Richard Hamilton, hampered by injuries this season, has a contract which will be difficult to move. (Clarence Tabb Jr./The Detroit News)
At a recent practice, Pistons coach John Kuester, enduring a season of frustration, had seen enough.
He screamed at his team and then punted the basketball as far as he could.
It has been that kind of season. The team that made six consecutive Eastern Conference finals thought it was starting a rebuilding process.
No one expected this -- multiple 10-game losing streaks, a 26-55 record entering tonight's finale in Minnesota, and little fan interest.
How could a team that seemed to have some promise fall so badly, so quickly?
The team was beset by injuries, especially to veteran leaders Richard Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince.
Hamilton went down in the opener, and Prince ruptured a disc days later.
Throw in a plethora of newcomers, from rookies Jonas Jerebko and Austin Daye to free agents Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva, and uncertainty certainly reigned.
The result? An 11-12 start.
But the bigger concern -- Hamilton returned in December as the Pistons lost 13 straight -- was not on the court. It was off the court, on paper.
General manager Joe Dumars chose not to make a move during the season or at the trade deadline. Instead, he wanted to ride out the season since, in his mind, there was a chance his veterans and new acquisitions could mesh and make a playoff run.
It never materialized.
"Prince and Hamilton are in the twilight of good careers," NBA TV's Shaun Powell said. "But those contracts are terrible. Someone would do the Pistons a favor to take those contracts."
Had Prince and Hamilton played to their usual potential earlier in the year, as opposed to being on the sidelines because of injuries, their trade value would've been higher. Hamilton is 32, and has two full seasons remaining on his contract at $12.6 million, with the 2012-13 season partially guaranteed.
Prince's contract runs through next season ($11.1 million), and he returned to a strong finish (13.4 points, 5.2 rebounds), although his status for the future is unknown.
"They're paying for that championship; they had to pay everybody," Powell said. "Joe's going to do something to change the direction of this team."
Then there was the matter of the new -- and expensive -- faces on the roster, Gordon and Villanueva.
Before coming to Detroit, Gordon averaged 20 points while shooting 45 percent (40 percent from 3-point range) the last three seasons.
This year, he's averaging 13.8 points and shooting 41 percent (32 from 3-point range) in 62 games.
There is, however, no reason to believe Gordon, at 26, won't return to his scoring ways, if he remains injury-free.
"I think Ben will get it back," an Eastern Conference executive said. "He was a lot more comfortable in Chicago than he thought. He had a nice niche there. He got lots of touches, he could catch fire in the fourth and kill you in a minute. I know he'll work hard to get it back."
As for Villanueva, while he never has been known to give a herculean effort on defense, it was his offense that excited the Pistons.
And with the Pistons short-handed the first weeks of the season, Villanueva looked to be worth the investment, averaging 16 points and 5.5 rebounds and shooting 48 percent from the field in the first 22 games.
In his 55 games since, he's averaging 10.2 points and 4.3 rebounds and shooting 41 percent.
"They blended in," Powell said of Gordon and Villanueva. "You want them to stand out."
No help inside
To make matters worse -- on offense and defense -- the Pistons had no inside presence.
So, with the Pistons playing hurt and struggling, defenses clogged up driving lanes and made it hard for a guard-driven team to be effective.
"If you don't have an inside presence, you have to get up and down the court quick," the executive said. "They never did."
By the numbers
2: Times Richard Hamilton and Ben Gordon scored 20 in the same game this season
3: Times the Pistons missed the playoffs the past 15 years
0: Eastern Conference teams that have made the playoffs every year since 2002
The Pistons couldn't avoid long droughts during the season. Here's a look at the season:
|7||Nov. 15-Nov. 27||6-11|
|13||Dec. 15-Jan. 11||11-25|
|5||Jan. 22-Jan. 31||15-31|
|6||Feb 24-Mar. 5||21-41|
|11||Mar. 13- Apr. 6||23-53|