What the Pistons should do when the lockout ends

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This is the latest installment of PBT’s series of “What your team should do when the lockout ends.” Up next is the Indiana Pacers. You can also check out our thoughts on other NBA teams here as we work our way through all 30 squads.

Last Season: Other teams lost more games. Other teams had worse injuries. Other teams dealt with worse schedules, worse luck, worse in-game coaching, worse management and worse personnel. No one had a season as bad as the Pistons.

With a few rare, glorious exceptions, nearly every fan, coach and player will endure a few terrible seasons. Ones you just want to forget. Losses pile up, injuries, bad chemistry. But the kind of locker-room disasters that the Pistons organization and their fans sat through last year are the stuff of legend. It started with head coach John Kuester, who lost the locker room nearly the minute he entered it. There’s not a definitive story. But the players bristled and revolted at his leadership from the start, and last year it became unbearable. The veterans on the Pistons, the guys who had been part of championship teams and who knew the ropes of how to be a professional, came unhinged under Kuester. One player acts ridiculous, it’s a personal issue. But when an entire team of guys who coaches have raved about in the past go haywire, there’s a problem at the top.

It doesn’t excuse the behavior, particularly the midseason revolt by several players of boycotting practice. Regardless of your circumstance, you need to be professionals and set an example for the younger players and the league. That’s the same for any job in the country. But if you’re senior management and you have that many employees exhibiting that kind of behavior under one supervisor, you can’t just toss them out as rogue elements. Something drove them there. And so, Kuester was fired after the season, eventually.

The situation was exacerbated by two elements. Rip Hamilton, one of two Pistons who had remained in Detroit the whole time since the championship team, wanted out. Badly. It was time to move on, he could go join a veteran contender (Chicago would have eaten their left arms, or Kyle Korver, to get Hamilton after the deadline). But he didn’t want to give up any of his remaining salary, or at least not a reasonable amount. He wanted his cake and to eat it, too. After what he’d done for the Pistons through the years, after how he was treated (in his mind) by Kuester, maybe he thought he was owed. The fact remains that multiple reports indicated a deal was on the table for Hamilton to walk away, and he declined over the money. Instead, he facilitated a revolt.

Which would have been fixable. Ownership could have likely spit off the money to get rid of him, it would have made the team better, opened some room for the younger guys, been the best thing for everyone. Except the Pistons were locked. Ownership was in the process of selling the team, and as such, movement was restrained. Finances needed to be settled and options were put on hold.

Unhappy players, a failing coach, a struggling team, a withering fanbase in an area leveled by the economy (over the past thirty years, not just the most recent downturn), a dysfunctional locker room and a frozen ownership.

So, no, the Pistons did not have a very good year.

Since we last saw the Pistons: New owner! With the untold riches of a Los Angeles (Laker fan!) owner, comes the promise of hope. Off the bat, Lawrence Frank was hired, a defensive minded coach with good experience who is a hard-nosed guy but someone the players will likely respect, at least more than Kuester (granted, they’d respect an actual pizza guy more , but still).  Those have been the big changes, and the rest will come after the lockout’s over, when Joe Dumars and management can start to get the house in order. Because clearly, there’s a realization that things have gone awry in Denmark.

Whether that means paying off Hamilton, trading Tayshaun Prince, trading Ben Gordon, trading Charlie Villanueva, or some combination will have to wait to be seen. But we do know that the Pistons acquired Brandon Knight in the first round, a scoring point guard, which could pave the way for Rodney Stuckey’s departure. Signs seem to indicate major changes are coming, but we’ve sensed that for two years with no consummation. Waiting is not fun.

When the lockout ends, the Pistons need to: Cut bait.  It’s time for a new era, and the crazy part is, if the Pistons will commit to it, they have a really exciting future ahead of them.

In the summer of 2009, the Pistons signed two big free agent signings. Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva. Villanueva, despite being a worse player, actually made quite a bit of sense. The Pistons needed a power forward with range who could score. They needed scoring, pretty badly. Gordon? Gordon was mystifying. They had Rodney Stuckey. They had Rip Hamilton. They had Will Bynum. The last thing they needed was an undersized two-guard pure scorer. Yet, there went $55 million.

Gordon’s still a decent player. His drops can be attributed to coaching, system, and personnel changes. (That’s right, Vinny Del Negro to John Kuester was a step down. I’m not trying to kill Kuester here, I think he’ll be a great assistant in this league and possibly a better head coach next time out, bu the facts, they are not comforting.) He also suffered a wide variety of injuries. Villanueva was pretty much what was expected. He’s actually surprisingly not dramatically overpaid. He makes between $7.5 million and $8.5 million over the next four seasons. Bench role player who can score some, not bad. Not great, but he didn’t sign a $13 million per year deal.

But both of these players have to go. Along with Tayshaun Prince (unrestricted free agent) and Hamilton ($12.5 million guaranteed left on his deal), Rodney Stuckey (restricted free agency), and Tracy McGrady. It’s time to blow it up and start over. Thing is, they’re already halfway there.

Very quietly, Dumars has drafted exceptionally well over the past few years. Austin Daye, Jonas Jerebko, Greg Monroe, and Brandon Knight. You throw in a superstar wing after a year of spectacular sucking (hello, Harrison Barnes!) and you’ve got something cooking there. Fill it out with free agency after a purge and you have a real shot at building something.

It should be noted I have a soft spot for most of these guys which belies their production. I see a higher ceiling than they’ve shown, and I always tend to catch their better games on League Pass. Daye is a 13.0 PER player who shot .518 TrueShooting% and doesn’t rebound or assist well. So naturally, my confidence in him is a little nuts. But really? He’s got the tools to get there under the right leadership. Monroe has already shown he can be a top flight center in this league. Whether that’s because of the abject void of quality centers outside of the top five or his actual ceiling is yet to be determined, but he’s a safe bet for a quality starter. Jerebko lost most of last season due to injury, but he’s a hustle junkie who thrives on contact and makes all those plays you want him to make. Knight has a terrific jumper. He’s going to turn the ball over so much it will make you cry, but there’s an ability there to develop into the guard of the future.

There’s a core, buried beneath all the veterans mistakenly assembled for a late-seed playoff run. The Pistons just have to commit themselves to it. When the lockout ends, there’s work to be done. But it’s not a total detonation, not a house cleaning. Just a severe remodeling.

Thunder star Russell Westbrook scores 45, leads 25-point comeback against Jazz

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The Thunder lost three straight games, fell behind by 25 in the second half at home and looked as if they had no interest in returning to Utah.

Then, Russell Westbrook reminded everyone why he’s a superstar.

Westbrook is a singular force who can take over a game and rally his teammates – not a liability who makes everyone around him worse. His confidence and determination in the face of calamity were invaluable tonight. He kept attacking, and as shots started to fall, he and his teammates massively increased their defensive intensity.

The result: A 107-99 Game 5 win over the Jazz that looked highly improbable 21 game minutes before it ended. But Westbrook (who finished with 45 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists) singlehandedly outscored Utah in that final stretch.

The Thunder are hardly out of the woods yet. They still trail 3-2 in the series with Game 6 Friday in Utah. Teams with home-court advantage in a best-of-seven series with a road Game 6 win it just 37% of the time. Those teams win the series just 26% of the time.

But thanks to Westbrook, Paul George (34 points) and plain all-around defensive effort, Oklahoma City still has a shot. At minimum, the Thunder won’t send George into unrestricted free agency with four straight losses.

Not that Oklahoma City erased all concerns.

Rudy Gobert devoured the Thunder’s offense in the paint – at least while he could avoid the foul trouble. Utah was +7 in Gobert’s 30 minutes and -8 in the 18 minutes he sat.

The Thunder made most of their comeback with Carmelo Anthony on the bench. They continued to play well once he returned in the fourth quarter, but by then, the Jazz had lost all rhythm.

Utah – led by Jae Crowder‘s 27 points – looks deeper. Anthony was still Oklahoma City’s third-leading scorer with just seven points.

And the Thunder haven’t won in Salt Lake City this series.

But they’ll make another trip there. Considering where this game and series looked midway through the third quarter tonight, that’s a heck of an accomplishment.

Another massive third quarter lifts Rockets past Timberwolves into second round

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We saw this movie just a couple of nights before, but Rockets fans love the ending and would gladly pay to see it 12 more times this postseason.

Much like Game 4, the Rockets were down at the half in Game 5 Wednesday after having played disinterested defense and with cold shooting from their stars (James Harden and Chris Paul combined to go 3-of-16 from the floor). Minnesota was up 59-55 and had hope.

Then the third quarter the Rockets flipped the switch. Again.

Harden had 15 points in the third — matching the Timberwolves as a team. Minnesota started to double Harden and take the ball out of his hands (especially late in the shot clock), but he often moved the rock and it led to open threes — the Rockets were 6-of-10 from three in the quarter. Houston won the third 30-15, not as overwhelming as the 50-point quarter the game before but once again enough to comfortably pull away from Minnesota and cruise in for a 122-104 win.

With that, the Rockets win the series 4-1 and now await the winner of the Utah vs. Oklahoma City series.

In that series, the Rockets will need to play with more consistent focus than they brought against the Timberwolves — they can’t just play a couple of good halves in the next series and expect that to be enough. Unlike Minnesota, those teams in the next round will make Houston pay a steep price for a lack of focus.

Houston got a massive night from Clint Capela, who led the Rockets with 26 points and 15 rebounds, running the rim hard in transition and making plays inside while the rest of the Rockets launched threes over the top.

Harden finished with 24 points and 12 assists, and Eric Gordon had 19 off the bench in the win.

Minnesota had 23 points from Karl-Anthony Towns and 17 from an energized Jeff Teague.

For the Timberwolves, a team with elite young talent, this was a glimpse of what it will take to reach the heights they envision. This was a good step — the franchise’s first trip to the playoffs since 2004 is not to be diminished. It matters. But there are higher levels this team can attain. Defensively they have to be better, offensively they need to feed Towns more and play to their strengths better. It’s a work in progress.

Houston just showed them where they want to be.

Hawks, coach Mike Budenholzer agree to part ways

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This was expected.

It was pretty obvious Mike Budenholzer didn’t want to stick around and lose a lot of games with the Atlanta Hawks as they rebuild the next few years, especially after he had been stripped of his GM powers. Budenholzer went well down the road with the Phoenix Suns about their open coaching position before thinking better of it. Since then he has set up a meeting with the Knicks about their coaching vacancy, a job he reportedly wants badly.

At this point there was no need for the Hawks and Budenholzer to continue their sham marriage, so they have agreed to amicably separate, a story broken by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN and since confirmed by the Hawks.

Budenholzer said this to Wojnarowski of ESPN:

“I am grateful for the five years that I spent as coach of the Atlanta Hawks, and will always cherish the incredible contributions, commitment and accomplishments of the players that I was fortunate enough to work with here,” Budenholzer told ESPN on Wednesday night. “From ownership to management, support staff to the community, I’ll look back with great pride on what we were able to achieve together with the Hawks.”

For Budenholzer, the long-time Spurs assistant and a strong Xs and Os coach, look for him to both push for the Knicks job and be in the running if/when the Milwaukee Bucks job opens up whenever their season ends. In both cases he’s a fit — those are teams that need a culture and system reset, and Budenholzer proved he can bring that to Atlanta (that was a good team before they let Al Horford and Paul Millsap walk for nothing).

With Atlanta, they likely will turn to a top assistant coach who will get a chance to develop young players on that team (and not cost Atlanta as much as an established coach). Stephen Silas of the Hornets is a rumored name, but there are others.

LeBron James overrules controversial finish with game-winning 3-pointer (video)

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LeBron James‘ turnover with the game tied late looked like a bad call. LeBron’s block of Victor Oladipo on the ensuing possession looked like a goaltend.

Did the Cavaliers get robbed of a crucial possession? Did the Pacers get robbed of two go-ahead points?

LeBron nullified those questions with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to give Cleveland a 98-95 win and a 3-2 series lead. The game-winner capped a great game by LeBron (44 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists) and moves the Cavs to the verge of advancing.

When a team with home-court advantage can close out a best-of-seven series with a road Game 6, it has 52% of the time. It has won the series 92% of the time.

The odds are even better with LeBron. LeBron has won 11 straight closeout games, nine of them on the road. He’ll have another opportunity Friday with Game 6 in Indiana.