Detroit recently honored the 1989 champion Pistons, the beloved "Bad Boys," on a night when LeBron James and the Heat were in town, which was likely done to (a) guarantee a full house and (b) give the sellout crowd something to cheer about.
On any other night when basketball is played at the Palace, fans are free to stretch out because the seat next to them is often empty, and to be painfully honest, they really don't boo much. Things have gotten much worse than that.
There may be no sadder story in the NBA than the steady collapse and decay of the Pistons, once one of the best-run and most-profitable organizations around, now resembling something more like the legendary Motor City mistake, The Edsel. The franchise that gave us back-to-back titles, the pre-weirdo Dennis Rodman, the best little man to ever play the game, Larry Brown's band of no-stars, brass-knuckle intimidation and almost a decade of dominance is grasping in vain for respectability.
General manager Joe Dumars, who once walked on water in Detroit, first as a player and for a while as an executive, is about to drown without the benefit of a life preserver. Everyone knows his contract won't be renewed once the season mercifully ends, and while that will buy the Pistons a little local goodwill for a minute, they're a mishmash unit that's about to embark on a three-to-four year rebuilding plan.
There are two questions that devoted yet woozy Pistons fans are asking today:
1) How did we get here?
2) Where are we going?
The first one may be easy to answer. Bill Davidson was arguably the best owner in sports, certainly in the same league as Steinbrenner and Buss and Kraft, at the very least. He built the Palace in the Detroit suburbs, where the money was. He hired Jack McCloskey and Chuck Daly to run the team, and later, Brown. Years before it became standard travel, he bought a private plane, "Roundball One," so his players would be spared the rigors of flying commercial. Everything he touched turned to gold.
Hard to believe now, but the Pistons reached the conference finals six straight years, a streak that ended with Davidson's death in 2009. They've missed the playoffs every year since 2010, haven't had a winning season since 2008 and gone through eight coaches since 2003.
The short reign of Karen Davidson (Bill's widow) as owner was disastrous. She didn't want the team and put it in poor hands before selling. She kept Dumars from making moves that could've helped. Of course, Dumars didn't help his cause with a pair of deadly and pricey free agent signings: first, Charlie Villanueva and Ben Gordon, then Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings.
But there's more: Dumars, a notoriously poor drafter even during the good times (Darko!), has whiffed on many players when the Pistons had high draft picks, passing up Paul George, Kemba Walker, Klay Thompson, Trey Burke, Michael Carter-Williams. His teams since 2008 have been low on chemistry; assembling a current front line of Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe and Smith was an awful idea the moment it was done. He traded Chauncey Billups for Allen Iverson. He overpaid to keep Tayshaun Prince and Rip Hamilton. And on and on.
Basically, everything that worked for Dumars in his first six or so years on the job have failed him in the last six years. That's why the Pistons are in a desperate state.
So… what's next? What can be done?
"We'll do what we always do and re-evaluate," said owner Tom Gores.
Well, his first evaluation should be a cinch. Gores will wave goodbye to Dumars about five minutes after the season ends and begin shopping for new leadership. That's a given. He needs to find a visionary (easier said than done), someone who's salary cap-savvy with a sharp eye toward building through the draft, since the Pistons will most likely be in the lottery next year. There might be some interest in giving Billups a role in the front office, but he has no experience in running a team or scouting or negotiating trades.
Next is a coach. Gores can call Tom Izzo, although getting Izzo to leave Michigan State is probably a pipe dream unless Gores promises major money and power. And even then, hiring college coaches are always a mixed bag. Remember when the Nets handed the franchise over to John Calipari?
Bill Laimbeer would be a good name to start with. Maybe Stan Van Gundy. No matter what they decide, the Pistons need more stability at coach than they've had over the last decade.
The roster might take a while to fix. In order to erase one of his biggest mistakes, Dumars surrendered this year's top-eight protected first rounder to the Bobcats who took Gordon off his payroll (which allowed Dumars to spend $78 million on Smith and Jennings). Which means, there's a very real chance the Pistons won't take part in the deepest draft lottery in years, depending on how the standings shake out (they might still be able to keep the pick, if they lose enough).
The only keeper on the team is Drummond. Only 20, he's already a tremendous rebounder and improving defender. His offense remains a work in progress, but the biggest fear about Drummond is his surroundings. Next season he'll be on his fourth coach. How much effect is losing having on him? Is he developing bad habits?
Monroe is a restricted free agent this summer and the Pistons need to decide to keep him or Smith, but not both. They play the same position. Smith isn't a small forward but is asked to play there, which gives him the green light to launch those stomach-churning three-pointers (he's hitting 24 percent). It all depends on what each player might fetch in a trade. Because he's younger and will likely come cheaper, Monroe is the most attractive of the two.
There's nothing they can do immediately about Jennings, whose contract has two more years on it, but that shouldn't discourage the Pistons from drafting a point guard. Why lock in Jennings and his violent performance swings for the future?
As for free agents, the Pistons' next window will be in 2015. That summer, they'll have money to spend and perhaps a lottery pick to use. The Pistons will be major players and primed to take a step in the right direction, assuming they ace all of their major decisions.
In a move that reeked of desperation, Dumars bought Smith and Jennings last summer with the hopes of taking a short-cut and making the playoffs and no doubt saving his job. None of that appears to be on the verge of happening, and what he has created is basically a tear-down project for the next general manager.
So the question is, can the Pistons be saved? Can someone come in and salvage what's left and make a surprising quick turnaround, as Masai Ujiri is doing in Toronto? It would take plenty of luck, some savvy maneuvering and another downtrodden year for the competition in the East. That's asking a lot, though. Maybe too much.
In the meantime, until further notice, nostalgia is the biggest basketball attraction in Detroit. If they start rolling out members of the 2003-04 championship team for a 10-year celebration and reunion, that'll once again tell you where the Pistons once were, and how far they've fallen.