The Detroit Pistons acquired the NBA’s premier Arrested Development trope, Tobias Harris, from the Orlando Magic on Tuesday for Brandon Jennings and Ersan Ilyasova. It was a surprising move in which a burgeoning, yet inadequate, team sent one of the league’s most curious young assets packing for little long term support.
The logic behind Magic General Manager Rob Hennigan’s decision to move on from Harris isn’t difficult to uncover.
Harris was a somewhat disoriented, if not fully formed, member of Orlando’s Blue Man Group, and he is likely the least promising between Orlando’s young tweener forwards (Harris and Aaron Gordon). He is a speculative talent with noticeable strengths and flaws, the troubling bit being that his traits are often contrary to any nominal or progressive forward archetype. He has the athleticism and size to be a stretch four, but his lack of an outside shot neuters his effectiveness at that spot. He is physical enough to punish most small forwards on the block, but he has tunnel vision and a tendency to stop the ball when his number is called.
The Eastern Conference playoff picture is a bit like the Republican Primary race: A bunch of uninspiring candidates clumped together chasing a runaway tyrant.
Although LeBron James and the Cavs are not quite as unlikable as Donald Trump, James’ unrelenting control of the conference has probably outlived its term in the minds of his eastern foes.
The problem with calling for at least a one-year intercession during LeBron’s reign in the East is the lack of a worthy challenger. The second-seeded Bulls are just four games ahead of the eighth-seeded Celtics and only six games ahead of 12th-seeded Wizards. Just about the only two teams that can be confidently ruled out of the postseason picture are the Brooklyn Nets and the Philadelphia 76ers.
When the Detroit Pistons traded for Reggie Jackson in February, nobody thought they were uniting two players who would soon combine to form one of the league’s most lethal pick-and-roll combinations. At the time, Jackson was a somewhat maligned talent, someone who appeared to force his way out of Oklahoma City. Andre Drummond was held in higher esteem, but even after Detroit shed itself of Josh Smith, he was still sharing the frontcourt with a fellow low-post behemoth in Greg Monroe.
Fast forward nine months and Jackson and Drummond are running the show for one of the league’s most surprising upstarts: The 5-1 Detroit Pistons. With Monroe sopping up post touches in Milwaukee, Stan Van Gundy’s Pistons are now free to play the spread pick-and-roll game SVG popularized during his tenure with the Orlando Magic, and Detroit is off to the franchise’s best start since 2007-2008.
If the reports are true, Stan Van Gundy will be the next head coach of the Detroit Pistons. And their next president of basketball operations, too.
Over the past few years, there seems to have been an influx in the amount of head coaching candidates that want a tighter grip on personnel decisions to go along with their usual lockerroom leadership duties. It’s understandable, to an extent, since a disconnect between a front office executive and a head coach can have disastrous results. Coaches know what players fit their system the best and without a doubt they already have an evident amount of say on personnel decisions when it comes to deciding if that player suits their style or if they’ll fit into the culture of the lockerroom.
But front office guys often have their own points of view, and even their own agendas. A GM on the hotseat can make hasty decisions that saddle a coach with deadweight players and an undesirable capsheet, thus leading to the eventual ousting of the coach, too. It’s a situation that Van Gundy wanted to avoid when he started fielding job offers earlier this month, likely because his downfall in Orlando unfolded in a similar manner.
Trying desperately to build a winning team around Dwight Howard before he had a chance to leave in free agency led then Magic general manager Otis Smith to trade for Gilbert Arenas, who hasn’t had a relevant basketball moment since, and to sign Glen Davis and Jason Richardson to sizable mid-level deals. When it came time for Howard to make his decision, after changing his mind a few dozen times, he recognized the situation around him was less than desirable, and Van Gundy and Smith got the boot soon after.
I get why Van Gundy, or any other high profile coach, would want to protect themselves from that kind of a situation. But what I find interesting is that, rather than just trying to find a good general manager to pair themselves with, these coaching candidates have gone a step further, demanding full control and final say on all basketball operations while the GM handles the day-to-day responsibilities. I wouldn’t say it’s particularly egregious; it’s not like Scotty Brooks is the one asking for control over personnel decisions. But I’m not quite sure what got us to this point. Where along the road did the best coaches in the league want to usurp all of the basketball-related power within their organizations?
The easy answer is that it began with Phil Jackson during his time with the Lakers. I know there are some more historic examples, but ever since front offices have expanded to house several executives, including one person specifically chosen to have final say on the shaping of the roster, Jackson is the best example of a coach that didn’t want anything to be above his pay grade.
There were three pretty obvious reasons why Phil wanted to extend his jurisdiction past the sidelines: 1) He had already six titles in Chicago under an overbearing owner, 2) His triangle offense was as unique as any system in the league and required specific kinds of players to make things click, and 3) He was dating the daughter of legendary Laker owner Jerry Buss, which I’m sure made him feel like a part owner in some respects. Dr. Buss bit the bullet and ceded control to Jackson during his second tenure with the team, but Jimmy Buss wouldn’t give Jackson the power he wanted when the team reached out to him about returning for a third time and instead opted for Mike D’Antoni.
Jackson’s situation with the Lakers was a unique one because of how successful was and because he had a serious romantic relationship with one of the owners, so perhaps the best example of this distorted hierarchy involves another coach that finds himself on the Mount Rushmore of NBA coaches: Gregg Popovich.
While Pop’s schematics are top notch, his greatest skill as a coach has been cultivating a culture in the lockerroom that manifests itself on the floor. Being that selflessness and sacrifice are two major points of emphasis for the Air Force graduate, letting him decide what kind of players were brought into the organization seems incredibly logical, especially because he’s demonstrated the ability to extract efficient production out of guys that may not be all that talented. R.C. Buford is one of the best general managers in the league, but it’s clear that Popovich’s presence has always been a bit of an asterisk when it came to evaluating his performance. Until this year, that is, when Buford finally earned the Executive of the Year Award, fittingly in the same year that Pop took home his third Coach of the Year Award.
Jackson and Popovich are two of the best coaches ever and for their opinions to carry more weight with their respective organizations, organizations that they won multiple championships with, makes a lot of sense. The question is whether or not that has set the table for other high profile, yet not remotely as successful, coaches to make expanded front office roles a requirement to hire them.
We saw it this summer with Doc Rivers, who was only willing to leave the Celtics if he was given a prominent front office position, and he’s now the vice president of basketball operations as well as the Clippers’ head coach. Rivers had built himself quite a culture in Boston, but I don’t think he’s got any proprietary schematics or a specific blueprint for his kind of player that would make expanded control a necessity.
The early returns on his front office career are less than stellar. His first move in LA was trading away budding superstar Eric Bledsoe in exchange for J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley. Though Redick has been stellar for Doc’s offense when he’s been healthy, Dudley hasn’t been a key contributor for a good while now, and despite all of the buzz the moves got when they went down, the Clippers’ mid-season acquisitions — Hedo Turkoglu, Glen Davis and Danny Granger — haven’t been all that impactful.
Van Gundy is the latest head coach to make power a priority during his job search. What’s maddening about Van Gundy’s itinerary is that it likely prevented what would have been the best possible basketball marriage on the market. Van Gundy’s talks with the Golden State Warriors reportedly broke down because the team wasn’t willing to let him preside over current General Manager Bob Myers, who has done a fine job assembling a roster that could have won 55-60 games under Van Gundy’s guidance.
It makes sense that Van Gundy would make more control a stipulation during his conversations since the Pistons were willing to go all out and over him the top basketball related position, but for it to be a deal breaker for Van Gundy, so much so that he passed up an opportunity to coach a team that has all of the ingredients that his Magic teams had when he took them to the Finals in 2009 with even more subsidiary talent (and Steph freaking Curry) just so that he’d have more say so in Detroit, which is by far a tougher situation to succeed in, is puzzling.
Aside from Pop, Van Gundy and Rivers are two of the top five coaches in basketball along with Tom Thibodeau, Rick Carlisle and Erick Spoelstra, so for them to feel entitled to a salient voice on all important decisions is reasonable. But have we really reached a point where all established coaches are going to demand that they get to wear both hats – the one that gives them the power to command what happens on the floor and the one that lets them decide which players he can put on that floor – even though it’s not a universal fit?
It’s not quite letting the inmates run the asylum, but not all guards are cracked up to be wardens, either.
I understand the risks you are taking when you sign Brandon Jennings to a multi-year deal that will eat up a significant portion of your camp space. He’s shown some maturity issues, his on-court production has never matched the hype (and he’s yet to realize this) and the Bucks were an astounding 12.45 points per 100 possessions worse with Jennings on the floor last season per Basketball Value, which was the second worst mark in the league.
And yet, I am still shocked that it took until July 30th for a team to finally work out a deal to acquire the young point guard. After all, Jennings is just 23 years old, he’s spent most of his career playing for a coach that many players, including himself, clashed with and the potential for him to emerge as a more efficient point guard that effectively utilizes his scoring and distributing talents is still there.
But that’s the era that we are in right now. As the off-season played out and teams like Dallas and Utah and Sacramento found themselves new point guards via free agency, trades and the draft, the market for Jennings became extremely bare. There’s no better illustration of this golden age of lead guards than the fact that a 23-year old point guard with obvious talent had no logical suitors. Jeff Teague was in a similar situation a couple of weeks ago, and at one point a Jennings-for-Teague rumor sprouted up presumably so the basketball gods could kill two birds with one stone.
After weeks of waiting, and even some rumblings that Jennings was considering playing for the qualifying offer this season and becoming an unrestricted free agent next year, today we learned that the Detroit Pistons, who have had one of the most active summers in the league, will acquire Jennings in a sign-and-trade deal that will send former lottery pick Brandon Knight, Khris Middleton and Slava Kravtsov to Milwaukee.
Given what Joe Dumars did the last time the Pistons had cap space, it was hard to envision them having a positive off-season, but I find myself liking the team they’ve put together. Dumars essentially pulled off the same move that Dell Demps did with the Pelicans, quickly shifting his team out of rebuild mode and into playoff competition. The reason the Pistons won’t get as much praise for their off-season is because they’ve acquired a couple of unsure things and added them to a core that was already unproven.
The Pelicans started with a strong base of Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson and Anthony Davis and added an all-star caliber point guard in Jrue Holiday and likely sixth man Tyreke Evans. Of that group, assuming Gordon actually plays this year, only Evans is a question mark, and I’m not sure you can blame him for establishing that reputation on that dysfunctional Kings team. Under the leadership of Monty Williams and on a team that actually makes sense roster-wise, I expect Evans to find his niche this season, and overall this is a roster that fits together extremely well.
The Pistons started their quick rebuild with a potential laden base of Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe. While that duo has shown promising signs, we don’t know for sure that Drummond will ever be more than a hyper athletic rebounder and shot blocker; though a hyper athletic rebounder and shot blocker is always an asset, Drummond did shoot 37% from the free throw line last season and he made all of two baskets outside of the restricted area. Monroe has shown a much more polished offensive game with a decent set of post moves and a nice feel for things when distributing from the high post, but he too has his limitations with a lackluster jumpshot and slow feet on defense. It’s a young duo that several teams would envy, but by themselves that’s not a particularly strong foundation.
The additions of Josh Smith and Jennings certainly make the Pistons better, but that doesn’t mean that they solve all of their problems, either. Both players have shown that they can be all-star caliber players when they play to their strengths – Smith with his uncanny ability to defend the rim and the perimeter at an elite level and Jennings with his lightning quick speed and expansive court vision – but they also have a tendency to get lazy, jack up bad shots, gamble on defense and portray a mopy attitude if things don’t go their way.
Smith is also an awkward fit positionally, as he’s been at his best as a power forward; now, he may end up playing power forward alongside Monroe a lot this season, but that means the Pistons will be playing Drummond less, and he was one of the few players on the team to have a positive statistical impact on their performance. A Smith-Monroe-Drummond frontcourt is likely the best way to utilize the talents of all three of these players, but the floor spacing of that unit will not be pretty.
While the Pelicans found a way to add impact players that fit in perfectly with what they had in place, the Pistons have gambled on some impact players that may not mesh with the Drummond/Monroe duo. On top of that, the team also hired a new head coach – former Thunder assistant Maurice Cheeks – this off-season that will be tasked with managing all of these egos for the first time. All signs point to Detroit’s transition to contender going less smoothly than it will in New Orleans, and yet I don’t think Dumars massively screwed up this off-season, at least not compared to what happened in 2009.
I’m not sure this is a playoff team right away – not with Washington, Cleveland and Toronto also freshly in the playoff hunt and only the Celtics definitely dropping out of the post-season picture – but I’ll back the method used to build it.