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What the Pistons should do when the lockout ends

Oct 19, 2011, 4:45 PM EDT

Toronto Raptors v Detroit Pistons

This is the latest installment of PBT’s series of “What your team should do when the lockout ends.” Up next is the Indiana Pacers. You can also check out our thoughts on other NBA teams here as we work our way through all 30 squads.

Last Season: Other teams lost more games. Other teams had worse injuries. Other teams dealt with worse schedules, worse luck, worse in-game coaching, worse management and worse personnel. No one had a season as bad as the Pistons.

With a few rare, glorious exceptions, nearly every fan, coach and player will endure a few terrible seasons. Ones you just want to forget. Losses pile up, injuries, bad chemistry. But the kind of locker-room disasters that the Pistons organization and their fans sat through last year are the stuff of legend. It started with head coach John Kuester, who lost the locker room nearly the minute he entered it. There’s not a definitive story. But the players bristled and revolted at his leadership from the start, and last year it became unbearable. The veterans on the Pistons, the guys who had been part of championship teams and who knew the ropes of how to be a professional, came unhinged under Kuester. One player acts ridiculous, it’s a personal issue. But when an entire team of guys who coaches have raved about in the past go haywire, there’s a problem at the top.

It doesn’t excuse the behavior, particularly the midseason revolt by several players of boycotting practice. Regardless of your circumstance, you need to be professionals and set an example for the younger players and the league. That’s the same for any job in the country. But if you’re senior management and you have that many employees exhibiting that kind of behavior under one supervisor, you can’t just toss them out as rogue elements. Something drove them there. And so, Kuester was fired after the season, eventually.

The situation was exacerbated by two elements. Rip Hamilton, one of two Pistons who had remained in Detroit the whole time since the championship team, wanted out. Badly. It was time to move on, he could go join a veteran contender (Chicago would have eaten their left arms, or Kyle Korver, to get Hamilton after the deadline). But he didn’t want to give up any of his remaining salary, or at least not a reasonable amount. He wanted his cake and to eat it, too. After what he’d done for the Pistons through the years, after how he was treated (in his mind) by Kuester, maybe he thought he was owed. The fact remains that multiple reports indicated a deal was on the table for Hamilton to walk away, and he declined over the money. Instead, he facilitated a revolt.

Which would have been fixable. Ownership could have likely spit off the money to get rid of him, it would have made the team better, opened some room for the younger guys, been the best thing for everyone. Except the Pistons were locked. Ownership was in the process of selling the team, and as such, movement was restrained. Finances needed to be settled and options were put on hold.

Unhappy players, a failing coach, a struggling team, a withering fanbase in an area leveled by the economy (over the past thirty years, not just the most recent downturn), a dysfunctional locker room and a frozen ownership.

So, no, the Pistons did not have a very good year.

Since we last saw the Pistons: New owner! With the untold riches of a Los Angeles (Laker fan!) owner, comes the promise of hope. Off the bat, Lawrence Frank was hired, a defensive minded coach with good experience who is a hard-nosed guy but someone the players will likely respect, at least more than Kuester (granted, they’d respect an actual pizza guy more , but still).  Those have been the big changes, and the rest will come after the lockout’s over, when Joe Dumars and management can start to get the house in order. Because clearly, there’s a realization that things have gone awry in Denmark.

Whether that means paying off Hamilton, trading Tayshaun Prince, trading Ben Gordon, trading Charlie Villanueva, or some combination will have to wait to be seen. But we do know that the Pistons acquired Brandon Knight in the first round, a scoring point guard, which could pave the way for Rodney Stuckey‘s departure. Signs seem to indicate major changes are coming, but we’ve sensed that for two years with no consummation. Waiting is not fun.

When the lockout ends, the Pistons need to: Cut bait.  It’s time for a new era, and the crazy part is, if the Pistons will commit to it, they have a really exciting future ahead of them.

In the summer of 2009, the Pistons signed two big free agent signings. Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva. Villanueva, despite being a worse player, actually made quite a bit of sense. The Pistons needed a power forward with range who could score. They needed scoring, pretty badly. Gordon? Gordon was mystifying. They had Rodney Stuckey. They had Rip Hamilton. They had Will Bynum. The last thing they needed was an undersized two-guard pure scorer. Yet, there went $55 million.

Gordon’s still a decent player. His drops can be attributed to coaching, system, and personnel changes. (That’s right, Vinny Del Negro to John Kuester was a step down. I’m not trying to kill Kuester here, I think he’ll be a great assistant in this league and possibly a better head coach next time out, bu the facts, they are not comforting.) He also suffered a wide variety of injuries. Villanueva was pretty much what was expected. He’s actually surprisingly not dramatically overpaid. He makes between $7.5 million and $8.5 million over the next four seasons. Bench role player who can score some, not bad. Not great, but he didn’t sign a $13 million per year deal.

But both of these players have to go. Along with Tayshaun Prince (unrestricted free agent) and Hamilton ($12.5 million guaranteed left on his deal), Rodney Stuckey (restricted free agency), and Tracy McGrady. It’s time to blow it up and start over. Thing is, they’re already halfway there.

Very quietly, Dumars has drafted exceptionally well over the past few years. Austin Daye, Jonas Jerebko, Greg Monroe, and Brandon Knight. You throw in a superstar wing after a year of spectacular sucking (hello, Harrison Barnes!) and you’ve got something cooking there. Fill it out with free agency after a purge and you have a real shot at building something.

It should be noted I have a soft spot for most of these guys which belies their production. I see a higher ceiling than they’ve shown, and I always tend to catch their better games on League Pass. Daye is a 13.0 PER player who shot .518 TrueShooting% and doesn’t rebound or assist well. So naturally, my confidence in him is a little nuts. But really? He’s got the tools to get there under the right leadership. Monroe has already shown he can be a top flight center in this league. Whether that’s because of the abject void of quality centers outside of the top five or his actual ceiling is yet to be determined, but he’s a safe bet for a quality starter. Jerebko lost most of last season due to injury, but he’s a hustle junkie who thrives on contact and makes all those plays you want him to make. Knight has a terrific jumper. He’s going to turn the ball over so much it will make you cry, but there’s an ability there to develop into the guard of the future.

There’s a core, buried beneath all the veterans mistakenly assembled for a late-seed playoff run. The Pistons just have to commit themselves to it. When the lockout ends, there’s work to be done. But it’s not a total detonation, not a house cleaning. Just a severe remodeling.

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