April 8, 2020, 11:55 am
The Pistons’ 2018-2019 campaign was emblematic of the franchise’s struggles to get over the hump of mediocrity in recent history. An unlikely 8-seed playoff berth turns into an utter shellacking as their star player, Blake Griffin, clearly battles through injury along the way to a first round sweep at the hands of the Bucks. While the first round exit last season represents only the second playoff appearance for Detroit since 2009, they still were clearly positioned as a team in the dreaded no-man’s land – not bad enough to hit gold in the lottery, but not good enough to compete.
In many ways, the Pistons front office painted itself into this corner by taking on Blake Griffin’s massive contract, which runs through 2022, and handing out way too much to Reggie Jackson a number of years ago. They didn’t have many chips to play, or much cash to hand out in the 2019 offseason, so they brought on Derrick Rose and Markieff Morris. Those two additions, along with Sekou Doumbouya in the draft, weren’t likely significantly increase the Pistons’ playoff odds, but hey, at least Rose may help get a few more butts in the seats of the Little Ceasars Arena.
Despite the veteran acquisitions, and some growth from their youngsters, the Pistons’ failed to match their performance last year and are currently sitting at 20-46, losing 13 of their last 15 contests. Their struggles have to be blamed in part on the rash of injuries to key players, but even at full strength, this roster leaves a lot to be desired.
With Andre Drummond leaving town at the deadline, it feels like the end of a certain era in Detroit. Luckily for Pistons fans, the Drummond era has been one defined by consistent mediocrity, rarely sinking to the bottom, but barely treading enough water to keep the playoffs in sight. Regardless of what went wrong this season, the team is headed in a new direction for better or for worse and there is hope that this season was the catalyst that sparks some much-needed, long-term roster change.
Blake Griffin, Asset or Albatross?
The Pistons have All-Star forward, Blake Griffin on the books for another $75.5 million over the next two seasons. Griffin was a bright spot for the Pistons in the 2018-2019 season, as he seemed eager to prove that he still had it after being unceremoniously dumped by the Clippers a year prior. He posted career-high scoring numbers and developed a reliable outside shot, totally changing the dynamic of his offensive impact. Led by the spurned Griffin, the Pistons felt like a lovable team of misfits, punching well above their weight, and provided a feel-good storyline for last season.
This year, everything came crashing down and the honeymoon phase with 31-year-old forward would come to a screeching halt. Griffin entered the season still nursing a knee injury that clearly had him hobbled in the first round playoff series against the Bucks. He didn’t have his legs underneath him, shooting 35 percent from the floor in 18 very shaky performances to start the season. Griffin ultimately pulled the plug shortly after Christmas, undergoing a season-ending arthroscopic surgery on his left knee.
In some ways, Griffin’s absence this season has to be seen as a blessing in disguise for their long-term trajectory. His absence forced Dwane Casey’s hand in terms of giving Christian Wood and Sekou Doumbouya meaningful minutes. The former looked like he might be ready for a steady NBA rotation role; the latter clearly has upside, but a long, long way to go. Regardless of the shape that the Pistons roster is in, injury has forced them to evaluate their young and newly acquired talent, which can only help the team make better-informed roster decisions moving forward.
The path the Pistons take is going to be largely dependent on their confidence in Griffin’s ability to lead them back to playoff relevance. After dealing Andre Drummond at the playoff deadline and buying out Reggie Jackson, the trajectory is certainly heading toward a rebuild. How the oft-injured 31-year-old big man with two years left on his deal fits in a rebuild is questionable. As we head into the offseason, the front office faces a number of tough questions around Griffin, as his trade market is likely close to non-existent given his questionable health and considerable cap hit remaining.
Backcourt of the Future?
Continuing with the theme of injuries accelerating the timeline for the Pistons’ young assets, a back injury which kept Reggie Jackson out for a majority of the season shifted Luke Kennard into more of a ball-handling role on offense and put the ball in Bruce Brown’s hand more as he was tasked with initiating the offensive attack more often.
Prior to his injury, Kennard was a top-100 fantasy player, playing roughly 33 minutes per night and averaging 15.8 points per game on 44.2 percent shooting (going 89.3 percent from the stripe on 2.7 attempts per game) with 2.6 triples, 3.5 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 0.4 steals. He had flirted with stretches of fantasy relevance before, but finally solidified his role in the starting lineup and took a step forward statistically.
The biggest issue with Kennard from a fantasy perspective was his one-dimensional stat-set heavily reliant on triples. This season, he continued to hit threes efficiently even with the increased volume, but the biggest boon to his value was an increased assist rate as he jumped from 2.9 assists per 36 minutes last season to 4.5 this year. Kennard clearly has more to his game than he has been allowed to demonstrate before, so hopefully the skills he flashed as a facilitator will be fostered and further development there encouraged as the team faces a rebuild.
Despite starting a majority of games for the Pistons last season as a rookie, Bruce Brown was a total afterthought, averaging paltry numbers in around 20 minutes per night. He played almost entirely off the ball, splitting his minutes between the two and three out on the wing. Before the season started, there were already some indications that Brown (and the Pistons) would be better served seeing minutes at the one as he averaged 8.3 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.5 blocks running the point for the Pistons’ Summer League squad.
As we moved to the regular season, Brown spent considerable time running the point for the Pistons with Jackson sidelined, averaging 8.9 points on 44.3 percent shooting with 0.6 threes, 4.7 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 1.1 steals and 0.5 blocks in 28.2 minutes per night. He may always be a net negative offensively, but surrounded by the right weapons, Brown has some interesting upside as a lead guard moving forward.
Both Brown and Kennard had enjoyed breakout seasons in their own right, but the potential backcourt pairing of the two is the more interesting question facing the front office. Unfortunately, Kennard dealt with injury woes of his own, going down in December with what would become season-ending knee tendinitis. That injury limited the Brown/Kennard backcourt sample size, but on the season all Brown/Kennard lineups were a +5.7 per 100 possessions. With Brown’s struggles on offense at times, it probably isn’t a huge surprise that the pairing produced a sub-par 108.8 points per 100 possessions, but more than made up for it by dominating the other side of the ball, only allowing 103.1 points per 100 possessions.
With his status as a lottery pick, the Pistons have much more invested in Kennard’s development. However, given the positive early returns of a Brown/Kennard backcourt pairing, they would be wise not to overlook Brown’s upside even with a very guard-heavy lottery in the 2020 draft class.
After a dominant end to the 2018-2019 season, the Pelicans unceremoniously waived Christian Wood in the offseason. This wasn’t an unfamiliar experience for Wood, who at that point had demonstrated some upside at the NBA level, but lacked the polish and focus defensively to earn a spot in any rotation. After going undrafted in 2015, Wood has been a career journeyman, bouncing back and forth between the NBA and the G-League, signing with and then being released by four teams in three years.
This had to feel like the beginning of history repeating itself to Wood. Posting big numbers on the big stage, only to be cut and overlooked on the open market. However, after the Pelicans waived Wood, the Pistons took a chance on the 24-year-old big man and claimed him off waivers. From the start it was apparent that despite the Pistons taking a gamble on his upside, his spot in the rotation was far from guaranteed as he was somehow in competition for the final position on the roster with 38-year-old Joe Johnson.
Given their track record of questionable decision-making, it was almost a guarantee that the Pistons would opt for Johnson, but someone, somewhere made the right call to look forward, not back, and roll the dice on Wood. Early in the season, Dwane Casey made it apparent that he did not trust Wood with significant rotation minutes regardless of the statistical explosion that could come from Wood at any time, even in limited minutes.
As the season marched on, injuries to just about everyone in the frontcourt but Wood, combined with Andre Drummond leaving at the deadline, forced Casey’s hand into playing him big minutes. If you have been following Wood for years now (as most fantasy managers have), the results were unsurprising. Over the final 10 games of the season, Wood averaged 24.2 points on 57.8 percent shooting with 1.5 triples, 9.8 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.0 steals, and 1.1 blocks and was the 15th ranked player in 9-cat formats.
Wood appears to have found a home in Detroit, thriving in the absence of Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond. He still is a net negative defensively (though he showed improvement), and needs to learn to play more in control within team defensive schemes if he wants to earn consistent minutes a fully healthy rotation. He enters the 2020 offseason an unrestricted free agent, and his play down the stretch combined with the growth he has shown over the season should make him an interesting name to watch in a lackluster free agent class.
Money to Spend
Speaking of the 2020 class of free agents… that brings us to the most important question that the Pistons have been faced with answering in years. What to do with all of the newly found cash (around $30 million to spend) they have with Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson coming off the books and a majority of their current roster on expiring contracts?
There isn’t a franchise-altering player available in this free agent class, nor would the Pistons likely be at the top of most mid-tier free agents’ lists without significantly overspending. That opens up a potential trap at the feet of the front office that, if sprung, would turn the first offseason of financial solvency in a loooong time right back into a salary cap nightmare for years to come, hampering any chance at a successful rebuild.
Would throwing a ton of suddenly available cash at any combination of DeMar DeRozan, Gordan Hayward, Fred VanVleet or Montrezl Harrell really move the needle long-term for the Pistons? I contend that it would not, and would probably only serve to keep the team mediocre at best, and financially stuck with a losing record and no real young core to build around at worst.
If Detroit wants to make a free agent splash, with a rebuild on the horizon, the Pistons would be wise to look at what they already have an explore options of re-signing Christian Wood. He helped his chances of securing a more lucrative deal with his play down the stretch, but Wood profiles as potentially one of the better potential bang-for-your-buck options in this class.
Davis Bertans is another intriguing big man option available that could complement a Brown/Kennard backcourt, however his asking price could exceed his on-court value given the relatively sparse nature of this crop of free agents. The other question to consider is whether a commitment to Bertans is worth potentially delaying the development of Sekou Doumbouya.
The two are not mutually exclusive, but any big men the Pistons bring on present another hurdle for the rookie to clear moving forward. Doumbouya flashed some serious potential at points this season, going on a run of double-double performances and big scoring nights before completely forgetting how to shoot and play defense not long after. I would suggest that Doumbouya is exactly the type of prospect the Pistons should be looking to develop — a boom or bust type player that has the ceiling to raise the Pistons’ floor as a franchise on their own, even if their floor as a prospect is equally low. Any free agent acquisition that might set him back should be thought through very carefully.
Ultimately, the best course of action for the Pistons might be emulating the Brooklyn Nets approach at a rebuild and hardly spending money on free agents at all early in the process. Instead, they could look to use their cap space take on bad contracts over the next few seasons and build out a treasure chest of draft picks and young prospects. In Dwane Casey, the Pistons may already have their Kenny Atkinson as well. Casey’s player development skills are highly regarded, and his fingerprints are still all over the Raptors’ current stable of diamonds found among the rough. The blueprint is there, and they may have the right coaching staff on board to maximize the value of each young asset, now the Pistons just need manage the hardest part of a rebuild – remaining patient.