The Pistons’ season is one of the strangest in recent history. Even before the first game was played things were unusual, as Greg Monroe became the first recognizable free agent to accept a qualifying offer instead of signing an extension. Obviously the Josh Smith saga got most of the headlines during the season and even when he was no longer with the team, his name was at the forefront of every discussion about the Pistons.
One underrated storyline surrounding the team was how Brandon Jennings was surprisingly excelling since Smith’s departure and what that would mean for his career and potentially for the franchise.
Jennings was averaging 20 points and seven assists on 40 percent shooting from outside. He was finally living up to the potential many though he had and on a winning team, no less. That 12-4 streak was electric and was changing many people’s perception of the mercurial point guard. It was also opening up all sorts of possibilities for the Pistons, from trading him and his now-appropriate contract for assets to holding on to him and looking to see what the ceiling of the Jennings-Monroe-Drummond trio really was. A playoff berth seemed almost a foregone conclusion with the way the team was playing, which would have made Stan Van Gundy’s first season with the franchise a success.
And then, because the basketball gods can be cruel, Jennings went down for the season with an Achilles injury that could derail his career.
Without Jennings now and potentially for the future, the Pistons find themselves at a crossroads. Should they try to regain momentum and pursue the eight seed? That would mean trading for a back-up point guard, as D.J. Augustin is now filling in as a starter and clearly Spencer Dinwiddie is not the answer off the bench. It was rumored that the Knicks’ Pablo Prigioni was on Stan Van Gundy’s radar, but Van Gundy quickly came out and denied that the team was ready to trade future assets for immediate help. If Van Gundy is not even considering trading a second round pick for a decent bench player, catching the Hornets for the eighth seed seems unlikely.
Yet bottoming out doesn’t seem like an option after the streak either, as now out-tanking other teams in search of a top five pick would be hard. There are other implications to taking a step back as well involving the future of the franchise that go beyond draft positioning. Greg Monroe would be more likely to stay if the team was good. The Pistons will have cap space. There will be some intriguing free agents who could help Detroit and would look at their situation in a different light if they were a playoff team and as bleak as it sounds, this could be their best shot at making the postseason for the next few years.
So what’s the plan? The Pistons seem unsure, which makes them one of the most fascinating teams in the league right now. As the season goes on, it’s easy to see what most franchises are trying to do. Some teams fancy themselves contenders while others are in full-on tanking mode. Mediocrity is death in the NBA, so everyone is trying to avoid it, altering their game plans as soon as they figure out who they are. And then there are the Pistons, who in a matter of weeks have gone from train wreck to up-and-coming young team and are now in a state of stasis, too cautious to make a move and with too many things at stake to stand pat.
Before the season, thinking that an injury to Brandon Jennings could have that big an impact on a team’s outlook would have been lunacy yet here we are. In that spirit, making predictions seems absurd. Even the players’ on court performance reflects how in flux everything is on that franchise right now, with a 20-point loss to the 76ers followed by a comfortable win against the Rockets. There really is no way to figure out what’s happening in Detroit right now. It’s that level of unpredictability in a league in which order typically reigns that makes the Pistons more interesting than they have been in years, on and off the court.