Although it may have come two years too late, Joe D has finally decided to go full bore into the rebuilding process. Chauncey Billups and Rasheed Wallace are gone. Rip Hamilton’s future as a Piston is tenuous at best with the signing of Ben Gordon. Rebuilding is difficult for any franchise but it’s especially difficult for the Detroit Pistons. Few marquee free agents would even begin to consider living in Detroit over, say, Miami or Los Angeles. That means the Pistons front office has to build its team via the draft, trades, and savvy free agent signings. The acquisitions of Tayshaun Prince, Rasheed Wallace, and Chauncey Billups are respective examples of such transactions. It’s certainly possible to build a successful team without the benefit of elite free agents—the Pistons proved that in ’89 and ’90 and then again with an entirely different cast in ’04—but I’m sure Joe D will tell you it’s much easier to throw bags of money at Kevin Garnett and watch him go. Barring Rodney Stuckey being permanently possessed by the wandering spirit of Michael Jordan, Joe D is going to have to plan his next moves very carefully because he didn’t do himself any favors over the summer.
If Joe D is going to build the Pistons into a championship contending franchise again, he will need to adhere to the precedents that NBA Champions have set over the last 30 years. After analyzing all of the NBA Champs since 1980, I have found four distinct traits that characterize every single championship team over that span. All four traits were not present on every team. Some teams had all four while others had fewer. However, every team had at least two of the traits.
Here are the four characteristics (refer to the chart below for traits of past 30 NBA Champs):
1). Dominate the Paint.
There is a reason why most of the elite big men of the last 30 years have championship rings—Kareem, Moses Malone, Hakeem, Shaq, David Robinson, Tim Duncan, and Kevin Garnett. It’s the same reason Don Nelson never won an NBA Championship as a coach and likely the reason he ended up going postal.
2). Have the best player in the game.
Over the last 30 years, at one time or another, Kareem, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Hakeem, Tim Duncan, Shaq, and Kobe were the best player in the NBA. In fact, all had multiple years of being the best player in the NBA. Not coincidentally, all have multiple championship rings.
3). Have an all-star trio (or more).
The Lakers and Celtics owned the 80s with two of the best teams in NBA history. The Lakers were led by the stellar triumvirate of Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and James Worthy. The Celtics countered with Larry Legend, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parrish. Twenty five years later, the Lakers and Celtics have again won championships with the same formula. The Boston Three Party brought the C’s a championship in ’08 and the Lakers followed that with Kobe, Pau Gasol, and Lamar Odom (filling in for an injured Andrew Bynum).
4). Have an elite defense.
Many times, the best players in the NBA—MJ, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Kobe etc.—are already the best defenders. So, #2 (best player) and #4 (defense) often go together. However, that’s not always the case. The Detroit Pistons have won three championships in the last 20 years without having one of the top five players in the NBA. In fact, Isiah Thomas was the only player on any of the three Pistons championship teams who was among the top 15 players in the NBA.
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While Joe D contemplates his next move in the rebuilding process, he needs to make sure that he is putting together a team that will eventually exhibit at least two of these characteristics. As I mentioned earlier, Trait #2 (best player) is not realistic for the Pistons. So, Joe will need to form some combination of numbers one, three, and four if he expects the Pistons to compete for championships again. One problem that he will need to contend with is how the signings of Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva hinder the chances of reaching those traits. For instance, Gordon and Villanueva are far from elite defenders. Remember, Trait #4 (defense) was present in all three of Detroit’s championships. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that it will have to be a staple of this team moving forward if it is going to challenge again. That means that Joe’s next acquisitions—most likely following the departures of both Rip and Tayshaun—will need to include an elite defensive player. The Pistons don’t just need to aspire to have a good defense, they need an elite defense. Dennis Rodman and Joe Dumars were two of the best defenders in the NBA (Rodman was THE best) when the Pistons won back-to-back titles in ’89 and ’90. Ben Wallace and Rasheed Wallace were two of the best defenders in the NBA (Big Ben was THE best) when the Pistons won in ’04. The Pistons, unfortunately, don’t have any budding defensive stalwarts which makes it hard to imagine this team becoming an elite defensive unit any time soon.
The other two options—#1 (paint domination) and #3 (all-star trio)—are probably more realistic at this point simply because they can be achieved with just one signing. The problem is that elite big men capable of dominating the paint are few and far between. Chris Bosh, Amare Stoudamire, Carlos Boozer, Dirk Nowitzki, and Yao are all big men that could be available next summer in free agency. All are huge offensive threats but, unfortunately, none are the type of dominant two-way big man that has owned the NBA Finals over the past 30 years or more. In fact, all five are mediocre defenders at best. It’s important to point out that no champion of the last 30 years has won with traits #1 (paint domination) and #3 (all-star trio), only. That is one combination that just hasn’t worked. So, even if the Pistons do manage to sign Carlos Boozer or Chris Bosh in free agency resulting in an elite paint presence and a trio of all-stars (assuming Ben Gordon and Rodney Stuckey/Charlie Villanueva can get to that level), they will still need to come up with trait #4 (elite defense). As I mentioned earlier, the Pistons are virtually ineligible for trait #2 (best player) and no team has won with just traits #1 (paint domination) and #3 (all-star trio). That means that the Pistons have to make trait #4 (elite defense) part of the equation. It also means that the Pistons will almost certainly need traits #1, #3, and #4 to get back to a championship level.
With Rodney Stuckey, Ben Gordon, and Charlie Villanueva part of Detroit’s long-term future, the Pistons are left with only two starting positions available to complete the transformation. If Boozer or Bosh is signed, that would leave the center position as the only open spot in the starting lineup. Since the Pistons would still need to make trait #4 (elite defense) part of the equation, it would obviously have to be an elite defensive center. If Joe D was working with a clean slate, there would be any number of ways to build a championship team using the above formula. However, since he has painted himself into a corner with the Gordon and Villanueva signings, there is really only one way that this process can end with a championship caliber-team. He needs an elite offensive power forward, and an elite defensive center. Those just happen to be the two hardest things to find in the NBA.
One additional thing that Joe D needs is to get rid of Rip and Tayshaun. He can’t do anything without their contracts off the books. Assuming that happens, though, Joe will have every opportunity to get the two players that he needs next summer. As I mentioned, there will be no shortage of offensively proficient power forwards next summer. Yao is a center and a huge injury risk but the other four (Amare, Bosh, Boozer, and Dirk) are more than good enough to be a force in the paint. As for the final piece, it appears that there could be two formidable defensive centers on the market next summer: Marcus Camby and Tyson Chandler. Chandler’s separation from Chris Paul and his subsequent plunge in Charlotte makes it unlikely that he’ll command big-time attention next summer which, unfortunately, means he’ll likely take his hefty player option for $12.75 million. That leaves the most injury prone player in the history of the NBA, Marcus Camby, as the only sure bet to hit free agency. Not surprisingly, Camby got hurt while I was writing this post. However, he would come cheap. His age and offensive limitations make it doubtful that he’ll make any more in free agency than the $7.65 million he makes now. The easiest way to get Camby would be to simply trade Rip or Tayshaun for him.
To sum up—and I apologize for the sheer volume of summing up that I need to do—while it is unlikely that Joe D will be able to rebuild the Pistons into a championship contender because of the Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva signings, it is not impossible. He has options—just not many of them. Based on the traits that have defined the last 30 NBA Champions, Joe D can build a championship caliber team by adding an elite offensive power forward and an elite defensive center. To do this, he will need to strategically shed the contracts of Rip Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince which aren’t scheduled to come off the books until 2013 and 2011, respectively. Considering the reluctance of elite free agents to sign with Detroit teams, the most likely scenario to bring the missing pieces to the Pistons is through trades. One scenario might include offering Rip to Utah for Boozer, trade Tayshaun for cap relief and sign Marcus Camby in the off-season. That would give the Pistons a starting lineup of:
PG Rodney Stuckey
SG Ben Gordon
SF Charlie Villanueva
PF Carlos Boozer
C Marcus Camby
Believe it or not, that team looks a little bit like the Pistons championship teams of the past. Now that I’ve spent so much time writing about this, I suppose I should ask the question of whether any of this is likely to occur. Unfortunately, I think the answer is, “no.” Joe D has been less than impressive in his ability to take current pieces and move them for anything of note. One thing is for certain, the Pistons have absolutely no chance of even remotely approaching a championship level with Rip Hamilton or Tayshaun Prince on the roster; not when Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva are making $16.5 million to play their positions. Whether Joe D knows that, or whether he can exchange them for an elite power forward and defensive center will determine whether the Pistons are going to be relevant again in the next decade.