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In July 2002, former Detroit Pistons general manager Joe Dumars took a chance when he signed an undersized, score-first point guard to run his offense. Chauncey Billups had been an NBA transient before landing in Detroit. The Boston Celtics had drafted him third overall out of Colorado in 1997, then traded him after 51 games. Billups gained a reputation for selfishness as he bounced from Boston to Toronto to Denver to Orlando — where he never played a game — and finally to Minnesota in his first six seasons, but he rewarded Dumars’ faith with an MVP performance in the 2004 NBA Finals.
Billups resigned with Detroit before last season, and his fingerprints seemed to be all over the Pistons’ draft. It’s too big a coincidence that Detroit, with its numerous roster holes and lone second-round draft pick, took Spencer Dinwiddie. He is Colorado’s best point guard since Billups. Dinwiddie tumbled because he entered a deep draft with a torn ACL. But at 38th overall, he’s almost risk-free. If he is healthy, Dinwiddie is one of the draft’s best guards. If he flames out, the Pistons won’t owe him any guaranteed money.
Despite his injury, Dinwiddie landed in a situation where he can play early. He would have fit well in Oklahoma City, but Detroit has a foundational big man, Andre Drummond, a brilliant new coach and team president, Stan Van Gundy, and an atrocious backcourt.
The Pistons signed point guard Brandon Jennings off of the Milwaukee Bucks’ scrap heap before last season. Instead of flourishing with the change of scenery, Jennings had the worst season of his career. He averaged 15.5 points per game, the worst since his rookie year, and he hit only 37 percent of his field goals and 31 percent of his threes, both career lows.
Second-year shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope may have the funkiest name in the NBA, but names don’t win games, and Caldwell-Pope’s rookie season was a disaster. In 19.8 minutes per game, he averaged only 5.9 points and shot just 39 percent from the field. His 9.4 Player Efficiency Rating was worse than that of stiffs like Matt Barnes (LA Clippers) and Derek Fisher in his farewell season in Oklahoma.
Will Bynum, Rodney Stuckey and Peyton Siva round out Detroit’s guards. None of them shot better than 32 percent from deep or had a PER higher than 14.4. Dinwiddie is the Pistons’ only guard that Van Gundy chose. The new coach inherited the rest, and he knows none of them are long-term building blocks.
Drummond should become Dinwiddie’s best friend
Detroit’s frontcourt isn’t in much better shape. Drummond is one of the league’s five best centers, but forwards Josh Smith and Greg Monroe overlap positionally. Smith, unfortunately, is a power forward who fancies himself a shooting guard. Detroit jammed Smith in at small forward with Drummond and Monroe starting, and it was a disaster.
Smith made only 26 percent of his 265 three-point attempts last season, which is historically bad. Since the league instituted the three-point line for the 1979-80 season, 1,122 players have attempted at least 250 threes in a season. Only once has someone shot a worse percentage than Smith did last year. Even worse, almost a quarter of his attempts last season were from midrange. He hit just 36 percent of those, and they often turned out like this.
Smith, Monroe and Drummond were supposed to be an elite paint-protecting trio — they’re all taller than 6-foot-9 — but Detroit allowed 109.2 points per 100 possessions when they were on the floor. That would have been worst in the league. The Pistons’ defense was an all-around mess. They have no perimeter stoppers, and Smith can’t protect the rim when he’s guarding small forwards on the perimeter.
Still, Monroe probably won’t be Detroit’s problem next year. He’s a good young big with a solid post game and mid-range jumper. He enters this offseason as a restricted free agent, and might command the maximum salary. If another team offers it to him, the Pistons won’t match. Detroit would much rather have Monroe than Smith, but Smith has the league’s most untradable contract. The Pistons can’t afford to pay Smith $14 million a year, give Monroe his maximum pay and give Drummond the max when he becomes a free agent in 2016.
Drummond is Detroit’s best building block. He should also be Dinwiddie’s best friend. When someone asks who the next NBA MVP not named LeBron James or Kevin Durant will be, Drummond always comes up. His stats are eye-popping, especially for a second-year player. He led the league in offensive rebounds and finished second in total rebounds while finishing in the top 20 in blocks, PER and field goal percentage.
Drummond’s offensive game consists mostly of put-backs and dunks, but he’s never played with a guard who runs the pick-and-roll well. Dinwiddie was considered one of the best pick-and-roll guards in the draft. If he’s healthy, Dinwiddie and Drummond will be a devastating combination. Dinwiddie has never played with a big guy as athletic as Drummond, and Drummond has never played with as versatile a pick-and-roll guard as Dinwiddie.
The Pistons need time – so does Dinwiddie
They play for a coach, Van Gundy, who molded great pick-and-roll duos at both his former head-coaching stops — Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O’Neal in Miami, and Jameer Nelson and Dwight Howard with the Orlando Magic. Van Gundy is creative and loves to spread the floor around one dominant big. The Pistons don’t have the shooters to do that yet, but Dinwiddie’s ability to shoot off the dribble is an invaluable asset to a team that needs spacing.
Van Gundy alone might turn Detroit into a playoff team in the weak Eastern Conference. For that to happen, he’ll need Smith to improve his shot selection and Drummond to continue his rapid development. A healthy Dinwiddie could give the Pistons a semblance of a competent backcourt. If that all comes together, Detroit should win around 43 games, get the eighth seed in the East, and get swept in the first round. That is about as much as this team can hope for after their disastrous last season.
Dinwiddie could be a big part of that slow, but steady improvement. He didn’t land on the best team or the most stable roster. But he’s in a situation where he can see the court early. He’ll play with a dominant center and for a great coach. Dinwiddie is rehabbing his knee while the Pistons rehab their team. It could be the start of a beautiful friendship.
Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Tommy Wood at firstname.lastname@example.org.