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The Eastern Conference’s House of Cards

Flickr/Lori Bowen

Flickr/Lori Bowen

When I was a kid one of the things I would do for fun to kill time was to build card houses. It’s just one of those things that you pick up in a daycare center when you get sick of things like Legos and Lincoln Logs and such. Somehow I managed to come into contact with someone who had learned how to build card houses and actually get them to stay upright, which, if you’ve tried building a house of cards, is not always an easy thing to do. Even when you do managed to get the cards to stay up, you have to hope someone doesn’t walk by briskly or even so much as cough or sneeze otherwise all of your efforts will have been for naught. Still, there is a trick to it all: it helps if you curve the short ends of the cards and stack them in a triangle shape to get them to balance. Is it cheating? Maybe, but it’s still pretty difficult to build upon that anyway.

Just like building a house of cards is far less sturdy than building a house of Legos or Lincoln Logs, it’s also not a great idea to take a house of cards approach to building an NBA team. In particular, the Pistons, Cavs and Bucks have all attempted this and have failed miserably so far. What they saw in their teams from the season before to think that constructing their teams this way was anything more than an ill-fated longshot at success is a bit of a head-scratcher. Now, this has cost the Pistons their coach, the Cavs their general manager and the Bucks their…I don’t know…they’re the Bucks, what did they have to lose?

Joe Dumars signed Brandon Jennings and Josh Smith while bringing in Maurice Cheeks to put it altogether. The Pistons had been a middling team for many years and were looking to expedite their own developmental process. This is in spite of the fact that they already had Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe in the frontcourt, but Dumars swore up and down this would all be fine because they were smart basketball players who could overcome any potential spacing issues that would arise.

On Sunday, the Pistons sat at 21-29 and just half a game out of a playoff spot, but 21-29 is not what these moves were made for and Dumars acted to save some space. Ultimately, it would be Cheeks who would take the blame. The point has been belabored to death that it should be Dumars’ job on the line as-much-if-not-more than Cheeks since he built the team, but it should be noted that by keeping Dumars in office until and postponing the coaching search until that time as well means the team will have the opportunity to start fresh with a new general manager and coach. This is type of change that the Pistons organization has needed for a time as Dumars has burned through coach after coach while trying to make his rosters work together.

Looking past this season’s disappointing team, the Pistons do have some hope. They do have Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe (As well as Monroe’s contract situation, but you could have worse problems) in the frontcourt and an above replacement level point guard with young guys like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Kyle Singler off of the bench. Deciding if guys like Rodney Stuckey and Will Bynum are part of their future will be another topic to address, but at least this is far from a barren wasteland.

What– why are you looking at me like that? I didn’t end that sentence with “barren wasteland” to segue into the Cavs on purpose, because they’re really not. Like the Pistons, they have their players, but the shaky foundation that ex-GM Chris Grant built the team upon was exactly the type of high-risk/high-reward gamble that winds up blowing up in a team’s face more often than not (See also: David Kahn signing Brandon Roy). Yet, if any team’s actions exemplified the house of cards approach it was the Cavs in that it could be pretty cool, but ultimately wind up blowing over at any given moment.

It’s not that Grant’s plan was entirely unrealistic. Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson had multiple NBA seasons under their belts, as well as star Kyrie Irving. In addition to these two, the team signed another ball-dominant guard in Jarrett Jack to go with Irving and Waiters, and consequently creating a redundancy at the position. Grant also brought in Bynum on a player friendly deal in the hopes that he would regain his all-star form and appear to be a bargain. Of course, there was the Anthony Bennett pick, another card that was unable to fall into place as the former UNLV forward has struggled with conditioning as a result of shoulder surgery, asthma and sleep apnea. Yet, that hasn’t happened. Waiters reportedly got kicked out of practice, Bynum was waived and Irving’s growth has stagnated because of a reported lack of effort. Not even the Luol Deng trade could resuscitate the Cavs’ playoff hopes and it was Grant who paid the price and is now out of the job.

To build a winning team you do have to take some risks and gambles, but it appears that Grant misread where Waiters and Thompson were in their development and Bynum’s actual interest in playing basketball. Again, the Cavs have players and talent, but they didn’t have the patience to wait that out. Owner Dan Gilbert seemed to be hellbent on making the playoffs this season but every team develops at their own pace and this team just wasn’t their yet, so there is some blame to be shared there between himself and Grant. But give credit to the Cavs for recognizing that the way things were being done wasn’t working and changes had to be made. Cleveland did appoint an interim GM, but it will remain to be seen if he or another general manager would have interest in retaining Mike Brown to coach this young roster into the future.

Our sad tour through the dregs of the Eastern Conference concludes with the Bucks. This summer the Bucks appeared to finally be entering rebuilding mode when they acquired Brandon Knight from the Pistons in the Brandon Jennings sign-and-trade. Then, once John Hammond realized just how stripped down this team was going to be, he went out and signed OJ Mayo, Caron Butler and Zaza Pachulia to, what I presume, take minutes from their prospects. They even brought in Luke Ridnour and Gary Neal, which isn’t all bad considering having a veteran point guard behind Knight isn’t the worst thing in the world. The plan clearly seemed to shift from a rebuild to making another run at the eighth seed and a draft pick that would keep them from landing that level of impact player they haven’t had since Ray Allen’s prime.

Now, the Bucks are stuck somewhere. They have talent, but likely lack the level to bring them out of it with the current personnel. At least for their own sake things have still managed to backfire despite Hammond’s attempt at keeping them on the fringes of playoff contention. While they should be able to land a high pick, the regression of youngsters like Larry Sanders and Ersan Ilyasova has to be concerning if it continues beyond this season. In fact, their future depends on it and could ultimately determine how long their absence from the postseason will be. Fortunately for the Bucks their offseason has yet to cost anyone their job in the regular season

As I said above, building a house of cards can be fun, but also risky. For every successful attempt that you have, there are many more that wind up proving fruitless. For these teams above, their gambles have blown over before ever standing upright. From here they will have to reassess their building approach and try going a different route with different methods. You can’t eliminate the risks (Think the Thunder if they didn’t draft Russell Westbrook where they did or if Daryl Morey didn’t spend half a decade stockpiling assets to land James Harden and Dwight Howard) because you can’t be too careful either, but you have to find that proper balance. As we’ve seen, when this is out of balance and you lack the steady hand, you’ll knock over the few standing pieces of your card house.

Derek James

In addition to writing for Hardwood Paroxysm, Derek James covers the Minnesota Timberwolves for Howlin’ T-Wolf and the Charlotte Bobcats for SB Nation’s Rufus on Fire. He often finds himself writing too many words on irrelevant players. Andray Blatche and Isaiah Rider follow him on Twitter. Unrelated to LeBron James, but taught him everything he knows.