They’re a juggernaut! They’re unstoppable! Next stop playoffs! Are all ridiculous things to say about the 2014-2015 Detroit Pistons. Especially the third one. And yet somehow it suddenly seems in play after the Pistons cut polarizing Power Forward Josh Smith. (NO JOSH! NO! SHUTUP! YOU ARE NOT A SMALL FORWARD! NOW, BE QUIET AND LET ME WRITE MY ARTICLE! HEY! I SEE YOU OVER THERE SHOOTING THREES! STOP IT! YOU’RE NOT A SMALL FORWARD!).
On December 22nd Tom Gores and Stan Van Gundy gave Detroit fans a Christmas present and Josh Smith a lump of coal and decided to just cut Smith, eat the $29 million remaining on his contract, and move on from yet another Joe Dumars mistake. The Pistons haven’t lost a game since. They are a sterling 5-0 without J-Smoove on the roster, and look universally happier and more productive. Now, this win streak is proooobably gonna come crashing down over the next couple games as the Pistons have to go on the road to San Antonio and Dallas in back to back games, but so what. I’m happy about the Pistons’ play for the first time this season.
The first thing this makes me think, then, is “Good Lord… how much of a locker room cancer must Smith have been?” In Joe Dumars’ last year at the helm in Detroit he brought in two guys, known to have attitude problems and to create locker room issues, Smith and Brandon Jennings. I obviously know nothing about what’s going on in the Detroit locker room, but I have to imagine something was up for such a drastic and immediate turnaround to happen. I mean… the Pistons grabbed as many wins in the last 5 games without Smith as they had in the entire season with him. They’ve gone from 5-23 to 10-23, and are somehow only 3 games back from the 8 seed in the East. It is also reassuring to see that Brandon Jennings (the other potential locker room issue) has seen his play return to the excellent form of early this year, (before he injured his thumb) in Smith’s absence, so it seems he’s not a problem at all.
In any event, the existence of locker room drama is not hard to believe when you consider all the Greg Monroe drama that’s been going on.
Greg Monroe is the keystone to Detroit’s 4 years and running rebuilding project. Detroit picked him #7 overall out of Georgetown in the 2010 draft, and he nearly immediately became the centerpiece of a new era of Detroit basketball. They followed that pick up by taking Brandon Knight and Andre Drummond as lottery picks in the next two drafts, and suddenly had the core of a new, young, exciting team loaded with potential. Now, they stupidly traded away Knight last year for Jennings, but the frontcourt core of Monroe and Dre is still intact (for now) and the only thing that ever made sense in my mind was for Detroit to build around these two.
Instead, however, Joe Dumars (put in the impossible position last year of make the playoffs or get fired) signed Josh Smith and threw everything off. Detroit had no need for Smith. Drummond was the starting center, and Monroe the starting Power Forward. Monroe was the backup center, and Detroit had a bevy of other 4s to back up Monroe at Power Forward (Jonas Jerebko, Josh Harrellson, etc). Signing Smith meant Detroit either had to start Smith at the 4 (his natural position) and bench Monroe or start Smith at the 3 where he would jack up innumerable terrible threes.
The Pistons ultimately tried both those plans… both of them failed… and they may have pushed Greg Monroe out the door in the process. This summer Greg Monroe signed his one year qualifying offer (something which NEVER happens) rather than signing a lucrative extension with the Pistons, risking his entire future and millions of dollars for an opportunity to not play in Detroit and not play with Josh Smith for the rest of his career. At that point I honestly felt like Monroe was out the door, and the team would NEED to give Smith his minutes since we would be moving on into the future with Smith as our starting Power Forward. However, now I have hope that that may not be the case.
Things are going so well right now, and there appears to have been so much tension lifted from this team with Smith’s departure, that I feel like Monroe may stop to make a calm, collected decision about his future after the season. He is obviously going to end up with a max deal, either in Detroit or elsewhere, so he needs to decide whether or not he was serious about leaving Detroit, or simply wanted to play without Smith. I think and hope it was the latter. And I think Monroe will see that too. The entire team, including Monroe, appears happier now, and if a few things fall right (a playoff run in the terrible Eastern Conference?), they could all be happier still.
When the Pistons hired Stan Van Gundy they turned a page. All Van Gundy as ever done is turn losing franchises around and win games. You just knew he would fix the Pistons, we just didn’t’ know how long it would take. Now it looks like he may already have things on the right track. Can Detroit go 30-19 the rest of the season? Maybe. And if they do, and they end with a 42-40 record, which is probably good enough to make the playoffs in the atrocious East. Best case scenario for Detroit right now is to mimic Portland from last season.
Two summers ago all the rumors out of Portland said that LaMarcus Aldridge wanted out and nothing would stop him. The Blazers had been a losing team for too long, and he wasn’t interested in spending the rest of his career in the lottery. What happened? Portland starting winning. And kept winning. And winning and winning and winning until they had somehow worked their way up to a 5 seed in the historically strong Western Conference last season, then parlayed that into an upset victory over Dwight Howard, James Harden and the Houston Rockets in the first round. No more complaints of wanting out now, right LaMarcus? Winning fixes everything. Portland surrounded LaMarcus with a young studs in Damien Lillard and a cast of really good NBA players in their prime (Wes Matthews, Nic Batum) and it was off to the races. Aldridge re-signed in Portland and they’re now the TWO seed in the West. What a beautiful sight.
If Detroit made a run at a playoff spot maybe we could convince Greg to stick around in the same way. They already have the young stud to pair with him (Drummond) and have some solid players around him (Jodie Meeks, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Jonas Jerebko, Brandon Jennings[love him or hate him]) There is a foundation for success here. It just hinges on Monroe returning to the fold and making his way into Stan Van Gundy’s oft grumpy but nevertheless loving arms. Moreover, the way the NBA salary cap works, Detroit can pay Monroe more money than anyone else, so if we can prove that we’re just as competitive as any of his other suitors it would only make sense for him to come back to town. Things are better now Greg!!! I promise!!! Look how happy your are with Andre in that picture up there!! ALL THE SMILES GREG!!! WE WILL GIVE YOU ALL THE SMILES IF YOU COME BACK!!!
Either way, I’m not gonna let myself worry about all that just yet. Right now I just want to enjoy this ride. It’s been quite a while since Pistons games have been imbued with “hope” (whatever that is… I wouldn’t know… I watched the Lions playoff game last night). So whatever happens this summer happens, but for now to Pistons look to be worlds better in 2015 than they were in 2014, and I couldn’t be happier about it. Time to sit back and enjoy the Drummond, StanVan, Monroe, and Jerebko era while its in front of us. [What’s that? You don’t think I should have included Jerebko in there? Think again fool. Look at this man.]
Anyway, enjoy the Deeeeeeeeeetrooit Baaasketbaaaaaaaall folks.