I still get amped every time I hear John Mason's boomy baritone echo that phrase throughout the Palace at Auburn Hills. For years, those two words have been synonymous with that rugged, hard-nosed brand of basketball that the league and its rules committee have been trying to officiate into extinction. For too many years those two words have not been used to introduce a team seriously competing for another championship, which is bad news for defense and rebounding enthusiasts such as myself. The Pistons have not participated in the post season tournament since '09. Times have been tough for a team that once made it to the Conference Finals six consecutive times in the early aughts but like a couple of joyriding teens attempting a three-point turn, they could be turning this thing around.
The emergence of Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe certainly falls into the "good" category of a mostly bad and ugly season. 23 year old Monroe came into his own last year, averaging almost 16 points and 10 rebounds per game. In limited minutes, the 19 year old, 7 foot tall Andre Drummond looked far more impressive than his stats may indicate. In a league with a serious shortage of good big men, the Pistons appear to have found their starting center and power forward of the future, with cap room and cash left over to throw around in free agency. That made Joe Dumars' decision to ink power forward Josh Smith to a 3-year $54 million deal a bit of a surprise.
There are two schools of thought with regards to both drafting players and signing free agents. One says that you go after the player whose position and/or skill set best fills your team's needs. The other says that you go after the best player available, regardless of position or skill set. Joe Dumars apparently belongs to the latter camp. After Chris Paul and Dwight Howard signed elsewhere, Josh Smith became the best available free agent. Although his presence creates a bit of a logjam in their frontcourt, it undoubtedly upgrades the roster's overall talent. Many question Smith's attitude and shot selection but few can deny that he is a game changing force on both ends of the floor.
Despite being stacked in the frontcourt, this roster is far from a finished product. The backcourt is certainly an issue. In his 3 seasons, "Point Guard of the Future" Brandon Knight has been anything but a consistent floor general. Signing beloved veteran Chauncey Billups should help but having him on the roster creates a significant point guard controversy. Coach Cheeks needs somebody to get the ball to Smith, Monroe, and Drummond and when healthy, the 36 year old Billups is a far more consistent game manager than Knight. Perhaps having Knight move to shooting guard and play alongside Billups is the solution but hearing Knight's recent assertion that he is a point guard on Slam Online makes you think that he would be less than thrilled with the idea. The other option is to have Knight become the first point guard off the bench. This scenario could pay dividends down the road as one would be hard pressed to think of a better mentor for young point guards than Billups. It would also take one of the Pistons' most talented young players off the floor.
Guard play is not the only issue this team has. Far be it from me to say that they were a terrible jump shooting team but there were reports from several unnamed sources that the Pistons' perimeter players could not, in fact, hit water if they fell from a boat. The Pistons were one of the worst 3-PT shooting teams in the NBA last year. Dumars attempted to address this by drafting University of Georgia's Kentavius Caldwell-Pope in the first round and signing Italian league MVP Luigi Datome. Both are outstanding 3-Pt shooters. Both have taken as many shots in the NBA as I have. The two will be expected to play and contribute immediately so it is reasonable to expect that both will struggle at times next year. It is also reasonable to expect that both will one day become pretty good players at the next level.
Coach Mo Cheeks certainly has his work cut out for him. He is taking over a team without a Superstar, an identity, or a winning culture. He also has tough decisions to make regarding the starting lineup, how to divvy up playing time, and what to do with guys like Rodney Stuckey, Will Bynum, Jonas Jerebko, and Charlie Villanueva. On the other hand, he has a blank slate to work with, not to mention three very good big men, a veteran point guard, and a roster full of young and talented athletes. Expectations shouldn't be too high for a coach inheriting a 25 win team but fans could be pleasantly surprised by their improvement next year. Josh Smith and Chauncey Billups' presence alone make this team better. With the benefit of a friendly schedule and several teams in the Eastern Conference tanking it (I mean retooling their rosters while staying competitive), the Pistons could easily win 10 more games. Adding another piece (Rajon Rondo and Rudy Gay's names have been bandied about in trade rumors) could put them over the .500 mark, which in the East could mean more,
come Playoff time.