Far, far away, beyond mishandled trades and mortgaged futures, is a small, post-apocalyptic patch of ineptitude. The land is barren, exempt of any wildlife, it’s nooks and crannies littered with the broken remains of titanic contracts that arrived with great fanfare and were too big to survive under their own weight. A long sheet of paper flaps in the wind; between its burned edges one can barely make out the scribbled digits of 29 phone numbers. You may feel an urge to dial them, but they will offer neither salvation nor draft picks.
You know not how to leave, only that you can not be here much longer. But as you try to exit whence you entered, you only submerge yourself deeper in the debris and the tar. Alternative exits may exist – they have to exist, right? – but as far as the horizon stretches, you can not see them.
This is NBA Purgatory. It can be geographically traced to somewhere between 30 and 40 wins, though nobody can definitively pinpoint its location, as the maps used to find it are inherently sullied by the navigator’s own situation and experiences. To the Mike Woodson era Hawks, Purgatory spans great territories, all the way to the second round of the playoffs. To the Daryl Morey Rockets, it is as negligible as a Royce White salary dump.
To the Detroit Pistons, NBA Purgatory has become a synonym for existence. Ever since the 2009 Cavs gave them a final violent nudge out of the playoff picture, Detroit has been a hotbed of basketball nothingness of the worst kind, a loss waiting to happen in contests both basketball and ping-pong ball related with a borderline unwatchable product at every step. The Pistons were relegated to finding fake enthusiasm in the annual sacrifice of the coach, forced to biding their time, playing the draft crapshoot once a year, hoping to turn Purgatory’s namesake upon itself by purging themselves of all stasis through erosion.
But something about the process went horribly wrong, as the Pistons’ patience imploded and trapped them in their own rubble. Whatever the source behind Detroit’s 2013 offseason – a win-now demand from above? A GM that was no longer qualified to take part in the proceedings? – the signings of Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings threw the Pistons back into the wasteland, nullifying past inspired choices in Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond and once again casting darkness upon the future.
Jennings and Smith cloud nearly everything. Paying Greg Monroe the type of extension he is certain to demand this summer, big man tax and David Falk tax included, was troublesome enough of a prospect when only accounting for his questionable defense; cutting a check for diminishing returns at a power forward spot that includes Smith is an even scarier proposition. Drummond and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope need a quiet surface and occasional possession of the basketball to develop; Jennings and Smith prefer to alternate ill-advised 22 footers with ill-advised 24 footers. Joe Dumars has been the franchise’s general manager for over a decade; now, finally, the final nail has been driven into the coffin.
Detroit being so close to the end of the tunnel before southpawing itself to death can be cause for both optimism and pessimism. If the only mistake was signing Josh and Brandon, then for the love of god, just trade them! At worst, if no deal is available, all Detroit has to do is run the cycle again without the final step. Jennings expires in 2 years, Smoove in 3, and in the mean time there is some cap flexibility to work with; surely, this is salvageable, right?
Of course, they weren’t the only mistakes. The franchise hasn’t hired a coach it could stand behind since… Flip Saunders? Larry Brown? The admittedly talented pieces that have been accrued before the Lefty Luau desecrated 2013-14 are an odd combination of incomplete and underdeveloped, and are soon to demand more money for their troubles. Adding more talent until the situation makes sense could take even more time than it usually does for the NBA also-ran, as Charlotte are still owed a pick from the Ben Gordon-Corey Maggette trade. The only bonafide building block to work with is Drummond.
And maybe that’s the solution. If Drummond is indeed what Detroit thinks he can be, he could ultimately render all other struggles irrelevant. His development is the only curve that matters, and the Collective Bargaining Agreement ensures the Pistons will control his contractual status until 2019 at the earliest. That should, in theory, be enough time for everything else: letting the rest of this godforsaken roster to slowly dissolve; finding an actual coach (SHEED SHEED SHEED); determining a preferred style of play that sells better than grating nails on a chalkboard for 24 seconds at a time; and the general re-orientation of the franchise with the prospect of productive NBA team building.
It’s a slow process and a painful sell to both fanbase and ownership, but what’s the alternative? A GM looking to save his job gambling on Smith, followed by a newly extended Monroe going gangbusters? Brandon Jennings “getting it”, year 6 serving as the tipping point years 1 through 5 couldn’t be?
A full-fledged Penguin Cleanse may immediately cost the Pistons Monroe, and may add a few Will Bynums and Jonas Jerebkoes or even a Caldwell-Pope or a Singler to the eventual casualty lists. But it will also survive the contracts of 2013, giving the eventual Dumars successor the means and the mandate to target realistic complementary pieces with whichever resources will eventually be at his disposal, rather than instant fixes. It’ll be a long process, but long processes are almost always necessary to escape NBA Purgatory and tell the tale.