“Bad Boys” Takes on a New Meaning in Detroit

As one of the first teams in the NBA, the Detroit Pistons have a rich history. Founded in 1941 in the National Basketball League, the Pistons would find themselves in a very successful era. After winning multiple NBL championships, the team would move on to the Basketball Association of America in 1948. Within a year, the NBL and BAA would merge to form the NBA. 

In 1957, the Fort Wayne Pistons of the NBA would relocate to Detroit, forming the Detroit Pistons. The 1980s Pistons had players such as Isiah Thomas, Vinnie Johnson, Joe Dumars, and Bill Laimbeer during the “Bad Boys” era. In that era, the Pistons were considered title contenders. They would win their first championship in 1989 and follow it up with another in 1990. 

After the Bad Boys era came to an end in the early 90s, the next era of successful Pistons basketball would not begin until the early 2000s. The “Going to Work” Pistons would reach the Eastern Conference Finals every year from 2003-2008. Players such as Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Rasheed Wallace and Ben Wallace led the way.

Those five would lead the league in defense for many years and embody grit and grind basketball in the mid to late 2000s. However, they would only appear in the Finals once in 2004. That would also be the only time they would win a championship. After the 2008 season, the Pistons declined as an organization. This is when mediocrity and terrible management began to slowly ruin the franchise’s legacy. 

Head coaching has been lackluster in recent Pistons history. In the past 10 years, the Pistons have gone through six different head coaches. Some, such as John Kuester, Lawrence Frank, Maurice Cheeks, and John Loyer, were just bumps in the road. None of them lasted more than two years with the team.

The biggest question mark in the team’s head coaching history was the hiring of Stan Van Gundy in 2014. Van Gundy had tremendous success with the Magic in the mid to late 2000s, but was run out of Orlando due to his feud with star center Dwight Howard. Detroit also gave Van Gundy the ability to make roster moves by making him both head coach and President of Basketball Operations. 

During the Van Gundy era, the Pistons made the playoffs twice. In four years, they managed to earn the eighth seed twice in a very weak Eastern Conference. Each time they made the playoffs, they were quickly eliminated. After a few seasons, Van Gundy seemed to lose his focus on building a championship team. With a record of 152-176 over four years, Van Gundy would see himself out of Detroit. This created a four-year period of mediocrity during which the team mishandled draft picks and trades. 

Van Gundy had three first round picks as Detroit’s head coach. He drafted Stanley Johnson in 2015, Henry Ellenson in 2016, and Luke Kennard in 2017. It’s hard for rookies to get big minutes in Van Gundy’s system, but he drafted players that needed a lot of playing time to adjust to the NBA. Subsequently, Van Gundy would hide them on the bench.

This strategy causes frustration and damages players’ confidence. At the time, Johnson was one of the better players in the 2015 draft. Not all top picks are supposed to become franchise players, but Johnson turned out to be a bust for a top 10 pick. Van Gundy  ruined Johnson’s potential by not giving him enough minutes to gain experience in the league. 

Henry Ellenson is another pick that did not pan out. Again, Van Gundy did not play the rookie many minutes, which could have stagnated his potential. Luke Kennard was also highly regarded in his draft class. But once again, he did not see the meaningful minutes he needed to develop in his rookie year. Still, Kennard stayed with the team and has shown flashes of becoming a great starting guard. Once Van Gundy had left, he started to shine with more meaningful minutes in the rotation. 

One of the last moves Van Gundy made to sink the Pistons even further was to trade for an injury prone power forward. In a move to push the Pistons into the playoffs, he traded almost every available asset for former Clipper Blake Griffin, who had recently signed a five year max contract with the Clippers.

The trade would send Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley, Boban Marjanovic, a first round pick, and a second round pick in exchange for Griffin. The Pistons essentially gave up a young talent and some picks for an aging and injured Griffin. And, in his first full year with Detroit, Griffin would see an immediate regression. On the other hand, Harris would see an increase in production and efficiency with the Clippers. In every aspect of this trade, Van Gundy ruined the Pistons’ future. 

Detroit’s trades have not fared well for them over the past decade. For example, they traded away players such as Khris Middleton and Andre Drummond for almost nothing.

In 2013, a forward-heavy Pistons roster would trade away a rookie Khris Middleton, Brandon Knight, and Slava Kravtsov for guard Brandon Jennings. At the time, Middleton was not a 20-point scorer or a 50-40-90 club talent. However, he was young and was shooting incredibly well from three. But the Pistons were still locked in on having a post-centric system despite the NBA’s transition to a game that favored outside shooting. Jennings would only play for Detroit for two seasons while Middleton would become an All-Star caliber forward. 

Recently, the Pistons made another big move that will haunt them. This season, they traded away an All-Star caliber center in Andre Drummond for a second round pick, Brandon Knight, and John Henson. With this trade, they gave away a double-double machine who can also protect the paint for a late second round pick and two bench players. Although Drummond had said he would not resign with the team, the Pistons could have potentially received better assets for him.

Ed Stefanski has not proven he can lead the Pistons out of this decade-long slump, seeing as he was the one who facilitated the Drummond trade. He also released Markieff Morris and Reggie Jackson due to his inability to trade them. Jackson would go on to sign with the Los Angeles Clippers and Morris with the Los Angeles Lakers. Both did so to try to win a ring instead of playing out their contracts in Detroit. The Pistons are currently 20-46 and, even with the season suspended, are not showing any signs of life. 

Stefanski took over in 2018 as an interim general manager and nothing but disappointment and frustration have ensued. The Pistons are going to be stuck in this rut due to Griffin’s unmovable contract, and changes in the front office need to happen. First, they made the right call in hiring Head Coach Dwayne Casey to lead the Pistons’ locker room and instill a winning culture. Now, the Pistons need to hire a new President and a General Manager who can make trades that will not hinder the team for many years. Even if it mirrors Philadelphia’s “Trust the Process” strategy, rebuilding is still better than pretending your team is competitive when it is clearly a train wreck.

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