Pistons loading up for playoff push and the future

It’s been six seasons since Detroit made the NBA playoffs. The Pistons’ brass knows that failing to reach the postseason will be a major disappointment for a host of reasons.

The main reason being, this isn’t the Hornets or the Bobcats, this is an organization with a proud history and has experienced success. However, the longer the Pistons dwell with the likes of those teams, the past accomplishments feel prehistoric, obsolete and less relevant. When billionaire owner Tom Gores purchased Palace Sports and Entertainment in 2011, he listed a goal of the Pistons being in the playoffs in no more than three years. Almost five years later, the team has yet to reach that goal but things are certainly looking up.

In 2014, Gores fired long-standing general manager Joe Dumars and hired Stan Van Gundy to clean up the mess.  Pistons fans everywhere are quick to forget that Dumars led the team to an NBA championship and six straight Eastern Conference finals appearances. What they do remember are all the bad trades, carousel of coaches being hired/fired and horrible free agent signings. To be fair to Dumars though, longtime owner Bill Davidson died in 2009 and the organization was essential stuck in cement until Gores purchased it. Then, Gores demanded hurried improvement with lofty team expectations and this led to Dumars operating under less than ideal circumstances. Gores gave Dumars a short lease and he wasn’t able to turn it around quick enough. In hindsight, looking beyond all the player personnel mistakes Dumars made, the roster was in decent shape when Van Gundy took over. Dumars drafted Greg Monroe, All-Star center Andre Drummond and much to every fans’ dismay took Kentavious Caldwell-Pope over University of Michigan hero Trey Burke. Towards the end of his tenure, Dumars absolutely regressed in the trading department but he faired well in the draft.

Since Van Gundy took the reins, he’s had to operate under harsh playoff expectations, along with the added responsibility of coaching. Van Gundy smartly hired Jeff Bower to become the general manager to condemn any sort of operational pressures that a team executive faces. However, things didn’t start smoothly in his tenure. The team had one second round pick in 2014 and drafted Spencer Dinwiddie who was coming off an ACL tear. Then he had to make the arduous roster decision to cut free agent disaster Josh Smith, while also eating a significant portion of his contract.  Finally, Van Gundy had to watch Greg Monroe leave town while getting no form of compensation.

That was particularly challenging because Monroe is a good player and for a team that was devoid of talent shouldn’t let good players walk without getting anything in return. But it would be hard for anyone to inquire that Van Gundy hasn’t proved to be successful in building a playoff caliber team this season. That actually has the components to sustain success beyond this year. The team has had two drafts under Van Gundy’s direction which has produced Dinwiddie, Stanley Johnson and Darrun Hilliard. Not spectacular, but all three have proven that they belong in the league and Johnson in particular has shown tremendous upside and will be a very good NBA player in the not so distant future.

Van Gundy and company have done satisfactory in the draft, but where they have really excelled is in the trade department. Old-school Pistons fan may remember “Trader Jack” McCloskey, the captain who orchestrated a plethora of trades that turned the 80’s version of the team into champions. Three decades later, Van Gundy and Bower are starting to give old Jack a run for his money that hopefully in turn leaves the same effect. Since taking over, here is a list of the trades Van Gundy has authorized:

  • Will Bynum for Joel Anthony
  • Tony Mitchell for Anthony Tolliver
  • Jonas Jerebko and Gigi Datome for Tayshaun Prince
  • DJ Augustin and Kyle Singler and two 2nd round picks for Reggie Jackson
  • Caron Butler and Shawne Williams for Ersan Ilyasova
  • 2nd round pick for Marcus Morris
  • Brandon Jennings and Ilyasova for Tobias Harris.
  • Quincy Miller for Steve Blake

That’s quite a bit of activity but basically, the Pistons traded Bynum, Mitchell, Augustin, Singler, Butler, Williams, Ilyasova, Jennings and a few second round picks for Jackson, Harris, Morris, Anthony and Tolliver. If that doesn’t look like much, the simpler description of these trades is bench players and a couple of second round picks for three starters.

Now the oldest starter on the Pistons rotation is Marcus Morris, 26. To add more favorable news, everyone except Drummond, who will get a max deal in the near future, is locked up for the foreseeable future. Reggie Jackson needs to be more consistent, but he has shown that he has the ability to be a top flight NBA point guard (Top 10 in PER among qualified point guards). Morris has been more than serviceable as a starting small/power forward.

With this latest deal, Detroit was able to add a starting power forward, on a declining contract, who is 23 years old and has yet to reach his full potential without moving anyone from this young core. This is almost unheard of in today’s NBA landscape, where in the same deal a team can negotiate a trade and receive better, younger players as well as earning long-term financial security. Equally important is how this helps the team in building the chemistry, consistency and comradery in the locker room that can ensure making the playoffs are a regular occurrence.

When the team was shopping for a starting caliber small forward in this summer’s free agent market. They actually had Harris as a primary target, but didn’t want to get caught in the league mandated three-day moratorium, that allows a restricted free agents’ current team the opportunity to explore a long-term deal after they’ve accepted another teams’ offer. By trading for Harris now, Detroit was able to get a more market friendly contract; the league cap will rise next year and Harris’ declining contract will look even better in four years (as long as he stays healthy).

Nobody is going to call Tobias Harris a superstar, but he’s an upgrade within the athletic, offensive creativity and defensive departments that Detroit implores. He also allows Detroit the options of bringing Morris off the bench and/or moving him to power forward. Losing Jennings is a blow and does deplete the backup point guard situation.  But, the Pistons probably have a strong belief that veteran Steve Blake and Dinwiddie could handle those duties. Including Jennings and Ilyasova’s expiring contracts, it was necessary to get the deal for Harris done.

Detroit will also get shooting guard Jodie Meeks back soon, which will strengthen the bench. Sitting at 27-27 and a half game out of the Eastern Conference playoffs, the last thing the Detroit Pistons needed to do was stay put at the trade deadline. They also didn’t need to break up a young core with so much potential. Not only did Van Gundy manage to give the team a better chance of ending the playoff futility streak this season, he also set the team up with a brighter future. So kudos to Van Gundy and Bower, now the players need to deliver and take this long-suffering franchise back to the upper echelon of the league.

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