The easiest way for the Detroit Pistons to fix the mess they’ve made for themselves would be to somehow get a hold of a Delorean with a flux capacitor installed, then drive it 88 MPH until it flashed into early July of 2013 so someone could keep them from paying out $54 million to Josh Smith.
Doing so would solve the team’s biggest problem, which is figuring out what to do with Greg Monroe, a restricted free agent this summer. Had the team never signed Smith, they could have awarded Monroe with an extension months ago and moved forward with a plan to build the team around him and burgeoning perennial All-Star Andre Drummond, but that might not be an option anymore.
Taking only the financial numbers into consideration, the Pistons technically could re-sign (or match any offer sheet signed by) Monroe, even with Smith on the payroll, but since both he and Smith play power forward, such a deal would mean Detroit’s two highest-paid employees would play the same position.
When Joe Dumars originally gave Smith that money, the plan was likely to use him at small forward so that he, Monroe and Drummond could all occupy the court at the same time. With Smith’s defense, Monroe’s offense and Drummond’s interesting mix of the two, Detroit would be a powerhouse for the next half a decade.
That was the idea, anyway. But, we know how the Smith thing has worked out. He’s not a small forward, despite the fact that he loves taking long-range jumpers that seemingly never go in, and now the Pistons are left with an expensive power forward that messes up their plans to keep a player who also will soon be an expensive power forward.
It’s a problem, and flux capacitor aside, there’s no easy way to wiggle their way out of it.
The good news is that Detroit is nowhere near as bad off as some of the other teams in the conference. Milwaukee and Philadelphia, for example, are completely depleted, while the Pistons at least have some good things happening with their roster. Drummond is monster of a man who, despite his youth, is a force on both ends every night he plays. Brandon Jennings at $8 million a year is one of the most appropriate contracts in the NBA, and having to choose between Monroe and Smith is a conundrum that several other lottery-bound teams would love to find themselves in.
Beyond that, though, Detroit has some things to fix. Here are the most glaring:
Smith or Monroe?
There are a lot of ways to look at this, but from a standpoint of practicality it makes the most sense to keep Monroe and continue looking to trade Smith. While it’s true that Smith is owed over $40 million the next three seasons, he could still be switched out for something of value at some point, even if it were for less than Smith was technically worth. Letting Monroe walk instead would require that they not match whatever monster offer sheet he’s bound to receive, and that means receiving nothing back in return.
The Smith-Monroe-Drummond frontcourt does not play well together, but the sample sizes of possible lineups in which they aren’t all on the floor at the same time are too small to determine which power forward is best to hook up to Drummond for the next few years. Based on youth and the retention of assets, though, keeping Monroe would be the smarter way to go.
Gambling on finding a trade partner for Smith isn’t ideal since they’ve already shopped him and found nothing they liked, but Detroit doesn’t have to make the trade in the offseason. They can always wait and see if a new head coach is able to better work those three big guys together, and if not, pursue a trade then.
Be Innovative in Hiring A Head Coach
Finding that perfect head coach could prove challenging, though. Detroit was the only team in the NBA this season to fire their head coach (retread Maurice Cheeks), and it hopefully will point them towards making a more innovative choice when they find themselves yet another head coach this summer.
Names like George Karl and Lionel Hollins are sure to pop up for a lot of head coach openings in the offseason, but many of the best new coaches from the last few years were assistants and first-timers getting their chances to prove what they can do.
For Detroit, that could be someone like Steve Kerr, if he doesn’t end up with New York, or it could be Iowa State head coach Fred Hoiberg. NBA assistants Dave Fizdale and Robert Pack are also possibilities, and current player Chauncey Billups could even take the Jason Kidd route and man the sidelines his first season after retiring.
Whatever they end up doing, hiring a retread might not be the best idea this time around. It’s time for something fresh, and an innovative selection might be just what the Pistons need to help turn things around.
Don’t Blow Your Cap Space
Re-signing Monroe without trading Smith would pretty much take care of any cap space Detroit may have had, but if they do decide to stick with Smith and let Monroe walk they’ll have a decent chunk of cash to blow on a high-priced free agent. Assuming Dumars is still running the team when free agency decisions are being made, allowing him a blank check would be a very bad idea.
Money burns a hole in Dumars’ pocket like a nine-year-old looking to blow his allowance in a comic book store, and that enthusiasm for spending has not typically resulted in good things. The last two times Detroit had big cap space to spend it ended up in the pockets of Ben Gordon, Charlie Villanueva and Josh Smith—all expensive long-term deals that almost immediately proved to be bad ideas.
The plan this summer, since 2015 is expected to put so many talented players in the free agency field, should be to go bargain hunting for veterans on one-year deals (ones that can shoot the ball, preferably) so that they can perhaps make a play at someone significant not this summer but next.
The hope has to be that a new coach can better mesh the personnel and that the Pistons can make the playoffs in 2014-2015. From there they could explore making some major additions and see how the future looks then.
Honestly, the most dramatic change Detroit could make would be to move on from Dumars, who no longer seems to be someone who can be trusted to make the kinds of roster decisions that help a team contend for a championship. He’s as mercurial as they come, with almost every move he makes being either unbelievably excellent or unbelievably bad, but there are plenty of GMs these days having lot of success using advanced statistics and spendthrift patience. If Detroit should find themselves someone like that, better things are sure to follow.
The Pistons aren’t that far away from being a good team. There’s plenty of talent on the roster, but they need someone to find the right mix of coaching staff and player personnel to fine-tune that talent. Things can only get better from there.
Now if we could find ourselves a time machine to skip ahead to when all that is done, it would sure save fans in Detroit a lot of misery.
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