The Pistons return from the All-Star break on a four-game skid and coach Dwane Casey said they're ready to embrace the challenge it presents. The Detroit News
For well over a decade recently, the Milwaukee Bucks were stuck in the middle: Occasionally a playoff team, and if so, a reliable loser in the first round.
Sound familiar, Pistons fans?
It may seem hard to believe now, but in the 17 seasons from 2002 until 2018, the Bucks never made the second round in their eight playoff appearances.
But as Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks visit Detroit on Thursday to start the NBA’s stretch run following the All-Star break, Milwaukee is a league-best 46-8, a finals favorite and a solid bet to win it all someday soon.
The Pistons, who have not won a playoff series since 2008 and are finally embarking on a rebuild, should take notes from one of the league’s model franchises.
Here are seven ways the Pistons can imitate the Bucks:
►1. Give Sekou the Giannis treatment: Get yourself a Giannis, right?
Of course, Antetokounmpo is the biggest reason for Milwaukee’s success, and no, there’s not another Giannis on the horizon anytime soon.
In Sekou Doumbouya — also raised in Europe by African parents — the Pistons have their own young, toolsy, high-variance prospect.
Entering Thursday, Doumbouya’s rookie stats are very similar to Antetokounmpo’s, including the exact 6.8 points per game rate. Giannis became a full-time starter 10 games into year two, and the rest is the history we’re watching unfold.
Again, to be clear, there’s no world where Sekou is the next Giannis, but Antetokounmpo’s blueprint could be helpful.
►2. Find the sucker: Khris Middleton has proven to be a capable second fiddle for Giannis after being a throw-in for a 2013 trade with Detroit where Brandon Knight and Brandon Jennings swapped sides.
Since then, the Bucks have gone to the Detroit well for three more deals, dumping players like Ersan Ilyasova, Thon Maker and Tony Snell on Detroit, gaining salary cap flexibility each time.
Detroit needs to find its own, um, Detroit, and instead of quick fixes, make forward-thinking deals for young players with real potential or to increase wiggle room on the cap sheet.
►3. Healing powers: When the Pistons were on top of the NBA, Arnie Kander and his staff were lauded around the league for their injury prevention prowess.
Similarly, Milwaukee’s Suki Hobson won the award for the league’s best strength coach last season. She was added to the training staff in 2015, Antetokounmpo’s second season.
Kander is back in Detroit’s fold, along with medical director Bernard Condevaux and head athletic trainer Jim Scholler, but the Pistons have suffered all sorts of ailments this season, as Blake Griffin, Reggie Jackson, Luke Kennard and many others have missed significant time.
These injuries certainly can’t all be pinned on the medical staff, but the Pistons need to find the medical magic they used to have back in the glory days.
►4. Don’t re-invent the wheel: By now, the tried and true formula for NBA success is well known: Shoot and make a lot of 3-pointers, layups and free throws, while limiting your opponents there.
Coach Mike Budenholzer didn’t invent those concepts but he certainly brought them to Wisconsin.
The Bucks attempted the second-most 3-pointers in the league last season in Budenholzer’s first year after hoisting the 25th-most the previous year.
The value addition of center Brook Lopez proved fruitful last season. And while he has struggled shooting this year, his rim protection in drop coverage defensively still forces inefficient floaters by opponents.
Everyone is looking for the next innovative strategy, but as long as 3-pointers are worth three points, and layups and free throws are easier than longer twos, there doesn’t appear to be a new code to crack.
►5. Cut bait: When things aren’t working, they’re not working.
The Pistons have a bevy of young players who could possibly turn into rotation pieces on a good team.
But Luke Kennard, Bruce Brown, Khyri Thomas, Svi Mykhailiuk, Jordan Bone, Louis King and Doumbouya aren’t going to all reach their full potential.
Presumably at some point, the Pistons will improve and minutes will become scarce and valuable.
When Maker went to Milwaukee management asking for more minutes in his third season, he was benched for seven straight games until Detroit traded for him.
There were plenty of minutes available in Motown, which is not a coincidence.
The Bucks also weren’t afraid to cut ties with coach Jason Kidd midseason in January 2018, along with costly cuts of players like Larry Sanders, Spencer Hawes and Jon Leuer when they didn't fit the plans.
►6. Find the next mind: It’s not just players the Bucks have stolen from Detroit.
John Hammond left Joe Dumars and Detroit behind for Milwaukee in 2008, winning Executive of the Year in 2010.
But after Hammond left for Orlando in 2017, he was replaced by Jon Horst, a native of Sandusky in Michigan’s Thumb who came to Milwaukee from the Pistons with Hammond.
Horst matched his mentor with the Executive of the Year award last season and has the Bucks on the cusp of their first title since 1971.
Where's the next young innovator? The Pistons need to find them and empower them, even if they're unproven.
►7. Take a chance: When Milwaukee got rolling, with a sound locker room and winning culture built around its young star, it was time to take a swing.
Because of their stability, the Bucks were able to trade for Eric Bledsoe in 2017 after his Phoenix fiasco where he tweeted “I don't wanna be here” and then subsequently claimed he was talking about a hair salon.
Bledsoe has struggled in the postseason with the Bucks but clearly was a needed backcourt upgrade.
Whether he’s a piece to push them over the top, a la Rasheed Wallace for Detroit in 2004, remains to be seen.
But Milwaukee was in a position to make an “over-the-top” type of move, a place Detroit is years away from.
Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.