The last 5 years have been painful for loyal Pistons fans. After 8 straight years of making the playoffs, an NBA title, an Eastern Conference championship, and 6 straight appearances in the Eastern Conference finals the Pistons somehow managed to slide completely into mediocrity. Once perennial playoff contenders Detroit was suddenly relegated to being a constant lottery team, and they couldn’t even succeed at getting a top 5 lottery pick either. But after suffering through countless coaching changes and terrible management by Joe Dumars the Pistons finally appear to have a legitimate chance at turning their season around.
The answer may have come in the form of a new coach, and strangely enough, the release of the Pistons highest payed player. When Stan Van Gundy was hired as the coach and President of Basketball Operations many fans were skeptical. The combination of a fiery temper, a well publicized feud with Dwight Howard during his tenure as the head coach of the Magic, and a slightly walrus-like appearance didn’t exactly instill confidence into the masses. The only hope for the Pistons was Van Gundy’s resume; a 258-136 record with Orlando, an NBA Finals appearance, and a reputation for being a no nonsense, defensive minded coach who has previous experience developing talented young big-men.
Van Gundy wasn’t inheriting the easiest of teams to turn around either. The Pistons had lost their 2014 lottery pick due to an ill advised trade by Joe Dumars (sending the pick to Charlotte along with Ben Gordon just so the team could shed Gordon’s salary), and although the team already had a fair amount of talent they also had a built in culture of losing. And, most importantly, Van Gundy was inheriting the problem of Josh Smith. Smith was the last in a long line of Dumars’ “key free agents”, over-rated players who Dumars would sign to outrageous contracts and then laud as the salvation of the team. In his great wisdom Dumars wasn’t even deterred by the fact that Smith was a natural power forward, a position which talented young big-man Greg Monroe already played. The team simply decided to sign Josh Smith anyway and then move him out of position to play at small forward instead. Anyone who has ever seen Smith play would know that was a bad idea. Atlanta Hawks fans were conditioned a long time ago to groan every time Smith launched a brick from the 3-point line, a trend which would only be encouraged by the more perimeter centered play of a small forward. Predictably, the Smith experiment turned out as poorly as many fans and reporters expected. Smith’s defense practically disappeared, his offense stagnated into a game of jump shots, and even worse he monopolized the ball, forcing other players to adapt to his ineffective style as well.
After yet another abysmal start to the season by Detroit many people speculated that Smith would be benched or at least have his playing time limited. However, Stan Van Gundy had a different idea – he gave Josh Smith his money and showed him the door. It’s not often that a team will just cut their highest payed player, even if his salary was overinflated by Dumars bad judgement, and a lot of people complained that the team didn’t trade him or hold onto him until they could get some value in return. A trade probably would have required the Pistons to give up yet another draft pick though and Smith bad attitude would have continued to poison the locker room if Detroit had kept him.
Despite people’s doubt about the unconventional move it quickly became apparent that it was the right choice. After starting a miserable 5-23 with Josh Smith the Pistons have proceeded to go 12-3 since he was cut, including tough road wins against the Spurs and Mavericks and a blowout of the Lebron James led Cleveland Cavaliers.
So now the Detroit Pistons are only 1 1/2 games out of the NBA playoffs and Pistons fans are left wondering with some bewilderment about a question they haven’t asked in years: can the Pistons really make the playoffs this year? No one can know for sure but I’m putting my money on a smart coach who hides flashes of genius behind a quirky exterior and a team, who finally unburdened of the baggage of the past, has come into their own. If the Detroit Pistons can continue playing the tough, unselfish basketball which has started their winning ways and electrified a jaded fan base in the process I think we’ll all be having a lot of fun watching this team in the playoffs come May.