BOSTON – There can be a fine line between unintentionally losing and tanking.
Tanking is encouraging, on some level, your own team to lose in order to gain better position for the draft. That can mean assembling a weak roster, increasing playing time for young and unready players, sitting good players longer due to injury and/or not playing with maximum effort.
Of course, some teams do none of those things and still lose. See the Knicks, New York.
So, how can we tell when a losing teams are tanking and when they’re not?
I’d argue the most sure-fire clue is how much playing time they give their best players. The fewer the minutes, the more likely teams are to be tanking and vice versa.
But the Detroit Pistons are turning that theory on its head.
The Pistons use Josh Smith, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond more than 18 minutes per game, a solid chunk of playing time for arguably the team’s top three players.
“We want to get our best players on the floor together, and that’s just the way we do it,” Pistons coach John Loyer said.
Except Detroit has been terrible in the 1,140 minutes the trio has shared the court. The offense lacks spacing, and the defense is even worse.
With those three, Detroit’s net rating is -7.5. Of the 43 threesomes to play together so much this season, only one has been worse and just two others are even in the range.
The only worse trio played for the lowly Philadelphia 76ers – Spencer Hawes, Evan Turner and Thaddeus Young. But Hawes plays for the Cavaliers now, and Turner is with the Pacers. Soon, Smith-Monroe-Drummond will pass that Philadelphia unit in minutes.
The other two similar lineups belong to the Pistons, but they’re really the result of Smith-Monroe-Drummond bringing down everything. One features Jennings rather than Monroe, and the other includes Jennings instead of Drummond. Considering the Smith-Monroe-Drummond trio has played more than 90 percent of its minutes with Jennings, I wouldn’t read too much into Jennings’ inclusion. He’s just being swept along with the current.
Otherwise, every trio to play this much is near neutral at worst or ranges into the very elite on NBA lineups.
Smith-Monroe-Drummond isn’t the worst trio in the NBA. What’s really amazing is how much the unit has played.
Teams typically don’t stick with something that isn’t working this long – at least when they’re trying to win.
Are the Pistons that blind to their weak spot?
Or do they have something else in mind?
When teams tank by playing their young players, they’re also getting the implicit benefit of developing their young players. It’s effectively doubling down on potential.
Well, Detroit’s potential lies with Smith, Monroe and Drummond. No matter how unlikely they are to click on the court together, the three somehow figuring out how to complement each other would give the Pistons their best chance of maximizing this roster.
And if it doesn’t work, well, a few extra losses could help the Pistons keep their draft pick. As a result of the Ben Gordon trade, they owe Charlotte their pick this year unless it falls in the top eight. The Pistons currently have the NBA’s 10th-worst record.
The Pistons might be the first team ever to tank by playing their best players more minutes together.
Honestly, though, if I had to guess from the outside, I don’t believe the Pistons are tanking. They’ve spent too much time, from ownership down, making the playoffs the clear goal. Trailing Atlanta for eighth in the East by three games, the Pistons at least have a shot at the postseason.
Especially if they stagger minutes between Smith, Monroe and Drummond.
When the Pistons have used exactly two of those players – whether it’s Smith-Drummond, Monroe-Drummond or Smith-Monroe – they’ve outscored opponents. That the Pistons have shown such a strong alternative to lumping all three together and still keeps starting all three game after game does leave me unable to completely shake the tanking theory, though.
I asked Monroe about the possibility of shifting rotations to accommodate more two-big and fewer three-big lineups.
“Us splitting up time with just two of us on the court,” Monroe said, “that would defeat the purpose of us being on the team together