Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Last Jewel Tarnished In Detroit

I have long openly proclaimed my love for the Detroit Pistons, the team that tickled my solipsistic need for local grandeur as a young boy. Detroit won championships in 1989 and 1990, and then did it again in 2004 after I had grown to adulthood. During the recent fat days, I forgot how Detroit fell into a long period of mediocrity after Isiah Thomas and Bill Laimbeer retired in 1994 (and even in the last three years of their careers). Rookie Grant Hill's entry into the Pistons' starting lineup in November 1994 seemed to augur well for their recovery, but Terry Mills and Theo Ratliff were not sufficiently stout big men in the mid-to-late 1990s to help Detroit get past better Eastern teams like Orlando and Atlanta (to say nothing of Jordan's Chicago, Mourning's Heat, and Ewing's Knicks).

After six straight Eastern Conference Finals appearances in the decade just completed, the Pistons are now a team in terminal decline. They still field three-fifths of the starting lineup that won them a championship seven seasons ago (and lost in Game 7 of the Finals six seasons ago), but those men have lost their erstwhile vigor and hops. The team is now 0-5 after losing to Atlanta last night.

About 24 months ago, when the Piston's recent run of success ended with the trade of Chauncey Billups, I wrongly called team president Joe Dumars a genius. At the time, I thought the trade would allow Detroit's good fortune to endure for a few more seasons, but the team rapidly crashed, falling to the worst Eastern playoff seed in 2009 and missing the playoffs entirely in '10. Unfortunately, Rodney Stuckey just is not as good as Billups performed in his finest days. And the Pistons' recent draft picks have not soared: Jason Maxiell and Austin Daye are either too short or too thin, and Jonas Jerebko just tore his Achilles' tendon. Georgetown center Greg Monroe is yet unproven.

Somehow I feel a Dylan Thomas interlude would be appropriate here:

Managing an NBA roster long-term is difficult, for the assets have a unique inverted-U-shaped life cycle. Players tend to peak in about their sixth year, maintain that high for perhaps four years, then begin to slowly decline. At any given time, a roster is probably made up of heterogeneous players at different stages of their careers. If only a couple of your guys are declining, that is fine. If necessary, they can be traded as "expiring contracts" for better, younger players. But the Pistons' top six players during their six-year run of excellence (counting Antonio McDyess, who signed on prior to the 2004-05 season) were all drafted between 1995 and 1999, save for Tayshaun Prince, drafted in 2002. Prince was a four-year college player, so he is about as old as a college freshman drafted in 1999, like Lamar Odom. Thus, the team collectively aged very rapidly. Billups was dumped in 2008, and McDyess and Rasheed Wallace were shown the door in 2009. The remaining guys — Prince, Richard Hamilton, and Ben Wallace — can't do what they used to. I would eat my hat if Prince could replicate his famous block of Reggie Miller today.

I cannot say with great specificity how Dumars should have managed his team differently. He probably should have traded Prince and Hamilton one or two seasons ago, when they still were good. Dumars also has proven to be a poor judge of young talent, to say the least. Had he drafted Aaron Brooks over Rodney Stuckey in 2007, or Holiday/Lawson/Teague/Maynor/Collison/Douglas over Austin Daye in 2009, the team would have a legitimate point guard now. The team also had no meaningful draft pick in 2006 or 2008, which helped to preserve the roster's age distribution. Perhaps the team needs a 65-loss season to sink lower than their pride would previously allow them to venture, so that they can pick up a real stud through the draft.

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