Extra Pass: Are the Detroit Pistons putting a new twist on tanking or being lousy?

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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.

Makes sense.

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.

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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

Report: Celtics “most likely” offer Jayson Tatum a max contract after season

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This should not be a surprise.

Jayson Tatum is a cornerstone of the Celtics now and going forward: 23.6 points and 7.1 rebounds a game, an efficient 56.2 true shooting percentage, a shot creator, an athletic finisher at the rim, and a guy who shot 39.8 percent from three. Tatum was an All-Star in his third season and will draw third-team All-NBA votes (whenever those votes happen).

Tatum is eligible for an extension to his rookie contract after this season. Is he worth a full max contract? Yes, especially considering he is 22 and still improving by leaps each season.

ESPN’s Brian Windhorst said on SportsCenter the Celtics are expected to offer Tatum the max (hat tip Bleacher Report).

“If Jayson Tatum is the superstar that they envisioned when they began this whole rebuilding process when they traded Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce for all of those draft picks hoping to land a player like this, we could see ‘Glory Days’ for the Celtics again. But it’s very much up in the air, and I’m gonna tell ya, they’re gonna have to pay him like it because after this season ends, he is going to get most likely a max contract. They’re going to bet that he becomes that player.”

It’s fair to argue that max contracts should be reserved for true alphas, true No. 1s and maybe a few No. 2 players on a team, and that Tatum has yet to prove he is one of those. Boston would be betting he becomes that player — but right now that looks like a good bet. More importantly, last summer the Celtics locked up Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown on four-year contracts, sign Tatum and the Celtics have a core that will have them at or near the top of the East for years.

Exactly what a max contract will look like this coming off-season after the coronavirus hit to the league’s finances is another question, one nobody has an answer to right now. Under the old cap, it would have been $181 million over five years (and if he made All-NBA teams it could jump to $218 million), but those numbers don’t apply to the new reality. Even if Tatum signs the max offer this summer, he will make his $9.9 million next season then be paid whatever the max is for him starting in the 2021-22 season (and again, it’s impossible to say what the league’s finances will be at that point).

Pay the man his money.  Expect Boston to make the offer whenever the offseason arrives.

Zion Williamson’s attorneys work to avoid him answering questions about improper benefits at Duke

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MIAMI (AP) — Attorneys for NBA rookie Zion Williamson seek to block his former marketing agent’s effort to have the ex-Duke star answer questions about whether he received improper benefits before playing for the Blue Devils.

In a Florida court filing last week, Williamson’s attorneys say those questions are “nothing more than a fishing expedition aimed at tarnishing Williamson’s reputation” and designed to “maximize potential embarrassment and media coverage in an attempt to improperly gain settlement leverage.”

“Plaintiffs’ irrelevant and invasive requests are designed to harass and not calculated to lead to discovery of relevant evidence,” Friday’s filing states.

It is the latest exchange in the fight over the No. 1 overall NBA draft pick’s endorsement potential.

Prime Sports Marketing and company president Gina Ford filed her lawsuit last summer in Florida, accusing Williamson and the agency now representing him of breach of contract. Williamson filed his own lawsuit a week earlier in North Carolina to terminate a five-year contract with Prime Sports after moving to Creative Artists Agency LLC.

Ford’s attorneys had submitted questions this month asking whether the New Orleans Pelicans rookie or anyone on his behalf sought or accepted “money, benefits, favors or things of value” to sign with Duke. Those filings – offering no evidence of wrongdoing by Williamson or his family – sought answers within 30 days to establish facts under oath in the pretrial discovery process.

Williamson’s attorneys seek a stay while appealing the December denial of their motion to dismiss the Florida case based on lack of jurisdiction, or a protective order as an alternative.

At the heart of the dueling lawsuits over Williamson’s marketing rights is this: Williamson says the contract he signed with Prime Sports is illegal under North Carolina’s Uniform Athlete Agent Act (UAAA) because Ford was not registered with North Carolina to negotiate with amateur athletes (which Zion was at the time, having just played for Duke). Ford and Prime dispute that, saying this was a legal and binding negotiation.

One key reason NBA may return with 22 teams: Players want regular-season games

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Nothing is set in stone about an NBA return — at least not until next Thursday — but momentum seems to be building behind a plan that would bring 22 teams to the Orlando bubble.

That plan brings every team within six games of the playoffs when the season was halted into the competition, a total of 22 teams (13 from the West and nine from the East, the playoff teams plus Portland, New Orleans, Sacramento, San Antonio, Phoenix, and Washington). There would be some regular-season games played, likely five to eight, followed by a play-in tournament for the final playoff seeds, then the playoffs with full seven-game series each round. Exactly what that play-in tournament would look and if the NBA would stick with the conference playoff alignment or seed 1-16 is up in the air (although the conference alignment seems to have more backing).

Why that plan? For one, it gets more cities and more fan bases involved — and it happens to bring Zion Williamson and the Pelicans into the mix, a big television draw. It also could help a few teams reach a 70-game broadcast threshold with local broadcasters.

Mostly, however, the players want it because they get some games under them before the playoffs start, something Adrian Wojnarowski and Ramona Shelburne reported on at ESPN.

Regardless of how many teams are ultimately included in the playoffs, the National Basketball Players Association has consistently stressed that it wants several regular-season games to be played prior to the start of the playoffs, sources said. That has been a prevailing sentiment among several contending teams that prefer a tuneup before beginning the postseason, sources said.

A lot of players — influential players — have pushed for some regular season or meaningful games before the playoffs start. It’s about health, as trainers told us at NBC Sports, go from zero to 100 jumping straight into the playoffs and teams are asking for injuries. Players understand that.

Maybe only 20 teams end up in Orlando, that plan is on the table as well, but either way expect some regular-season games before the playoffs start. If the powerful players want it to happen, it will.

PBT Podcast: 2020 NBA Mock Draft crossover podcast, Part Deux

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We’re back at it… and not just drinking beer during a podcast. Although we do that, too.

For the third consecutive season, Rob Dauster of College Basketball Talk and I collaborated for a first-round mock draft. Rob knows the prospects better than anyone; I provide some knowledge about what the teams might be looking for. The result is a unique listening experience breaking down who will be picked where based on fit.

The first ten picks can be found over on the College Basketball Talk feed.

Here we finish off the lottery and run through the entire rest of the first round.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.

We want your questions for future podcasts, and your comments, so please email us at PBTpodcast@gmail.com.