Monday, March 9, 2015

The tank is real

The Pistons are now on a six-game losing streak. They are just 2-6 since the trade deadline and only 1-6 since inserting the new additions into the starting lineup. It seemed obvious at the time what was happening:
An important question is whether or not the Pistons are low-key tanking now. Without making any moves, the Pistons could have snuck into the playoffs. Instead, SVG gutted the frontcourt depth, exchanged a deficient small forward for one that hasn't been a viable starter in years, and gambled on a high-risk, high-reward point guard. Meanwhile, the Pistons' primary playoff competition (Miami, Boston, and Brooklyn) all improved, which says nothing about Paul George's imminent return to the Pacers, who are also vying for a playoff spot. If SVG wanted plausible deniability for a tank campaign, today may prove pivotal.
Most notably, Stan Van Gundy exchanged Kyle Singler, a functional albeit lacking spot-up shooting small forward, for Tayshaun Prince, a player who hasn't taken more than 1.8 three-point field goal attempts per game since '06-'07. Now the team faces self-acknowledged spacing issues, made worse because the team's primary ball handler (Reggie Jackson) is a career 29% three-point shooter. And yet as the Pistons stumble to the end of the season, people seem disappointed with the team. Please hear this: Every time the Pistons lose a game, it is a good outcome.

Aside from acquiring Jackson, a high-ceiling point guard with athleticism to burn and a high pick-and-roll IQ, every move that the Pistons made at the trade deadline was designed to improve draft stock by ditching resources that were not in the team's long-term plans. Even with Singler on the roster, the team's top priority remained finding a top-flight small forward. He was expendable. Jonas Jerebko found his rhythm but was far more valuable as a trade asset than a role player on a team in the midst of a rebuild. DJ Augustin is a career backup and could be dealt without serious reservations given Brandon Jennings' contract status.

The Pistons are now 5 games out of the Eastern Conference playoff picture with three teams between them and the 8 seed. They currently sit with the 8th worst record (23-39), with Denver (22-41), Sacramento (21-40), and Orlando (21-43) all capable of overtaking them. The difference between where the Pistons are now and where they would be if they made the playoffs is the difference between players like D'Angelo Russell and Willie Cauley-Stein and players like Jerian Grant and Malik Pope. The former are potential franchise centerpieces. The latter are NBA players.

Since the trade deadline, I've been mumbling about #lowkeytank, but the Pistons' current trajectory is overt. The Pistons need better players and the best way to acquire them is via the draft. Adding Kristaps Porzingis or Stanley Johnson to the Pistons' core of Jackson, KCP, and Andre Drummond would give them another top-flight player on a cheap contract. When you consider that the Pistons will have ~$30 million to play with in free agency, the addition of a lottery-level prospect that can contribute immediately will allow the team to pursue max deal for someone like Draymond Green or acquire a Wes Matthews-caliber talent (or more accurately, both). What the Pistons will lack in feel-goodness and modest playoff ticket sales for the next month, they will make up in the coming years with a functional (dare I say good) basketball team.

What we learned this year, aside from SVG's brilliance, is that the Pistons are closer to viability than was thought prior to the start of the season. But pushing for the playoffs when there are still notable holes in the roster is a fool's errand, the type of thing perpetually terrible franchises do. And while SVG didn't want an anchor on the team (Josh Smith), he realizes that long-term success in a small market starts with wins in the draft, not at the end of a lost season. With 12 of the Pistons' final 20 games on the road, and 11 against playoff teams, the lottery should be assured for this squad. '15-'16 will be a fresh slate, clear of 5-18 starts and incoherent lineups. You should be rooting for losses. Stan Van Gundy is.

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