Wojo: Pistons, Wings stuck in neutral
You’re experiencing withdrawal, absently flipping from channel to channel, glancing at random NBA and NHL playoff games. It’s an empty feeling, a strange feeling, and you never want to experience it again.
It’s as if the Red Wings and Pistons hit the pause button, out of the playoffs simultaneously for the first time since 1983. It’s an eerie coincidence, but it’s not a fluke. Both franchises slogged through ugly seasons, shuttered their buildings and then pledged to start over at Little Caesars Arena.
I’m not here to bemoan their absence, but to determine how long they’ll be gone, and how they get back. The issues for both are similar and not easily fixed. Young players regressed for various reasons — Pistons Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson; Wings Dylan Larkin and Petr Mrazek — leaving the franchises lacking superstar cornerstones. It’s the worst spot to be in pro sports, neither poised for a quick return to the playoffs, nor willing to accept a painful descent.
Players bear blame, certainly, but the problems and possible solutions start in the same general place, with the guys in charge of personnel — Ken Holland and Stan Van Gundy.
Holland overvalued his own players, believed his core would improve with experience, and was slow to react when it didn’t happen. Because of that, he feels the heat entering the final year of his contract.
Van Gundy, Pistons coach and president of basketball operations, overvalued his own players, believed his core would improve with experience, and was slow to react when it didn’t happen. Because of that, he also feels the heat. To be clear, owner Tom Gores hasn’t commented on Van Gundy’s status since the 37-45 season ended, although I doubt he’d make a move. The coaching part of Van Gundy’s dual roles was more disappointing than the personnel side, with GM Jeff Bower handling the day-to-day work.
Also to be clear, Wings owner Chris Ilitch expressed “100 percent confidence” in Holland, who in turn pledged support for coach Jeff Blashill. The Wings, like the Pistons, believe growth will come from within their relatively young teams.
Here’s the question: Do they really believe in their rosters, or do they have no choice but to believe in their rosters?
Cumbersome contracts and underperforming players hamper their flexibility. Do the Wings need a shakeup, now that their 25-year playoff streak is over?
Absolutely. Some form of a rebuild is inevitable, and Holland might even agree, as long as you don’t define “rebuild” as “tanking.”
I respect the Wings’ undying desire to reach the postseason instead of scaling way back to start over. But if they’re going to pull it off, Holland must get bolder, more creative. With so many players on bloated contracts — due to Holland’s miscalculations — it’ll be difficult to make trades. That means he might have to take a risk and deal one of the promising youngsters — Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha, Andreas Athanasiou — for a much-needed defenseman in a value-for-value blockbuster.
“Would I like to shuffle the deck? Would I like to make some changes? Yeah, I would,” Holland said. “In order to shuffle the deck, you gotta have a partner. In looking to improve the team, part of it has to come internally, and we have a number of players that have more to give.”
Listen to Van Gundy and it sounds strangely similar: “Realistically, you always think you have a better chance to tweak things instead of some bombshell move. I don’t think we need a bombshell move. … I don’t think this is the final verdict on our team. We got young guys who didn’t make the progress we wanted this year, but I still like the core.”
Outside of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, every Piston starter took a step back. Outside of Henrik Zetterberg and perhaps Tomas Tatar, most key Wings took a step back.
What’s left are rosters with few guarantees. For the Pistons, the overwhelming hope is that Jackson, who missed 30 games with knee tendinitis, rebuilds his energy and confidence. If he bounces back, the pick-and-roll game with Drummond bounces back. By the end, Jackson’s physical struggles became mental struggles, and after an offseason out of the pressure-cooker, I think he’s capable of a significant rebound. Because of that, the Pistons have a better shot at a quick recovery than the Wings.
“Getting our point guard situation back to where it was, or even better, is more than feasible, and I think that corrects a great deal of the problems,” Van Gundy said. “I don’t have much doubt Reggie will be back to being that guy. I honestly believe he’ll be better because fighting through it tends to mature you and focus you.”
Center of attention
Maturity and focus — which brings us to the big fella. Drummond remains an enigma, and although he’s only 23, he’s been in the league five seasons and has to act like his reputation is at stake, because it is. I think the Pistons would trade him if they could, but he has four years and about $100 million left on his contract, and has shown no ability to improve his free-throw shooting.
The Pistons need to shoot better, which means they need better shooters, and perhaps they deal someone like Tobias Harris. Van Gundy and Bower aren’t reluctant to make big moves, but they also have to decide if Caldwell-Pope is worth a pricey extension, which is a tough call.
The lesson for both teams is, you can’t just stick with what you know and who you have and hope natural growth occurs. Holland counted on players such as Tatar, Gustav Nyquist, Darren Helm, Justin Abdelkader and Danny DeKeyser to be more than complementary pieces, and they haven’t been. Larkin had a rough second season, and if Mantha and Athanasiou are capable of giving more, they have to prove it, and the team has to give them a chance to prove it.
Holland is stocking up on draft picks, still with the goal of returning to the playoffs, realistic or not. Van Gundy is taking stock of his own performance, admitting his offense didn’t necessarily fit his roster. He either has to be more flexible with his system, or find different players.
Down separate paths, the Pistons and Wings have arrived at the same spot, soon to be in the same arena. The atmosphere will change, but if they want to be back in the spotlight next April, the thinking at the top has to change too.