Welcome to a weekly column by Kyle Bauer on various happenings in national and local sports. Agree or disagree with the author? Please comment below or let him know your thoughts by email,[email protected] or twitter, @kyle_bauer
November 22, 2006, my friends and I sat in the upper bowl of a capacity crowd, giddily watching the Detroit Pistons tangle with the forever-middling Atlanta Hawks. It was an inconspicuous, ultimately irrelevant game; a Thanksgiving Eve contest on an drizzling, sleeting night in Auburn Hills. Yet on that night, with treacherous roads, the impending arrival of out-of-town relatives and all the turkey to prep, we were among 22,000-plus, loud and vigilant. It was a playoff atmosphere against a mediocre team not even a month into the season.
The Pistons won 103-98, with a pull-away fourth quarter by Chauncey Billups who led that night with 24 points. We slid about every other step through the slush on the way back to my car, grinning, buzzing–the Pistons were only 7-5 at that point, but we weren’t worried, it was destined to be another special season for Detroit’s best sports franchise.
That Pistons team was the last great Pistons team, yet still vulnerable enough to suffer their eventual death-knell. The 2007 playoffs were supposed to be a parade, stomping on each Eastern Conference opponent severely lacking depth and maturity. The Indiana Pacers and New Jersey Nets had burned out, the Philadelphia 76ers were grossly disinterested and the defending champion Miami Heat were injury-plagued and stripped down. LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers were foolishly left off Pistons fans periphery, regarded as juvenile and flashy under a young King James, nowhere near a match for the savvy and physically imposing Pistons.
Of course, we’re still traumatized by LeBron’s 25 consecutive points in a game 5 Cavs overtime win, pivoting the Eastern Conference Finals. A chuckle and an eye-roll turned into panic. Everything ESPN foretold was coming true; LeBron became self-aware and our Pistons were in his cross-hairs. In game 6, the Cavs bludgeoned the Pistons, not just eliminating them from the playoffs but ripping the championship core of its dignity. The country cheered; our boring, brooding Pistons were out of the way at least for the summer and LeBron’s pre-Decision energy, flash and charisma would be on the NBA’s biggest stage, only to be snuffed out by the San Antonio Spurs in their dynastic prime.
That off-season, Joe Dumars drafted Rodney Stuckey . He played increasingly big minutes, spelling an irked Rip Hamilton but giving a sip of rejuvenation to an apparently tired but stubborn Pistons team. While some clairvoyant fans suggested that they trade and rework on the fly to stay fresh, Dumars dug in, insisting Stuckey was the only shot they needed in the rotation. He appeared right, the Pistons made another conference final–their remarkable sixth in a row–but meekly lost, looking worn and undersized against the (original) “Big 3” of Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and the Boston Celtics.
It was in this two year period where hairline cracks began to show. Those fractures grew and methodically led to arguably the ugliest five year period of any Detroit sports franchise. Yes, in my opinion worse than the “Darkness with Harkness/Dead Wing” era for the Red Wings, the early-Ilitch era (1993-2005) for the Tigers and well um I guess the past 52 years for the Lions. No, the Pistons haven’t had the futile records these teams had, but those teams never had the same meteoric drop.
Consider, now five coaches in this period, two of the last four (Flip Saunders and John Kuester) run out among player revolt and protest led by championship holdovers Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince. Think of Allen Iverson being banned from Greektown Casino and eventually walking at the conclusion of the 2009 season. That Iverson trade, dealing Billups and Aaron Afflalo (arguably Joe’s best draft pick pre-Andre Drummond) to the Denver Nuggets, was made for the sake of freeing up cap-space. They used that to sign Ben Gordon, who was eventually benched and shipped to the Charlotte Bobcats, and Charlie Villanueva, who has been in constant strife with coaching and management and spent most of the 2011-12 season inactive. Those two tied up $95 million worth of salary and 12 years worth of contract. Then the supposed franchise future that was Stuckey has stewed and teased, showing flashes of grit with a scoring touch, but most nights sedates the entire arena with his 7 points on 2 of 9 shooting in 32 minutes box score.
In five years, the Pistons went from being Detroit’s best sports franchise to arguably undercutting the Lions as the worst. While it’s not easy to pick your poison, it’s easier to ask how the hell could this possibly have happened? Going from perennial title-contender to complete obscurity in that short of time is a dumbfounding feat.
When previous owner Bill Davidson fell into poor health in 2008 through his eventual death and temporary hand off to his wife, Karen, we were told that the Pistons were simply in limbo. We were told with an ownership change, the Pistons will once again become aggressive in trades, drafts and free-agency. Michigan-tied billionaire Tom Gores purchased the team in June 2011, promising a commitment to refurbishing the Pistons product. Instead, he’s spent majority of his time cajoling celebrities to hang out with him in Southern California, rarely showing up check on his assets while getting some outsider opinions on what brand of wax to use for chest-hair removal.
What did we get instead of a refreshed and contending basketball team? Vanilla Ice half-time shows. I doubt this is what anyone prefers or anticipated.
The most telling expression of Gores thinly-veiled disinterest in the quality of his latest equity venture is that Dumars is still the president and general manager of this organization. Short of Stuckey and Jason Maxiell, the Pistons have seen a complete overhaul of on-and-off-court personnel since their last playoff appearance in 2009. Dumars–who has made one detracting move after another since 2005–has remained and been endorsed, demonstrating how little Gores has paid attention.
Dumars continued to astound this off-season by bringing in Maurice Cheeks. A conservative candidate for any coaching vacancy, Cheeks previously took over talent-loaded Portland Trail Blazers and 76ers teams only to disappoint, never escaping the first-round. This hire came as the legendary Phil Jackson was brought in as a special consultant–a move akin to Gores driving his Ferarri down Woodward, while screaming out the window “I’M TOM GORES, I’M FRIENDS WITH CELEBRITIES, YOU PEONS!”– to suggest his former assistant and fresh face, Brian Shaw, to team brass. If Dumars wanted to balk at Jackson’s suggestion, he could’ve at least looked at axed Memphis Grizzlies coach, Lionel Hollins, who led a Grizzlies team with a similar physical make-up to the Western Conference Finals, but was dismissed simply for an impending contract dispute. Then of course, there’s the legendary George Karl, the reigning NBA Coach of the Year, who was surprisingly let go by the Denver Nuggets in a move to aggressively revamp. Shaw eventually took Karl’s place in Denver, Hollins and Karl remain out of work. Any of these three would’ve been far better and more exciting options for this tall coaching order than Cheeks, who might be the ultimate cheap, cop-out hire.
Then there’s last night. The draft pick that enraged me to the point I finally had to purge this opus.
Dumars drafted Georgia shooting guard, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, a good-sized, athletic shooter who was expected to go mid-first round and was invited to the draft on Tuesday night. Dumars made this selection in the face of having National Player of the Year, Michigan point guard, Trey Burke and lanky Syracuse point guard, Michael Carter-Williams, available. The Pistons desperately need a point guard, someone who can run the floor and be a distributor, getting the ball to franchise ventilator Andre Drummond.
Last year, Dumars lucked into Drummond, who slipped from being a projected top-five pick into the backend of the lottery. He’s the only glimmer of hope, yet still raw, so raw, having a point guard like Burke or Carter-Williams to develop with him would’ve been a major plus. Now, Drummond will be on an island while Caldwell-Pope–known to be a pull-up, mid-range shooter–will have to find and develop his shot on an NBA level. This also leaves 2011 first-round pick, Brandon Knight, on a different kind of island–closer to a literal one. He’ll either be relegated to the reserve player I’ve had a sinking feeling he’d become, or be asked to transition to point guard. While conceivable, tearing down and rebuilding your game in your third year on the NBA level is a lot to ask out of Knight.
With this pick, Dumars damned his previous two first-rounders while creating an absurdly lopsided backcourt .
In November 2013, there will be no crowds of 22,000-plus, more likely 2,200. Yes, 2,200 people who show up to see whatever washed up musician put on a halftime show serving as perfect metaphor for where the Pistons are as a franchise; stale, desperate and culturally irrelevant. They’ve slipped into the blackhole of NBA irrelevancy–a stigma that is harder than ever to escape while parity continues to erode due the allure of the glamour-markets and super-teams the league and networks cater to.
I miss the Detroit Pistons. I miss the nights, like seven years ago, when the current state of this franchise seemed inconceivable. I miss when driving 40 minutes north to the Palace in the middle of a snowstorm was easily justifiable. I miss when YOU cared about the Pistons. I miss how loud the Palace would get. I miss how much pride we could take in how freaking tough this team was, how anti-establishment they were.
It just seems like the Pistons don’t actually exist anymore and after last night, they won’t anytime soon.
Kyle Bauer is an award winning college sports broadcaster and former Sports Director of WXOU 88.3fm, freelance journalist and radio producer who has been published in The Macomb Daily, mlive.com, Oakland Post and MIPREPZONE.com, follow him on Twitter @kyle_bauer
*CORRECTION: Aaron Afflalo was dealt to the Denver Nuggets in separate trade for a 2011 second round pick in 2009.