Sunday, April 3, 2011

Pistons Miss Playoffs For Consecutive Season

Pistons Miss Playoffs For Consecutive Season
By Steve St-Pierre

For the second season in a row, the Pistons have missed the playoffs and will return to the NBA Draft Lottery in May. Last year, the team blamed its lack of success on injuries, but this time around it’s been everything else.

John Kuester, Pistons Head Coach, has struggled mightily this season to establish not only a set starting five but an entire rotation as well. Just about every player on the team received at least one DNP-CD (did not play, coach’s decision.) It’s led to a great amount of criticism from the media and heavy backlash from the players, some of whom have been very open about their feelings.

“Every game, I’m expecting not to play,” says reserve guard Will Bynum. “That’s how I’m approaching the game.”

At one point, rumors emerged that Kuester would be dismissed and replaced by Darrell Walker, current Pistons Assistant Coach. Instead, the team has opted to let Kuester finish the season. It’s been difficult for players to adjust to inconsistent playing time, but it’s something they’ve all had to do together as a team.

“Whatever (Kuester) decides, however long he decides to play me, I’m gonna take that and just try to produce as long as I’m out there,” says rookie center Greg Monroe.

“I’m not in control of minutes or when I play and don’t play,” Bynum adds. “All I control is being ready, and that’s what I try to do…it’s my job, man. It’s my job to be ready. It’s not to complain and pout, and I try to stay positive. When I’m out there, I try to make him regret not playing me.”

The coaching staff believes players haven’t worked hard enough in practice, leading to lackadaisical performances during games.

“We’ve got to get out of the habit of playing a good game and then not playing as well the next game or getting off this rollercoaster…” Kuester says. “…It’s the same old story. When we make shots and we defend better, things look so much better for us.”

Though the team has been relatively healthy this season, the Pistons have had to cope with the loss of forward Jonas Jerebko, a promising rookie last season who has missed his entire sophomore campaign after straining his right Achilles’ tendon during the first preseason game. He is set to become a restricted free agent this summer but has said he expects to stay in Detroit for the foreseeable future.

Unfortunately, the future remains murky for this organization and the NBA as a whole. The NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement is set to expire June 30, and much like the NFL, players and owners are arguing over the possibility of cutting salaries. If the two sides don’t reach a new agreement by July, the NBA will also enter a lockout that could stretch into next season. As a result, it’s become impossible for teams to truly plan a strategy for free agency this summer.

Furthermore, the Pistons have their own issues at hand. The team is still in the process of being sold, leading to speculation that the front office has essentially been frozen from making any transactions. In fact, Detroit has not made one transaction since the start of the season.

The pending expiration of the league’s CBA will have no direct impact on the upcoming 2011 NBA Draft, which is being held June 23. Therefore, the draft is likely going to be the Pistons’ only way of improving their roster in the near future. If a coaching change is going to be made, it should be completed as soon as possible. Yet, even that might not be possible as current ownership would have to approve the hiring of a new coaching staff, which probably isn’t a top priority for them at this time.

For now, the Pistons will continue to prepare for a lottery pick in the draft. Based on how many games they lose down the stretch, they could wind up at or around a top-five selection. The lottery itself gives Detroit – and every non-playoff team – a shot at one of the top three picks.

If the Pistons are stuck with their current roster, they’ll have plenty of holes to fill once all front-office restrictions are lifted. The only real asset the team has at this point is Monroe, who’s been one of the best rookies in the NBA all season.

“He’s just so doggone active,” Kuester says about his rookie big man. “For a guy that I think a lot of us early on said, ‘How is he going to rebound?’ we’re finding out that he can rebound with anybody.”

Rebounding is only part of the package. Monroe has been an extremely consistent scorer and passer in the post, something Detroit hasn’t had in years. He has the ability to play both power forward and center, and best of all, he’s brought an extremely rare positive attitude to the Pistons’ locker room.

“To me, every win is important to us right now,” Monroe says. “We’re trying to win every game.”

Besides Monroe, the only players under contract after this season are Bynum, Rip Hamilton, Ben Wallace, Ben Gordon, Charlie Villanueva, Austin Daye, Jason Maxiell and rookie Terrico White. Wallace could opt to retire, especially if there’s a lockout next season. That leaves either Hamilton or Gordon likely penciled in as a starter at shooting guard with Monroe, but the team will have holes at point guard and small forward as well as either power forward or center, depending on where Monroe plays.

The hope is that Gordon and Villanueva, who signed long-term contracts with Detroit in the summer of 2009 totaling $90 million, can finally establish themselves as fixtures in the team’s rotation. For that to happen, the coach needs to commit to both players in the lineup, with Gordon solidifying the two-guard spot and Villanueva playing power forward alongside Monroe. If the team assumes it will have no trouble keeping Jerebko, he could take over the small forward position.

That leaves a hole at point guard. Bynum has played effectively at the position, but he’s by no means a legitimate starter at this time. Rodney Stuckey, a combo guard who has been groomed for the position his entire career, hasn’t been able to keep the starting job and is also set to become a restricted free agent this summer. There are those who still believe Stuckey can play the position.

“(Stuckey’s) been terrific for us,” Villanueva says. “He’s pushing the basketball, and he’s been making the right plays. He’s been scoring a lot of points. Rodney’s a tremendous player.”

Yet, Kuester hasn’t trusted Stuckey at the position. Perhaps it’s an area the team can focus on for the upcoming draft. Then again, there aren’t many clear-cut point guards available this year.

The Pistons certainly have their hands full this off-season. It remains to be seen just how much ability they’ll have in order to fix the roster. Until then, fans are going to have a hard time believing things will improve for this organization.