Toronto Raptors v Detroit Pistons

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.

Heat’s Josh McRoberts says he broke foot in Game 6 vs. Raptors, remains out

MIAMI, FL - SEPTEMBER 26: A portrait of Josh McRoberts #4 of the Miami Heat on September 26, 2016 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images)
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To call Josh McRoberts‘ time in Miami injury plagued might be the understatement of the decade.

Now with Chris Bosh out, the Heat could really use McRoberts at the four, but “shockingly” he is not healthy. Wednesday he finally admitted the reason he has been limited in training camp with foot issues.

McRoberts run of bad luck continues. And foot injuries — when your job involves running up and down a hardwood floor — are something that has to be taken seriously and allowed to fully heal, lest they become chronic. I’m not sure the Heat can bet on a lot out of McRoberts this season.

With no Bosh and McRoberts, expect Derrick Williams, Udonis Haslem, and maybe Luke Babbitt will get some run there. Coach Erik Spoelstra also likely will have some small lineups where Justise Winslow will play the four.

51Q: Will Larry Bird’s renovation of the Pacers pay off?

Larry Bird, Paul George
AP Photo/Michael Conroy
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We continue PBT’s 2016-17 NBA preview series, 51 Questions. For the past few weeks, and through the start of the NBA season, we tackle 51 questions we cannot wait to see answered during the upcoming NBA season. We will delve into one almost every day between now and the start of the season.

There are two types of basketball analysts: Those who believe the Pacers improved by swapping George Hill for Jeff Teague and those who believe Indiana got worse in the trade.

Teague uses his superior quickness in the pick-and-roll to score and assist more. Hill defends better, commits fewer turnovers and shoots more efficiently.

I prefer Hill. Larry Bird opted for Teague.

I can’t wait to see who’s right.

Though I’m inclined to value Hill’s less-flashy contributions – and like his lead-guard skills if he were called upon for that role – I’m also not arrogant enough to believe I certainly know better than Bird. An all-time great who has excelled as a player, coach and executive deserves some benefit of the doubt.

Bird is leveraging it now.

Seemingly unsatisfied with the team that reached consecutive conference finals in 2013 and 2014, Bird has now fully torn down the roster to build a more dynamic offense around Paul George. The Pacers president has long talked about the change, and we’ll learn this season whether his vision will bear fruit.

In addition to trading Hill for Teague, Bird let Lance Stephenson leave in free agency, deemphasized and traded Roy Hibbert, offended David West into leaving and fired Frank Vogel. In came Monta Ellis, Rodney Stuckey, Myles Turner, Thaddeus Young, Teague and Nate McMillian.

And Bird hasn’t stopped after jettisoning everyone who regularly started with George in those conference-finals runs. Indiana will miss Ian Mahinmi‘s defense – maybe more than Al Jefferson works as a change-of-pace in the low post. But Bird is fully embracing the course of trading defense for offense.

Debate how he addressed it, but the team’s identity was clear. In the last four years, the Pacers stunk offensively and thrived defensively. Their rank in points per possession:

  • Offense: 20th, 23rd, 23rd, 25th
  • Defense: 1st, 1st, 7th, 3rd

The beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I see an excellent defense propping up an offense that could have been better. Bird saw a struggling offense and couldn’t look past it.

Indiana now has a deep squad of players who can break down opponents off the dribble. They will have matchup advantages – if they pass well enough to find the player in favorable position. The ball will move plenty between the hardwood and the dribbler’s hands. Between players? That’s a major question mark.

It’s one of numerous hitches in Bird’s plan.

He tried to fast-track the offense last year by moving George from small forward to power forward. Despite Bird’s demands, George resisted. The plan was largely scrapped early in the season.

McMillian was also a curious choice given Bird’s stated goals. McMillian’s Trail Blazers and SuperSonics teams usually played slow. Still, perhaps the coach can adapt his scheme to fit his players (and appease his boss). Bird chose McMillian for a reason, after all.

Bird chose it all.

This is the team he long desired – for better or worse.

Lakers GM Kupchak tries to brush off Jim Buss’ timeline discussion

Los Angeles Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak speaks to reporters at team headquarters in El Segundo, Calif., Friday, April 15, 2016. With Kobe Bryant's $25 million salary, ravenous shot selection and dominant personality gone from the basketball team after 20 years, Kupchak says he will meet with head coach Byron Scott and owner Jim Buss in a few days to discuss their options for the Lakers, which finished with the NBA's second-worst record at 17-65 in Bryant's farewell season. (AP Photo/Greg Beacham)
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Consider this a little preview: On Thursday the ProBasketballTalk podcast returns, opening with a discussion of the Lakers and the Pacific division with Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News. We talk about the young core — D'Angelo Russell, Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, etc. — and how Luke Walton fits with them. How this is a team that if handled properly could develop into something of quality in a couple of years as these players come along. Patience is key.

But then we got to what Medina called the “elephant in the room”: Jim Buss’ timeline for returning to contending. He’s the head of basketball operations and vowed to at least make the second round of the playoffs at least by this season. Which is not happening. Will Buss be patient? Is he grounded in today’s NBA reality? Will the woman with the hammer, Jeanie Buss, hold him to that timeline? Does she have the backing of the other Buss children to push him out? (Reportedly she does.) It has Shakespearian drama potential.

Laker GM Mitch Kupchak was asked about that Tuesday and wanted no part of the question. Via Medina at the Daily News.

“I’m not in a position to debate the stuff you talked about,” Kupchak said on Tuesday at UC Santa Barbara. “I’m not sure what was said with certainty. From my point of view, we’ve created a team that has a lot of young talent that can grow into really good NBA players that can leave an imprint on this league. I think we’ve surrounded them with older veterans to help us win games. I’m excited about our coaching staff….

“Wins and losses, I couldn’t pick a number,” Kupchak said. “I could guess. But I would not guess in front of you. That’s not something I would do. That’s something I would stare at for the rest of the year.”

The Lakers should win more than the 17 of last year, maybe climb into the upper 20s, with 30 wins being the goal. That would signify a good season. But what matters is development, and if the Lakers are better at the end of the season, if their young players are on the right track, then that is success for this season.

Everyone around the Lakers understands that.

But is that enough to save Jim Buss’ job? That’s a different question.

New challenges face Portland guard CJ McCollum in Year four

Portland Trail Blazers guard C.J. McCollum poses for a photograph during NBA basketball media day in Portland, Ore., Monday, Sept. 26, 2016. (AP Photo/Steve Dykes)
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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) CJ McCollum became a starter for the Trail Blazers last season, broke out as the NBA’s Most Improved Player then signed a big contract over the summer.

Driving him all along the way was third-year pressure.

“Because I knew that was a make-or-break year for me. I know that going into year three I hadn’t played particularly well. I’d had flashes, but I just didn’t sustain a level of consistency for a season.

“In our league you get three years, you get traded, you get put in a box and they say `This is what you are,”‘ McCollum said when the team convened this week for training camp.

The 25-year-old guard became a star in the Blazers’ backcourt with Damian Lillard last season after four of the team’s starters left in the offseason.

With one of the youngest rosters in the league, the Blazers were considered a team that was rebuilding.

But they surpassed expectations, finishing 44-38 and earning the fifth seed in the Western Conference and advancing to the second round of the playoffs.

At one point last season, Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle referred to Lillard and McCollum as “a younger version of those Golden State guys.”

McCollum averaged 20.8 points, 3.2 rebounds and 4.3 assists during the regular season. He had 197 3-pointers, fourth most for the Blazers in one season. He scored in double figures in 79 games.

He raised his scoring average by more than 14 points over the previous season and the dramatic turnaround earned him the Most Improved Player award.

That improvement was the most since Tony Campbell from an average of 6.2 points to 23.2 points with Minnesota between the ’88-89 and `89-90 seasons.

McCollum averaged 20.5 points, 3.6 rebounds and 3.3 assists in the postseason last season.

But at times he was nervous that he was just an injury away from seeing all the hard work fizzle away.

“It was nerve-wracking for me because if you get hurt so many times you fear it. You’re like, `Oh, this could be it,”‘ he said. “So for me to get through a season healthy and to play well, it was comforting.”

McCollum, the 10th overall pick in the 2013 draft out of Lehigh, missed the first 34 games of his rookie season with a foot injury.

The next season he was a reserve, but he started to turn heads down the stretch and into the playoffs after starter Wesley Matthews was knocked out with a ruptured Achilles. His postseason included a 33-point game against Memphis.

This summer the Blazers solidified their backcourt for years to come by signing McCollum to a four-year contract worth $106 million. It will keep him in Portland through the 2020-21 season.

While McCollum says he feels “less pressure” this season, he’s still looking to grow. The Blazers signed free agent Evan Turner in the offseason to help shore up the Blazers’ depth at guard.

“As a younger player you just play and react,” McCollum said. “As an older player you start to get more experience and you start to `think’ the game. I think once I put those two things together I can be a special player.”