ProBasketballTalk 2013-14 Preview: Detroit Pistons

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Last season: The Pistons went 29-53, their fifth straight losing season and fourth straight season outside the playoffs. Andre Drummond emerged as a possible franchise player, producing at elite levels to match his impressive physical profile. Greg Monroe also operated at a near-All Star level for the second straight season, though somewhat ignores his defensive shortcomings. But the surrounding talent was lacking, and Lawrence Frank’s coaching was too grating.

Signature highlight from last season: The first sequence was incredible. That Drummond could do it again with Dwyane Wade’s attention drawn is astounding.

Key player changes: Talent!

The Pistons signed Josh Smith, Chauncey Billups and Luigi Datome, sign-and-traded for Brandon Jennings and drafted Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Tony Mitchell. It’s not entirely clear how those players fit together, but in isolation, they’re certainly better than what Detroit has had in recent seasons.

Brandon Knight, Jose Calderon and Jason Maxiell were lost in the process, minor casualties in the path of raising the Pistons’ ceiling.

The Pistons also exchanged Lawrence Frank for Maurice Cheeks.

Keys to the Pistons’ season:

1) How soon can Maurice Cheeks identify a viable rotation? The Pistons have three players who, individually, definitely deserve major roles: Andre Drummond, Josh Smith and Greg Monroe. Unfortunately, none of those three have have proven an ability to successfully shoot outside the paint, which could make floor spacing difficult when they share the court. Brandon Jennings stands a tier below, and he’ll also definitely play a big role. The next tier is packed with of varying skillsets, and it’s essentially comprised of the rest of the active roster. That’s a lot for the first-year coach to juggle. The Pistons’ early record, while Cheeks is experimenting with the rotation, could make the difference in whether they make the playoffs.

2) Is Andre Drummond the real deal? In limited minutes last season – obligatory boo, hiss for Lawrence Frank – Drummond played at an elite level. Whether he can maintain that production while playing longer stretches, likely including a higher percentage of his minutes coming against starters, will not only be crucial to the Pistons’ season, but also their long-term outlook.

3) Make the playoffs. Unfortunately for the Pistons, this isn’t a question. Joe Dumars’ job seems to hinge on whether this happens, plus Detroit owes the Bobcats at top-8 protected pick in the loaded 2014 draft. The Pistons are too good to finish with one of the league’s worst eight records. So barring lottery luck, missing the postseason would be an utter disaster for Detroit.

Why you should watch the Pistons: They’re really athletic, and athletic teams often do exciting things. Brandon Jennings has boasted Detroit will turn into Lob City with him tossing oops to Josh Smith and Andre Drummond. If the Pistons are committed to running – they haven’t been in a long time – this could be a fun team. Floor spacing, at least the shooting-outside-the-paint aspect, doesn’t matter as much in transition.

Prediction: 43-39. The Pistons should make they playoffs. Beyond the Heat, Pacers, Nets, Bulls and Knicks, the East is pretty open. Joe Dumars has sacrificed a little bit of long-term upside in order to maximize postseason odds for 2013-14, and in a season where tanking is even more incentivized than usual, he’s probably done enough. If everything comes together perfectly, the Pistons could win a playoff series, but more likely than not, this is a one-and-done team. Still, in Detroit, that’s major progress.

Michael Avenatti charged with stealing money Hassan Whiteside intended to pay ex-girlfriend

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Heat center Hassan Whiteside became the first player in NBA history to go from a minimum salary one season to a max salary the next.

Some of that money allegedly got embezzled by Michael Avenatti.

Avenatti – the infamous lawyer who represented Stormy Daniels, who claimed she was paid to keep quiet about having an affair with Donald Trump – has been charged with attempted extortion of Nike and stealing from other clients. One of those other clients: Whiteside’s former girlfriend, Alexis Gardner.

Michael Finnegan of the Los Angeles Times:

An actress and barista, she’d hired him just a few weeks before to negotiate a settlement of a potential lawsuit against Whiteside. It’s unclear what she would have alleged. Avenatti quickly struck a $3-million deal, and the $2.75 million was Whiteside’s first payment.

Avenatti, prosecutors say, was entitled to take just over $1 million in legal fees, leaving the rest for Gardner.

Instead, they allege, Avenatti hid Whiteside’s payment from her and immediately took $2.5 million to buy a share of a private jet.

Report: Lakers have no plans to replace Magic Johnson, who’ll still help team recruit FAs

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Magic Johnson’s stunning resignation as Lakers president caused a commotion.

It didn’t create a power vacuum.

Rob Pelinka is clearly in charge. He’s the highest-ranking member of the front office. His title – general manager – is the one many teams give to the leader of their basketball operations. He’s running the Lakers’ coaching search.

Though they’ve been linked to big-name candidates for president, the Lakers could easily keep the status quo with Pelinka running the show. And it sounds as if that’s what Lakers owner Jeanie Buss will do.

Tania Ganguli of the Los Angeles Times:

Buss has no plans to hire someone to replace Johnson, who is still expected to be part of the Lakers’ free-agent recruiting this summer.

Allowing Pelinka to hire a head coach – which, again, he’s in the process of doing – then supplanting him would be absurd. At least it seems the Lakers aren’t doing that.

But Pelinka was part of the organization while it made a comedy of errors. The former agent also had front-office experience until getting hired with Johnson a couple years ago. It’s hard to believe he’s the right choice to lead the team as it enters this critical stage.

LeBron James is 34. The Lakers will have max cap space this summer. Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart are progressing toward establishing clearer value – one way or the other.

To entrust Pelinka in this situation, Buss ought to have a clear explanation for why Pelinka doesn’t deserve a fair share of blame for all the mistakes that occurred the last couple years. There are plenty of people, inside and outside the Lakers, who question him.

The wildest part about this report: Johnson still helping the Lakers recruit this summer. He’s an all-time great player and charismatic. But he also just said while resigning:

What I didn’t like is the backstabbing, the whispering. I don’t like that. I don’t like a lot of things that went on that didn’t have to go on.

How will he sell that to free agents – especially if Pelinka, suspected to be whom Johnson is referring to, remains in charge?

Russell Westbrook goes from ‘Next question’ to ‘That’s a good question. Not sure’ (video)

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Russell Westbrook can be a pain.

Pain to his opponents. Pain to his teammates. Pain to the media.

Sometimes, it seems Westbrook even takes pride in being a jerk. Which is fine. His cutthroat attitude is part of who he is, and it has gotten him a long way.

Lately, Westbrook has clashed with Berry Tramel of The Oklahoman. For months, Westbrook has answered all Tramel’s questions with, “Next question.” Yet, Tramel keeps asking them – as he should. Westbrook has earned control over a lot of things. Tramel shouldn’t cede control of his job to Westbrook.

The back-and-forth has gotten increased prominence during the playoffs, when postgame press conferences are nationally televised. Both sides have found plenty of support. Westbrook’s fans love that his intensity never relents. Many also respect Tramel’s professionalism.

Four years ago, Westbrook infamously told Tramel, “I just don’t like you.” Westbrook got into it with Tramel again two years ago. But Tramel continues to cover the Thunder the best he can.

Likewise, Westbrook is trying to lead Oklahoma City the best he can. That means picking battles, even small ones like this, and pushing himself to win them all.

But after the Thunder’s Game 4 loss to the Trail Blazers last night, Westbrook finally gave an inch. But just an inch.

Tramel asked how the Thunder’s defense of Damian Lillard changed from the first half to the second half.

“That’s a good question,” Westbrook said. “Not sure.”

Tramel asked about the lessons learned about overcoming a 3-1 deficit to the Grizzlies in the 2014 playoffs. (Oklahoma City trailed 2-1 and 3-2 in that series, but never 3-1).

“Really don’t know,” Westbrook said.

For Westbrook, those answers were a huge breakthrough. They surprised everyone, even Tramel. Just a few days ago, the columnist predicted Westbrook wouldn’t change his two-word answers anytime soon: “He’s not going to give in this playoff series.”

Maybe this means the series is over.

Raptors coach Nick Nurse leaves mouth agape a loooong time after odd call (video)

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The Raptors got called for an extremely quick three-second violation during their Game 4 win over the Magic yesterday.

Toronto coach Nick Nurse couldn’t believe it.

Really couldn’t believe it.

Just couldn’t believe it one bit.