This is about one NBA team, the Detroit Pistons -- a bad team at that. But then, it really isn't about one team. It's about every team in the NBA, maybe even in sports. It's about chemistry and leadership and the hidden ingredients of winning.
We live in an age of analytics. Teams use statistical formulas that are complicated and proprietary; nobody wants to share them with the enemy. More than ever, we understand why teams win. But there is so much we don't see. Decisions that make statistical sense don't always make real-world sense.
Like this: In November 2008, the Pistons traded their leader, their point guard, and the MVP of their 2004 Finals win over the Lakers, Chauncey Billups. The Pistons have been lousy ever since, which makes what I am about to write sound silly. But it's true: This was the kind of NBA trade that bloggers and hardcore fans absolutely love.
It was pro-active. It cleared cap space. There is a popular theory that the worst thing you can be in the NBA is decent: stuck in the land of 40-win teams and mid-first-round picks, who produce more 40-win teams. Winning big is ideal. Losing big is the next-best thing, because it allows you to start over with top-five picks and money to spend. Right now, there are probably a half-dozen NBA front office that are secretly hoping to lose big this year, so they can get high 2014 draft picks and catapult themselves toward contention.
Pistons general manager Joe Dumars -- at the time, maybe the most respected GM in the sport -- did not want to slip into mediocrity. Now, he did not want to lose big either. But just a few months after the Pistons made their sixth straight Eastern Conference Finals appearance, he had a plan to re-stock his roster and mold a new contender quickly.
Billups had four years left on his contract. The Pistons already had his successor on the roster -- or believed they did. That was Rodney Stuckey, who had just finished his rookie year, and wowed teammates in practice. As Billups himself told me at the end of Stuckey's rookie year: "He's got an unbelievable combination of speed and strength. That's hard to come by. And there is nothing that he really can't do. He is going to be an All-Star, for sure."
The Pistons thought they had their next great player. Heck, Billups thought the Pistons had their next great player. Meanwhile, at almost the exact same time that Dumars traded Billups, he signed 30-year-old shooting guard Rip Hamilton to a three-year, $34 million contract extension. The organization viewed Hamilton as a Reggie Miller clone, a long jump shooter who could be effective well into his 30s, and figured he and Stuckey would be one of the league's best backcourts.
Meanwhile, another Pistons mainstay, Rasheed Wallace, was in the final year of his contract. By dealing Billups for Allen Iverson and his expiring contract, Dumars opened a huge hunk of salary-cap space in the summer of 2009. He had his future star and veteran scorer. He could add two more core players to play for new coach Michael Curry, who was beloved by players as an assistant, and the Pistons would keep rolling.
As you may have noticed, it did not quite work out the way Dumars planned.
The short version of the story, the one people tell over and over, is that Dumars wasted his cap space on Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva. Gordon's decline remains a mystery to me; I understand that Pistons overpaid when they gave him $58 million, and that he was never much of a defender but he did average 20.7 points with excellent shooting percentages as a 25-year-old for the Bulls. He was never close to being that player again. Villanueva, meanwhile, is one of those guys you'd love to hang out with at a party, but he has never been a high-motor guy, or a medium-motor guy. I'm not sure he has a motor at all. He is a bicycle in a motorcycle league.
Anyway, the Gordon and Villanueva contracts were lousy, but they only begin to describe what went wrong. In order:
1. Hamilton cried and pouted and was naughty and did not get any gifts from Santa. Rip has always been stubborn and oversold on his own abilities. He was also competitive and full of relentless energy. Billups had a way of convincing Hamilton that it was OK to vent at the refs and coaches, but he still had to do his work.
After Billups left, there was nobody to keep Hamilton in line. And Hamilton feuded with Curry, which brings us to ...
2. Curry was inflexible and overmatched. Again, nobody in the organization really saw this coming. When Curry was an assistant, players raved about him; replacing Flip Saunders with Curry was a popular move. Now, maybe Curry would have failed regardless. But asking him to coach Allen Iverson instead of Chauncey Billups sure made it a lot harder -- even though Curry supported the trade.
The Pistons had always fought with their coaches, from Rick Carlisle to Larry Brown to Saunders. They won anyway, largely because of talent, but also because Billups helped keep everybody in line. Ben Wallace battled pretty much every coach he ever had. So did Hamilton. Rasheed Wallace was more coachable than people realized, but his interest in competing came and went.
Billups had lived a dozen NBA lives: high draft pick, savior, castoff, point guard, shooting guard, unfairly labeled as a malcontent, solid backup, loser, winner, star. He valued the Pistons' success more than anybody, and he connected with everybody on the roster, because at some point in his career, he was everybody on the roster. He was the glue.
After the trade, the Pistons had no glue. They just had Hamilton pouting and Iverson being Iverson, without his old Iverson game. And maybe worst of all ...
3. As you may have noticed, Stuckey still has not made an All-Star team. He has fit a classic NBA mold: Talented enough to play, not committed enough to win. He would look like a cornerstone on one night, then sleepwalk his way through the next one. He was almost un-coachable. He saw himself as a star -- when he hit restricted free agency, he expected a big offer -- but he didn't compete like one.
Stuckey was a scorer with some point-guard skills, but he never developed his point-guard brain. And who could have helped him make that transition? A guy who had done it: Chauncey Billups.
4. The Pistons replaced Curry with John Kuester, another former Pistons assistant. Kuester is a nice man and solid assistant coach, but he is not a head coach. His spat with Hamilton became so ugly that at one point, Rip appeared to orchestrate a mutiny on a road trip in Philadelphia, when players skipped a shootaround. Hamilton would deny organizing the mutiny, but I don't care, and more importantly: If Chauncey Billups is on the team, there is no mutiny. He would have talked guys out of it.
The Pistons replaced Kuester with Lawrence Frank, whom I still believe is a good coach. But they had no identity, no sense of professionalism, no idea how to win. They did not have anybody on the roster with the credibility and intelligence to convince his teammates to trust their coach. They did not have anybody like Chauncey Billups.
Now Dumars is dealing with another expiring contract: His own. He has one year left on his deal, and the unspoken assumption around the team is that the Pistons have to be a playoff team, or owner Tom Gores will let him go.
Dumars has quietly accumulated some talented, high-character players in the past few years: most notably big men Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond, but also Brandon Knight. (Drummond supposedly had a bad attitude at Connecticut, but he has had an exemplary one in Detroit.) Dumars just used a large portion of his cap space on Josh Smith, the kind of two-way player who helped Dumars's teams have so much success a decade ago.
And Thursday, Dumars agreed to a two-year contract with ... Chauncey Billups. To outsiders, it looks like a cheap public relations move. Billups is near the end of his career. The Pistons need to win their fans back.
But if you have followed the Pistons closely, you know otherwise. The trade that looked savvy in November 2008 has looked foolish ever since. Leadership is impossible to quantify and hard to define, but it is crucial to success in the NBA. The league is filled with talented players who have been surrounded by enablers and sycophants since childhood. A lot of times, the only person who can reach a player is a teammate. The Pistons have had some talented players in the last few years. They have not had much of a team.
Billups returns to a franchise of punchlines and empty seats. They just filled the emptiest one.