Between 2003 and 2008 Joe Dumars could do no wrong as the GM of the Detroit Pistons. He traded for Chauncey Billups and Rasheed Wallace, drafted Tayshaun Prince and gave Ben Wallace (a future Hall of Famer) a chance when no one else would. The Pistons made six straight Eastern Conference finals (an incredible achievement), and won the whole thing back in 2004.
Since those glory days, however, Dumars has traded Billups for a washed-up Allen Iverson, signed Rip Hamilton to an ugly extension, signed Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva to ridiculous contracts in free agency, gave up a first-round pick to get rid of Gordon and, most recently, signed Josh Smith to a four-year, $56-million deal. Joe Dumars with cap space is terrifying.
But while Dumars’ signing of J-Smoove may have struck people as excessive back in the summer, the Pistons—on paper, at least—still looked like a playoff team. They’ve been anything but this season, however.
On the backcourt, the newly-signed Brandon Jennings has been extremely inconsistent (nothing new there), but the frontcourt experiment involving Smith, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond has been nothing short of disastrous. While Drummond has shown massive potential and looks like a future All-Star, the combination of him, Monroe and Smith has been awful at both ends. The Pistons rank 21st in offensive efficiency and 22nd in defensive efficiency.
Smith has been the biggest disappointment. He’s been playing out of position at small forward, but hasn’t helped himself by displaying comical shot-selection on a nightly basis. He’s shooting a career worst 41 per cent from the floor, and has somehow got it into his head that he needs to attempt over three 3-pointers a game. Smith is shooting an abysmal 25 per cent from long distance, and while he’s never been the smartest guy in the league when it comes to shot selection, he’s been absolutely killing his team this season by shying away from his strengths (shots at the rim) and jacking up bricks from 20 feet and beyond.
The smart thing for the Pistons to do now would be to tank the rest of the season—they’re currently 25-41 and aren’t making the playoffs. The Charlotte Bobcats have their 2014 first-round pick, but it’s top-eight protected, meaning that if the Pistons get a little worse, they’ll retain that vitally important pick. However, Dumars is fighting to save his job (Maurice Cheeks was fired after 50 games and there aren’t anymore fall guys left), so he’s unlikely to greenlight a deliberate collapse.
The way the Pistons have been playing, however, an accelerated slide down the standings may be a natural process.
New York Knicks
Okay, for the sake of even-handedness let’s quickly run through some of the positives for the New York Knickerbockers: the team is currently on a six-game winning streak (their biggest of the season), they’re playing much better as a team and they just got confirmation that Phil Jackson will be taking over the running of the franchise.
And now for the bad.
Last season, the Knicks won 54 games, and at the time of writing they’re 27-40, 3.5 games behind the eighth seed Atlanta Hawks. Overall, they’ve been awful. Last season’s Sixth Man of the Year, J.R. Smith (fresh off a new contract) has been a disaster, same as former Raptor Andrea Bargnani (they gave up a first-round pick for him). Tyson Chandler looks like he no longer cares, and there’s a good chance point guard Raymond Felton may go to jail. The team has played defense at a ludicrously poor level this season—giving up 106.7 points per 100 possessions.
The Knicks entered this season in win-now mode—they’re capped out, don’t have a 2014 first-round pick and are effectively run by the most meddling, impatient owner in professional sports, James Dolan. The Knicks could still make the playoffs this season, but even if they win out (incredibly unlikely) they can’t finish with more than 42 wins. After a very impressive regular season last year, that would be a major letdown.
The team has some major decisions to make in the off season. Carmelo Anthony—whose play has been the lone bright spot for the Knicks this season—has a player option next year. He can opt out and sign a five-year, $130-million max contract with his present team, but that would leave the Knicks with zero flexibility, cap-wise, and beholden to a player who hasn’t shown that he can lead a team to an NBA title. More fundamentally, and as it pertains to the big picture—and as Grantland’s Zach Lowe discussed in a recent column—the Knicks need a change of philosophy.
The Knicks need to start acting like a responsible basketball team—to realize that they cannot mortgage valuable first-round picks in exchange for overrated veterans. They cannot let a desire for flash and style get in the way of a desperate need for substance. Related: Dolan needs to get out of the way when it comes to the decision making process.
If the Knicks don’t start getting their priorities in order, even more immensely disappointing seasons like the current one are on the horizon.
If the Minnesota Timberwolves played in the Eastern Conference, they’d make the playoffs this season—no doubt about it. At the time of writing they’re 33-32, which would be good enough for the seventh seed in the East. Unfortunately for Rick Adelman’s team, the T-Wolves play in the loaded Western Conference, where merely being a shade above .500 sees you out of the playoff picture altogether. Kevin Love and the T-Wolves are currently 5.5 games back of the eighth seed Memphis Grizzlies. They’re not making the playoffs—just not happening.
Arguments about the fairness of the conference system aside, the Timberwolves have been mighty disappointing this season. Last year most experts picked them to make the playoffs, but injuries derailed their push to the post-season. This season they were once again picked to make the leap—remember, the Timberwolves haven’t made the post-season since 2003-04—but general on-court issues, as opposed to an egregious amount of injuries and bad luck, have ruined their chances.
Kevin Love has been awesome—that’s not in dispute—but a lot of the pieces around him have been less than stellar. The Ricky Rubio honeymoon period appears to be over. He flat-out can’t shoot, which kills their offense late in games; the team has major problems shooting in general (ranked 26th in 3-point percentage); and they’ve been hugely inconsistent at the defensive end. When the T-Wolves have won games, oftentimes it’s been by a blowout margin, but they’ve lost an infuriating amount of close games due to their inability to execute late.
On paper the Timberwolves should be a playoff team, but games aren’t played on paper.
Last season’s Denver Nuggets—you know, the team that won 57 games, finished third in the West and were led by the Coach of the Year—seem like they existed a generation ago. So much has changed in Denver since. In the off-season, the team parted ways with George Karl, GM Masai Ujiri (“We owe you one” says every Raptors fan) and their best two-way player, Andre Iguodala. Rookie head-coach Brian Shaw snapped up from the Pacers, and the team made some stopgap signings—a Nate Robinson here, a Randy Foye there.
Despite all the off-season changes, the Nuggets should still have been good enough to compete for a playoff seed. In Ty Lawson they possess one of the more explosive point-guards in the league, and the high-altitude of Denver provides the Nuggets with one of the most daunting home-court advantages in the league—the team went 38-3 at home last season.
This season’s been a major disappointment, however. The team has had to deal with major injuries, but they’ve struggled immensely trying to integrate their new players. Shaw’s early insistence on slowing down their notorious pace and playing a traditional half-court game—a style that they don’t have the personnel to effectively implement—hasn’t gone over well. Add a well-published falling out between Shaw and the now-traded Andre Miller into the mix, and it’s been a hot mess in Colorado. The team is currently languishing eight games short of .500 (just 16-16 at home), and they rank in the bottom half of the league in both defensive and offensive efficiency.
What a difference a year makes.
Last summer the Cleveland Cavaliers won the draft lottery—possessing the first overall pick for the third time in 10 years. There was plenty of obnoxious hooting and hollering when the Cavaliers’ name was read out, but owner Dan Gilbert made it a point to let the media know that his team had no intention on focusing on lottery balls come the summer of 2014. 2013-14 was going to be about making the playoffs for the first time since LeBron James departed.
Unfortunately, the Cleveland Cavaliers will be a lottery team this summer. Things have not gone to plan.
The Cavs were one of the busiest teams last summer, but in hindsight they made some very poor acquisitions. GM Chris Grant (since fired) overpaid for backup point-guard Jarrett Jack, and took a punt on the toxic Andrew Bynum—not a big financial gamble, but one that seriously hurt the chemistry of the team. Add to that the fact that the Cavs used that first overall pick on Anthony Bennett—a player who many are already labeling (perhaps unfairly) a bust—and brought back the offensively-inept Mike Brown as head coach.
The Cavs have been a mess all year. Their season’s been dominated by terrible on-court performances, infighting between players and rumours that star man Kyrie Irving is unhappy about being in Cleveland (note: he’ll be an RFA. He’s not going anywhere). The Cavs have tried to salvage their season by making panicky trades for Luol Deng (who won’t re-sign in the summer) and Spencer Hawes, but the team remains 15 games under .500 and lottery bound. As much as it would pain Gilbert, it might be time to “rest” some guys in an attempt to improve that draft pick.