The Detroit Pistons must practice patience

With the Detroit Pistons struggling, fans are calling to shake things up. But, given the realistic options available, the team is smart to stay patient.

On Sunday night, the struggling Detroit Pistons were down by 14 points in the first quarter against the lowly Los Angeles Lakers.  It was the beginning of the end of a disappointing road trip, where the Pistons had gone 1-3 in their first four games, including two embarrassing blowout losses and a huge blown lead.  The Pistons had won only four of their previous fifteen games.  Things looked bleak.

The Pistons managed to erase the fourteen point deficit in the second quarter and eventually took a one point lead to halftime following an Andre Drummond three-quarter court buzzer beater to end the first half.  The NBA is a league of runs, after all.

At halftime, Pistons owner Tom Gores spoke with reporters.  When asked about the team’s struggles, Gores preached patience.

“We’ve got a bump in the road and that’s what success is about — you have to work through it. It’s all about having rough times and your ability to work through,” Gores said. “I never worry about Stan because he wants to win; he’s the hardest worker I’ve ever seen in my life. I believe in him as a man and I believe in him as a strong person.”

In addition to his commitment to coach Stan Van Gundy, Gores foreshadowed his intention to keep the current roster together this summer.

“I know Kentavious well. He is a hard worker, he’s reliable and he’s improving every day,” Gores said. “He should be a Piston — that’s just the bottom line. He has what it takes to be a Piston. He was a shy kid when I met him and he’s become a leader.”

The desire to re-sign Kentavious Caldwell-Pope comes as no real surprise.  It’s been well-documented that re-signing Caldwell-Pope is the only realistic option for the Pistons as they continue to build the team.

The owner’s support of Stan Van Gundy is not surprising, either.  Van Gundy has done an admirable job putting together and developing a young, talented roster with the flexibility to match-up against all different kinds of teams.

But, given the Pistons’ recent terrible stretch, there’s been a growing frustration among both the team and fan base.  Van Gundy has been vocal in his disappointment in the team’s efforts in bad losses.  The players held a players-only meeting following a fifteen point home loss to the Indiana Pacers.  Van Gundy shook up the starting lineup by replacing Tobias Harris with Jon Leuer.  Fans’ frustrations have manifested themselves in the form of wondering whether a personnel change is appropriate.

Despite all of that, Tom Gores publicly expressed his support for Stan Van Gundy, the current roster, and a patient approach.  That patient approach to the Pistons’ team building will prove wise.

There is no doubt that the Pistons have been disappointing through the first half of the season.  While many expected them to build off their strong run to end the 2015-16 season, they are just 19-24 to begin this season.  The disappointment in the team’s poor record has led to frustration.  And that frustration naturally results in a desire to see change.  Sometimes change makes sense.  In the Pistons’ case, change would likely be futile.

Change for change’s sake is never productive.  So, the question becomes: if the Pistons were to make changes, what would be accomplished?

2016-17 Season

As frustrating as the first half of the season has been for the Pistons, the team is still only 2.5 games out of a playoff spot and only 3.5 games out of fifth place in the East.  The Pistons do have a lot of teams to jump in the standings, but they have 41 games to accomplish it, far more than they did when they made a run following last year’s Tobias Harris trade.

While the abundance of mediocrity in the Eastern Conference is certainly helpful to the Pistons, their tough schedule in the first half brings even more reason for optimism.  The Pistons have played the 10th most difficult schedule in the league this year, a more difficult schedule than anyone in the East but bottom-dwellers Miami and Brooklyn.  Statistical metrics like SRS and Schedule-Adjusted Net Rating rate the Pistons ninth in the East, well ahead of the Indiana Pacers and barely behind Chicago, Washington, and Atlanta.  As the Pistons schedule gets easier and the other East playoff contenders’ schedules get tougher, it’s reasonable to expect the Pistons to close the gap in the playoff race simply by playing worse teams.

So, the Pistons are certainly still in the playoff hunt.  It’s not where they want to be, but let’s first consider what making a personnel change would mean just to this year.

The Pistons have dug themselves a sufficiently big hole to a point where the team won’t be hosting a playoff series this year.  No personnel change outside of acquiring one of the truly elite players in the league would change that.  The Pistons won’t be acquiring any such player, so any changes designed to improve the Pistons for just this year would be aimed at ensuring the team made the playoffs.

On the surface, at least, there’s no real obvious player to trade or trade for that would substantially improve the Pistons’ playoff chances.  Certainly, if a team calls offering a star-caliber player, Stan Van Gundy would listen and make a deal if it made sense.  But, absent an All-Star type player falling into the Pistons’ laps, the only likely move that could be made is some sort of lateral move to shake things up: trade a bench wing for a bench wing, trade a starting forward for a starting forward, etc.  Sometimes those type of moves work out, but they certainly come with major downsides.

As Pistons fans have seen this year, chemistry on the court can be quite important.  The Pistons’ serious struggles began with Reggie Jackson‘s return.  Ish Smith moved to the bench, and all of the Pistons’ rotations looked a little bit different.  Players were playing in new lineup combinations, and had to re-calibrate their plays and timing based on those new lineups.  The defense struggled the most; communication and help defense fell apart with the new rotations, and no combination of lineups seemed to fix it.

If the Pistons made a trade before this year’s deadline, they could be looking at yet another multiple week period of re-acclimating themselves to new rotations.  It could be the spark that the team needs to push toward the playoffs, but it could just as easily result in another terrible stretch that keeps the Pistons out of the playoffs for good.

Ultimately, the Pistons’ best chance to steal a playoff spot is to rely on the same personnel that got them to the playoffs last year on the strength of a second half surge.  Reggie Jackson finally looks like his old self, Caldwell-Pope has improved leaps and bounds, and the Pistons have a much stronger bench than last season thanks to Smith and Leuer.  With Jackson’s progress and Caldwell-Pope and Leuer returning from injury, it’s best to ride the horses that made last year’s second half run than it is to add in an unknown to a team that’s, for the first time all year, entering a period of stability.

Long-Term Future

Now, if the Pistons continue to struggle and find themselves firmly out of the playoff picture, the front office may look to re-assess their plan for the long-term.

With Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond signed to large contracts through at least 2020 and Tobias Harris and Marcus Morris signed through 2019, dramatic change to the Pistons’ core does not make much sense.  The Jackson/Drummond pick-and-roll is the central building block of the entire team.  Harris and Morris are on extremely team-friendly contracts signed prior to last summer, and the Pistons would be very unlikely to get equal value for either player because of those friendly contracts.

Because of those four long-term contracts, the Pistons would have little cap space to make a real impact in free agency in the next two summers even when ignoring Caldwell-Pope’s impending free agency.  Considering Gores’ comments at halftime of the Lakers game and the amount of money Caldwell-Pope is going to command, the Pistons will likely have no cap space for at least two summers.  With building through free agency not a realistic option, the question becomes: how do the Pistons make the jump from fringe playoff team to contender?

The Pistons, as currently constructed and at their current talent levels, are certainly not title contenders, which should be the franchise’s ultimate goal.  Winning championships require a lot of luck, so the most realistic goal for any franchise is to put themselves in a position to win the championship if things break right.

To become a contender, the Pistons realistically need to find a way to get a star on the roster.  With free agency not a real option, acquiring an outside star would have to come through a trade or a draft pick.  If the Indiana Pacers and Chicago Bulls were looking to move Paul George and Jimmy Butler, the Pistons should certainly make some phone calls.  Stars are traded very infrequently in the NBA, though.

The next option becomes drafting a star player.  That could prove equally as difficult for the Pistons.  Although they’ve struggled this year, the team has too much talent on the roster to get into the top five of the draft without some serious lottery luck.  Instead, the Pistons would likely have to acquire a high lottery pick through a trade.  Such a trade would require finding a team who covets Jackson, Drummond, or Caldwell-Pope, and is willing to take on their big (soon-to-be big, in Caldwell-Pope’s case) contract.  Like trading for a superstar, this is possible but exceedingly unlikely.

That leaves the Pistons with a final option: finding a star from within.  Caldwell-Pope has made huge strides this year, but it’s hard for a shooting guard to have the defensive impact of an elite big man, and Caldwell-Pope is not dynamic enough offensively to make up for his positional disadvantage defensively.  Tobias Harris falls in that same category, without the dynamic defense.  Marcus Morris and Reggie Jackson, at ages 27 and 26, are what they are.  The wild card is Andre Drummond.

Now, let’s be clear.  Drummond has a long way to go before he can be talked about as being a star.  His offense is developing and he’s one of the best rebounders in the league, but his defense has just not caught up yet.  Drummond has struggled to protect the rim so far this year, often exhibiting a lack of focus that has led to much frustration from Pistons fans.  Drummond did show some defensive brilliance on the Pistons’ recent five game road trip, allowing opponents to shoot just 42.5% at the rim, but he needs to put it together on a nightly basis.

The good news for Pistons fans is that Drummond, though in his fifth season, is still only 23 years old.  Drummond came into the league extremely raw, and he’s certainly come a long way since his rookie year.  He may never fully put it together, but his age, size, athleticism, and the opportunity to have a huge impact defensively makes him the Pistons’ best option to develop a star from the current roster.

If Drummond’s development continues to stall, it will be time for the front office to start looking into other options.  That may involve bringing in another rim protector or offensive creator.  It could mean blowing up the roster altogether.

But, blowing things up would be a huge mistake at this point.  The Pistons have put together a talented group of young players who, while inconsistent, show flashes of brilliance both individually and collectively.  The organization owes it to those players to give them more than half of a season to put it all together.  It may not work out in the end, but given the alternatives, a patient approach is the Pistons’ best team-building option in the next two years.

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