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.

Giannis Antetokounmpo says he learned from Kawhi Leonard: “He was calm”

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Milwaukee was up 2-0 in last season’s Eastern Conference Finals on Toronto, having won those games by an average of 15 points. Giannis Antetokounmpo had scored 54 points, pulled down 31 rebounds, dished out 11 assists, and was looking every bit the MVP.

Then the games shifted to Toronto, Kawhi Leonard took over — including guarding Antetokounmpo more — and the Raptors rattled off four straight wins to take the series on their way to the NBA title. The Greek Freak still averaged 20.4 points a night in those final four games, but the buckets were much harder to come by.

Milwaukee returns this season as the Eastern Conference favorites and legit title contenders, in part because of what they learned from that loss. Antetokounmpo told Vincent Goodwill of Yahoo Sports he learned a lot directly from Leonard in that series.

“I learned a lot from him,” Antetokounmpo said. “He knocked down free throws. He was calm. When double-teams came, he was swinging the ball but getting it right back. He was aggressive. He was calm but he was on a mission.”

Leonard is the living embodiment of the old John Wooden axiom “be quick, don’t hurry.” He’s not rushed, he’s rarely forced into shots he doesn’t want to take or plays he doesn’t want to make.  That’s true of all champions on some level. LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan all bring an inner calm.

If Antetokounmpo brings that to his game, the Bucks are one big step closer to a title.

Domantas Sabonis on trade rumors: ‘I know exactly how the Pacers feel about me now’

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The Indiana Pacers have started to explore the trade market for Domantas Sabonis. There are logical reasons for this: Sabonis is good (he was second in Sixth Man of the Year voting last season), yet he and the Pacers are nowhere near agreement on a contract extension, and the Pacers already paid big money for Myles Turner to be their center, how much do they want to pay Sabonis, too?

That’s sound logic if you’re in the Pacers’ front office.

If you’re Sabonis, it can feel like a slap in the face to a guy who put in a lot of sweat and passion for the franchise. That’s what Sabonis sounded like in this quote, via Scott Agnes of The Athletic.

The Pacers are not talking about the report, which started with the well connected and reliable Sam Amick at The Athletic.

Pacers’ brass needs to talk about this with Sabonis (and likely already have, behind closed doors). If the Pacers trade him, it’s likely not until after Dec. 15 at the earliest (when most players signed this summer can be included in a deal) and probably closer to the February trade deadline. That’s a lot of season to play out, and Sabonis remains a vital part of the Indiana rotation.

There is likely to be a lot of interest in Sabonis on the market. However, because he’s a center (a position teams are careful not to overspend on in today’s market) and in the last year of his rookie deal — meaning he becomes a restricted free agent next summer and gets more expensive — teams are not going to overpay for him. Right now the Pacers are asking for too much and interested teams are lowballing their offers. The sides will meet in the middle.

That middle could shift if Sabonis has a rough start to the season. Both sides need him to play well and feel comfortable, whatever is going on with the business side of his contract.

Raptors, Pascal Siakam reportedly agree to four-year, $129.9 million max contract extension

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Pascal Siakam is going to be the face of the Toronto Raptors going forward.

This was expected. Toronto was never going to let its young star slip away; the only questions were when it a contract extension got done and the price.

The answers came Saturday, with the Raptors and Siakam’s agents reaching terms on what will be a four-year, $129.9 million max extension for the reigning Most Improved Player. Adrian Wojnarowski and Zach Lowe of ESPN broke the news.

There are no player or team options, this is a straight four years.

Last season, his third in the league, Siakam made a huge leap. He averaged 16.9 points and 6.9 rebounds a game, shot 36.9 percent from three, took on a larger role as a shot creator, played impressive wing defense, and was a key part of the Raptors winning the first title in franchise history. He is at the heart of their future and a guy the Raptors wanted to keep through whatever rebuilding/retooling process comes in the next few years.

The Raptors could have played it out, and let Siakam go to restricted free agency next summer. However, in what will be a down free agent market, some team would have tried to poach the young wing — a real position of need around the league — with a max offer. The Raptors would have matched, but all that drama might have created bad blood. Maybe the Raptors overpaid a little, but they get to keep their guy and have him happy.

Siakam is the third player to get a max extension to their rookie contract this summer. Both Ben Simmons (Philadelphia) and Jamal Murray (Denver) signed five-year, $170 million max extensions. Siakam decided to take one year fewer, but also hits free agency again a little earlier.

Chinese state media says Adam Silver will face retribution for ‘defaming’ China

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Adam Silver has worked to portray the NBA as a progressive league that favored free speech. However, when push came to shove in a conflict with China over a Tweet from Rockets GM Daryl Morey supporting protesters in Hong Kong, Silver’s first statement seemed to protect the status quo and the cash the world’s largest nation generates for the NBA.

That backfired, and Silver came out with a stronger second statement that backed Morey’s right to free speech. Since then, the league has worked to emphasize that position.

In an interview at a TIME Magazine event this week, Silver added to that sentiment saying China asked for Morey to be fired and the league said no. “We made clear that we were being asked to fire him, by the Chinese government, by the parties we dealt with, government and business. We said there’s no chance that’s happening. There’s no chance we’ll even discipline him.”

The Chinese government denied this, and now Chinese State media is saying there will be retribution for Silver. From the South China Morning Post:

Chinese state media has warned that NBA commissioner Adam Silver will face “retribution” for defaming China in the latest twist to a dispute that began with a basketball team executive tweeting his support for the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong…

“Silver has spared no effort to portray himself as a fighter for free speech and used freedom of speech as an excuse to cover for Morey, who voiced his support for the violent actors in Hong Kong,” it said. “This has crossed the bottom line of the Chinese people.”

Silver’s handling of the controversy had proved his “double standards”, the broadcaster said, adding that he had “defamed” China on the international stage.

“To please some American politicians, Silver has fabricated lies out of nothing and has sought to paint China as unforgiving,” it said.

Silver didn’t fabricate this. We’re all smart enough to know how this went down: Chinese officials would never outright say “you need to fire Morey” but they could strongly imply it with words and actions. Silver’s phrasing on this — that it was “made clear that we were being asked to fire him” — suggests precisely this scenario. It’s how people with power ask for something unethical or illegal, whether we’re talking mob bosses or politicians, the ask is strongly implied but not direct, allowing denial later.

China wanted its pound of flesh, maybe to fire Morey but at least a public rebuke and fine/suspension. They got none of it. Now they can use Silver’s comment — clearly aimed at the domestic market to bolster the NBA’s image in the US — to cause a little more pain. China has shown it can hit the NBA’s bottom line, it flexed its muscle, but how far does either side really want it to progress?

As we have been saying all along, this issue is not going away anytime soon. It may fade from the spotlight, but the NBA/China relationship is a story that will be a cloud over this entire season.