The panoramic landscape of a decade plus in Detroit introduced us to fun luminaries such as Darko Milicic, Eminem, and J Dilla—and before you know it, morphed into Boban Marjanovic, Big Sean and Danny Brown. A city unfortunately known for its desolation and despair is clawing its way back up in NBA circles, and more importantly, giving hope to die-hards of a once prosperous basketball mecca.
However, strangely enough, the NBA is not a bastion of hope and prosperity—especially for teams in the middle realm, a realm where many would unfairly slot Detroit in after an 8th place finish last season with a roster devoid of any top level superstars.
The quicksand in the NBA is at a noticeably higher threshold—the lower level is inexplicably spared, and just as beneficial as the top level for in flux franchises needing top-flight fresh talent—leaving the damp mezzo as a shaky netherworld full of spooky goblins, ghouls and treadmills.
But in the city of Detroit, just moving the needle from the cellar to the bottom of the stairs is newsworthy in itself. They quietly had to endure six straight seasons of win totals maxing out at 32 and plateauing at 25, with little relevance to outsiders since the 07-08 season. Detroit deserves to be lauded for exceeding expectations in a year, last year, where expectations yet again had a giant question mark above their head like an MMO quest giver.
What’s more interesting is how Detroit seems hell-bent on only dipping a toe in that “middle ground”, with rude intentions of foraying into the elite. Lest we forget, despite being swept in the playoffs, the Pistons were throwing meaty punches at the Cavaliers for four games—a seldom felt impact for LeBron James and company to endure during the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Cut into the three-tiered cake that is the Eastern Conference, and it will not reveal truly clean layers. The Cavaliers are prominently displayed at the top. You can faintly make out the Toronto Raptors and the Boston Celtics slightly below them, and the rest of the teams are a jumbled mess of icing and filling that work as variables to the small amount of constants.
This is how you bake a cake in Detroit.
After serving 14 years as the President of Basketball Operations, Joe Dumars stepped down in 2014, and with it, a championship banner that hangs proudly in the rafters of The Palace. He boasts a laundry list of accomplishments that include Ben Wallace, Richard Hamilton, Rasheed Wallace, Andre Drummond and six straight ECF appearances—successes that any GM would gladly retire with. But Dumars watched himself slowly cascade into the villain of a city he loved, amassing a sizable lineup of misses to match the hits, with names like Darko Milicic, Allen Iverson, Charlie Villanueva and Ben Gordon marring a once pristine surface.
Dumars took his shots, and had to own up to them when they fell short. The Pistons eventually realized that everything good usually comes to an end, and that scary notion of change must be acted upon. To rise to new heights is to deflate and start over.
The Baking Soda
The baking soda is Stan Van Gundy, whose arrival in 2014 slowly steered the Pistons away from dangerously choppy waters, brought them to not-so-bad seas, and intends on taking them close enough to catch a glimpse of the shoreline without promising any cocktail umbrellas in drinks.
Stan Van Gundy is gruff but affable in a “it’s fun to poke the bear” sort of way, and at times, as pleasant to run into after a mistake for players as it would be for Dick Jones running into RoboCop inside of an office building. Former Piston and current Orlando Magic guard Jodie Meeks assessed Van Gundy as being notorious for his “over-preparedness” at times, which seemed like a small dig at his former coach, but quickly added in how great he was to play for and how that’s needed in a coach to get to the next level. In a truly love/hate world, Meeks seemingly falls into the middle. JJ Redick and Marcin Gortat have both sung Van Gundy praises, while we all know where Shaquille O'Neal lands on the spectrum.
The biggest strength of Van Gundy is dealing in comfort and familiarity when it comes to both roster and coaching moves. Many of the same assistants he had during his Magic days have migrated to Detroit, with a number of his former players like Malik Allen, Quentin Richardson, and Pat Garrity obtaining valuable positions inside of the franchise.
But his most underrated strength is his track record thus far in wheeling and dealing players. He flipped a couple of second rounders, Brandon Jennings, Kyle Singler and Ersan Ilyasova for Reggie Jackson, Marcus Morris and Tobias Harris. That’s a YouTube haul video for the ages if I’ve ever seen one.
The Pistons were awkwardly re-gifted an extra infusion of youth when the Donatas Motiejunas trade was nixed at the deadline last year. And whether he serves to exist as the ghost of Donatas or a Coachella Tupac-esque hologram, Henry Ellenson now makes up one of the few truly young (23 or younger) talents on the team.
KCP is a Kinder Egg. Well, not without consequent legal issues since they’re banned in the United States as a choking hazard, but even at the relatively ripened age of twenty-three, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope stands to improve and surprise critics while still on the Detroit Pistons. He’s a solid contributor on both ends of the floor at times, and projects to be a markedly improved shooter from the three-point line, as he was advertised out of Georgia. Sometimes, all it takes is time.
But the goose laying the Golden Egg incubated Stanley Johnson. Johnson combines a bouncy compactness with infectious energy, and innocuous well-meaning inexperience that benefits him as much as it detracts from him. Still, two or three years from now, he could be the alpha dog leading this team to golden glory. All three of these pieces have been, and will become vital for the outlook and the future of the Pistons, shells and all.
We’re not going to debate the usage, health consequences and preference of soy, 2% or whole, but I would gladly debate how much the usage of Tobias Harris, Marcus Morris and Reggie Jackson meant for the Pistons’ turnaround last season. The milk are the lifeblood of many-a-franchise, known commodities that will produce solid NBA starter minutes when thrown out on the floor, adding moments of truly spectacular play mixed in with a few clunkers.
Even more exciting is that new arrivals Jon Leuer, Ish Smith and Boban Marjanovic have a chance to become the next additions to the jug.
The weight of the world once balanced on the giant, hairy shoulders of Andre Drummond in Detroit. Luckily, the cavalry arrived just in time to help him see out a winning season. As the flour, Drummond has been steadily and intently mixed into the team for four seasons now— transforming himself from a project to realized potential, and from realized potential to a franchise player with a savvier offensive game than any scout ever envisioned.
While Drummond faintly summons the brolic spirits of Detroit past, he is not immune to heavy criticism despite him working as the current face of the franchise. Drummond does not have the natural instinct of a Ben Wallace on defense to make people fail to remember his free throw woes, not to mention the wind-out-of-the-sails effect that it has on the game when he’s being hacked on purpose. Regardless, Drummond was an important ingredient as anyone for the six-years-in-the-making resurgence of the Detroit Pistons.
The sugar represents what has yet to come—and at the same time, the steps that it took to reach the present. The Pistons intend to ignite the rebirth of a city one step at a time—almost like baking a cake. It doesn’t always rise when you want it to rise, but the steps taken, especially in the losing years, can make a huge difference towards the final result in the winning ones.