball is a strategic advantage if managed and I expect more coaches to adapt this strategy moving forward. The Nuggets (Ty Lawson/Andre Miller), Golden State Warriors/Milwaukee Bucks (Stephen Curry/Ellis and Brandon Jennings/Ellis), Atlanta Hawks (Jeff Teague/Kirk Hinrich), Minnesota Timberwolves (Ricky Rubio/Luke Ridnour), Sacramento Kings (Isaiah Thomas/ Marcus Thornton) and Philadelphia 76ers (Jrue Holiday/Lou Williams) have all experimented will small backcourts this season to various degrees.
Joe Dumars has made a comical number of errors over the past few season but I have to admit that the potential combination of Knight and Stuckey moving forward is intriguing to me. Knight has had a rough rookie season but as long as he continues to grow over the next couple of seasons, this will become one of the more interesting duos in the NBA. Throw-in Greg Monroe, who is a top five center in the league in my mind, and you have a formidable trio.
The Pistons will be in a financial pickle over the next few seasons because of frivolous investments that Dumars made in guys like Gordon and Villanueva but if he decides to amnesty Gordon and can find a taker for Prince at some point in the next year or so, the Pistons will actually have a decent amount of cap room in a couple of years. Once Detroit’s cap clears up Dumars will have one final chance to put together a team capable of competing in the Eastern Conference. It’s tough to afford him that opportunity considering how badly he messed up the last time the team had cap space but this will be the first time he’ll be looking to make signings to complement a young and improving team rather than trying to salvage a dying core.
It’s hard to find reasons that support the majority of the moves Dumars has made over the past few years but I can eat my words on the Stuckey signing. As the smaller backcourt becomes a bigger trend in the NBA, a tough and physical dynamic of Knight and Stuckey has quite a bit of potential moving forward and with a couple more pieces Detroit can actually start to look like a playoff team.
Whether or not Dumars will be able to find those pieces is the million dollar question.