Pistons' Extreme Makeover for the Worse
There's gunk clogging up the Pistons. Lots of it.
Gone are the days when Detroit would cruise annually to the Eastern Conference finals. Now, the Pistons are on a road to nowhere.
You can't say this team is rebuilding. It used gobs of salary-cap room last summer on ill-fated signees Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva when the Pistons could have waited until the big free-agency summer of 2010 to try to lure a real big-time player (Chris Bosh?).
The city of Detroit has been falling apart during this tough economy. OK, so the Pistons play in Auburn Hills. They've just brought more despair to the suburbs.
"It's sad,'' Denver point guard Chauncey Billups said of the Pistons, 22-41 and losers of six of their past seven.
When the history books are written, the trade of Billups, who helped lead the Pistons to six straight conference finals from 2003-08, might go down as having wrecked the franchise. To borrow from local resident Bob Seger, who regularly attended games during the team's glory years, the Pistons are running against the wind after some night(mare) moves.
The most ill-fated move came Nov. 3, 2008. Billups, believed by Pistons brass to have lost a step at 32, was shipped to the Nuggets in a deal that brought Allen Iverson and 2009 salary-cap room. The Iverson experiment was a disaster, and Detroit wasted its cap room last summer faster than a kid blowing all his allowance at the candy store.
"I don't think they (Pistons brass) ever thought that I would have done what I've done nor they do what they've done,'' Billups said of having earned two All-Star berths with the Nuggets and leading the team to the last spring's Western Conference finals. "I don't think they ever thought that.''
Billups was the heart and soul when the Pistons won the 2004 NBA title and lost in Game 7 of the 2005 Finals to San Antonio. Two players have continued to remain from those teams, forward Tayshaun Prince and guard Richard Hamilton, and center Ben Wallace returned this season after bolting as a free agent in 2006.
"I thought obviously we made a change too early as far as the guys that we moved,'' said Prince, touching upon the dealing of Billups.
The money cleared by the Billups trade resulted in Gordon, a guard last with Chicago, getting a five-year, $58 million deal and Villanueva, a forward last with Milwaukee, a five-year, $35 million payday. But Gordon's scoring average has dropped from 20.7 last season to 13.7 and Villanueva's has fallen from 16.2 to 12.3.
Not only that, neither is a typical Piston. It's no wonder Billups and Darvin Ham, a forward on the 2004 and 2005 Finals teams who is now retired, both see a Detroit team that has lost its gritty edge.
"When I was there, we embodied the city of Detroit,'' Billups said. "Tough and rugged, like blue collar. Our team embodied that so the city got behind us. And that's how we played. We hung our hat on stopping teams and offense just kind of happened. We had great players. You just don't see that same commitment. You don't see that desire with the team they have right now.''
While some phrase it differently, the bottom line is Gordon and Villanueva are soft. When asked if the two aren't typical gritty Detroit players, Nuggets coach George Karl said, "I would see that. I can say that.'' Ham, now an assistant for the D-League's Albuquerque Thunder, agreed the shoot-first mentality of the two doesn't fit in the traditional Pistons' style, saying, "I totally think so.''
"Everybody talked about our team like we were a bunch of castoffs because we never had a big high-profile [player], but the reason we came out and kicked [butt] every night is you got guys with a chip on their shoulder who knew what being a Piston meant,'' Ham said of the top teams of the past decade as opposed to the current Detroit outfit. "And I think they've kind of lost that.''
Ham said the trade of Billups has been the biggest reason for Detroit losing its edge. After last season, a key contributor from two Finals teams, forward Rasheed Wallace, and one from the 2005 Finals, forward Antonio McDyess, both departed as free agents.
While we're at it, the Pistons are for sale and attendance is in a free fall after they had led the league in six of the previous seven years and were second in the one year they didn't. Detroit's average has dropped from 21,877 last season to an announced average of 18,190.
"It's funny,'' Ham said. "Now, the auto industry is not what it once was [in Detroit]. And, you look at the Pistons, and it's like the same thing. You compared [the auto industry] with a basketball team with a hard-working blue-collar identity, but now it's like they lost their identity.''
Pistons general manager Joe Dumars, the man behind trading Billups, did not return a phone message or an e-mail seeking comment on the team's decline. First-year coach John Kuester, an assistant on the 2004 title team, saw some validity in what Ham said.
"I understand where he's coming from,'' Kuester said. "We're starting to learn that (it's needed to be more of blue-collar team). It's taken time and we haven't had the luxury (due to injuries) of all the guys that we're accustomed to teaching [the young players]. ... We have some people that can put the ball in the hole but we've got to have that mentality [Ham is] talking about, the blue-collar work ethic. And, hey listen, we've got to get stops.''
Kuester referred to the many injuries the Pistons have had, and they indeed have been banged up this season. Prince has missed 32 games, Hamilton 27 and Gordon 19.
But it's tough to make the argument Detroit would be even a .500 team with a fully healthy cast. In games this season in which Hamilton, Prince and Gordon all have played, the Pistons are 8-18.
That's right. They're 8-18, even worse than their overall winning percentage.
"It's tough,'' Hamilton said of all of the losing. "It's hard. We've been banged up. It's been a different season. I missed almost 30 games, Tayshaun the same. But, just the same, it's been tough being in the Eastern Conference finals every year and having to go through this. But it can only make you stronger. In this league, you find out a lot about guys when things happen like this.''
The Pistons, in recent years, also have been finding about coaches. Flip Saunders was dismissed after going 176-70 with Detroit from 2005-08.
Since then, the Pistons haven't been willing to spend top dollar for a proven coach, and it's showed. Rookie Michael Curry was fired after going 39-43 last season, one torpedoed by Iverson complaining about not starting and eventually being shut down for good late in the regular season for what was termed a back injury.
Kuester, another rookie coach, has done even worse. There's no certainty he'll be back next season, which could result in the Pistons having four coaches in four years.
"They won the championship with a game that was very possession-oriented, defensive-minded type of game,'' Karl, an ESPN analyst during Detroit's 2004 title season before coming to Denver in January 2005, said of the evolution of the PIstons. "Their game has changed a little bit and their personnel has changed. And I think, in the same sense, they might have lost the defensive mindedness.
"But, offensively I think they've lost some things, too. I don't think they're as up to date offensively as the pin-down game (setting a pick near the basket to free a player for an outside jumper) and run-play game. I think they're kind of East Coast [grind it out]. They've stayed with that kind of trend and when you do that you've got to be really good to win with that trend.''
So the Pistons are out of date. In some ways, that means they are your father's Oldsmobile.
It's understandable the guys remaining from the glory days are showing age. At least Ben Wallace, 35, is doing as well as one could expect from a guy who said that last summer he was "not close but very close'' to retiring. Although the center, averaging 9.1 rebounds, said he hasn't made up his mind yet, there's certainly a good chance he really will be done after this season.
While Hamilton, 32, is averaging 18.9 points, he's seen his field-goal percentage plummet to 40.8. Prince just turned 30 and has been playing well of late, but his 12.8 scoring average is his lowest in six years.
As for the reinforcements, Gordon and Villanueva, have not come close to delivering and having center Kwame Brown doesn't help anybody's blue-collar image. The Pistons do have a fine young point guard in Rodney Stuckey, averaging 17.1 points and 5.0, assists, but he's still no Billups and his 19.6 three-point percentage won't lead to anyone calling him "Mr. Big Shot II.''
Dumars did make a nice second-round draft selection last summer in energetic forward Jonas Jerebko. But it remains to be seen if their first-round pick, flagpole-thin forward Austin Daye, will pan out.
As for another move Dumars made last summer, call it another reason why he might want to consider retiring in Denver if he wants to always have his tab picked up for the early-bird special. The Pistons handed intriguing young guard Arron Afflalo to the Nuggets for next to nothing to clear cap room to give forward Chris Wilcox $3 million this season.
Afflalo has become Denver's starting shooting guard, and is third in the NBA in three-point shooting. Wilcox has been a nonentity with the Pistons, averaging an embarrassing 4.5 points.
To recap the appreciation in Denver for Dumars, he selected Darko Milicic with the No. 2 pick in 2003, allowing Denver to take Carmelo Anthony at No. 3. And then there was the Billups trade.
In case you're wondering, no, the Nuggets don't want Hamilton, who could be the next piece moved from Detroit's glory years. But, with three years and $34 million left on his contract after this season, that will be hard.
"My mindset is nowhere else but here,'' Hamilton said when asked if he would welcome a trade this summer. "But it's not something I think about.''
Prince will be easier to move due to a contract that expires after he makes $11.5 million next season. So does he want to be dealt?
"I've always been happy here,'' Prince said. "When you start losing, the speculation is going to come regardless, especially I think when you've been somewhere for a long time. ... But I like the team we have now. We've been hurt and those things are unfortunate.''
What Billups says is unfortunate is watching his buddies, Hamilton and Prince, losing so much after so many great seasons.
"I do feel bad for them. You never know what can happen,'' Billups said of whether he'd like to see the two shipped to contenders. "You hope they have the chance to win another championship. I don't know if they could do it [in Detroit] or not. But, right now, it's just not looking good.''
It didn't look good for the Nuggets last season until they were able to somehow pry Billups away from Detroit, a move Karl said might have saved his job and one that got Denver's Mark Warkentien the trophy for Executive of the Year. Before the deal, the Nuggets had not won a single playoff series in 15 years while the Pistons, with Billups leading the way, had won 15 series in the previous six years.
The trade ended up sending two franchises in opposite directions.
"It was a great move for me because it really rejuvenated me,'' Billups said. "It gave me a chip on my shoulder that I probably lost in Detroit because we were just so good. I kind of got a little stagnant. It gave me a reason to be able to show me that I'm still me. I can still play at a very high level.''
Meanwhile, the Pistons have sunk to a very low level. They're on pace for their worst record since going 20-62 in 1993-94.
But that team was rebuilding after getting old following winning titles in 1989 and 1990. There was an attempt to rebuild this team last summer but it was done with particle board.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @christomasson