Time Well Spent

Pistons hitting their stride, thanks to fruits of Joe D’s lottery mining

Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond
Monroe and Drummond combined for 42 points and 36 rebounds against the Bucks
J. Dennis/Einstein (NBAE/Getty)
If Joe Dumars had allowed himself to think about it, an apocalyptic shiver surely would have convulsed his spine.

As the Pistons lined up for the opening tip Wednesday night at Milwaukee, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond were matched against players from their draft classes, Ekpe Udoh and John Henson. If those two drafts had played out just a hair differently, Udoh and Henson might have been Detroit’s starters, instead.

But Golden State picked Udoh sixth, sparing the Pistons from a decision they’d yet to reach, less than 24 hours before the 2010 draft, between Udoh and North Carolina’s Ed Davis with the seventh pick. After New Orleans made the slam-dunk choice of Anthony Davis at No. 1 two years later, seven teams picking ahead of the Pistons passed on Drummond.

I’m tempted to write “inexplicably” before “passed,” but it’s really only unfathomable now, in light of Drummond’s remarkable assimilation as a pro. The results of his one year at UConn would be generously described as uneven. Anyone attempting to characterize the selections of Monroe and Drummond now as “no-brainers” for Dumars is rewriting history.

The Pistons lumped Monroe with Derrick Favors and DeMarcus Cousins in that 2010 draft, but Udoh was a fast riser in the days ahead of it. Had Davis not stayed for his sophomore season, some felt he would have been a top-three pick in the ’09 draft. There were rampant questions about Monroe’s “motor” and athleticism, none of which abated when he had trouble getting a shot off early in his rookie season.

Golden State worked out Monroe twice and went for Udoh. That’s the same organization that picked Steph Curry a year ahead of Monroe and Klay Thompson a year after. If eyebrows were raised when the Warriors went with Udoh over Monroe, it was only by a few degrees.

The list of teams that will long be tormented by passing on Drummond surely starts with Charlotte at No. 2, which took Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. But how about Cleveland, which picked fourth and went with Dion Waiters, now widely reported to be trade bait? Drummond running pick and rolls with Kyrie Irving for a division rival? Sacramento took Thomas Robinson and dealt him for peanuts midway through his rookie season.

And what about Golden State? The Warriors, indeed, could’ve had both Monroe and Drummond to pair with Curry and Thompson. Harrison Barnes is already a good player and could be more than that. But Drummond playing in the middle of shooting like Curry and Thompson provide?

All of which brings us to our point: Joe Dumars hated those trips he’s taken to New York the past four Mays – you never saw him on the lottery dais – but he made them count. Absent blind luck, like San Antonio beating long odds to win the lottery the year David Robinson plays six games to ensure a losing season and Tim Duncan is available, NBA franchises will experience dark days the likes from which the Pistons are now forcefully emerging.

When one player exerts so much influence on outcome, as happens in basketball to a greater degree than almost all team sports, that’s a virtual inevitability.

Even in the sandwich year between Monroe and Drummond, Joe D took Brandon Knight – central figure in the trade package that returned Wednesday night’s starting point guard at Milwaukee, Brandon Jennings. Alongside him in the backcourt was Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who looks like he’ll be the last lottery pick the Pistons will exercise for the foreseeable future – and another player flashing high-end potential these days.

Drummond and Monroe combined for 42 points and 36 rebounds against the Bucks; Udoh and Henson’s totals were 15 and 13. It was the first game two Pistons had 15-plus rebounds since Ben and Rasheed Wallace did so, the first game two of them had 17-plus boards since Bill Laimbeer and Dennis Rodman. Notice the common link about those tandems? (Hint: Look to the rafters the next time you’re at The Palace, to those NBA championship banners fluttering in the rafters.)

Jennings, now essentially their 2011 lottery pick, made it three Pistons with double-doubles, providing 17 points and 11 assists even though he admitted wobbly nerves affected his first-half shooting. Caldwell-Pope draped himself over Milwaukee’s big free-agent splurge, O.J. Mayo, who finished with seven points.

The Pistons won their third straight game, overcoming both a natural letdown after Tuesday’s win at Miami and the unusual fatigue that resulted from a diverted flight to Chicago and a bus ride into foggy Milwaukee that got the Pistons to bed barely before dawn.

They are not close to a finished product yet. Drummond is still a babe, not always trusting of his instincts. Monroe is in the early stages of learning how to use his skills to his advantage at power forward after spending his first three seasons at center. Jennings, as Maurice Cheeks points out often, has so much ahead of him as he masters the nuances of the game’s most nuanced position. Josh Smith – veteran of the bunch, and happy 28th birthday to you! – is adjusting in kind, a strong-willed player who’s proving to his teammates just how willing he is to blend his talents to the best effect. The young guys are still figuring themselves out, let alone figuring out their fit within the whole.

It won’t be all a straight-line march from here, to the playoffs and beyond. There will still be nights they look disjointed, still a few painful losses left to swallow. But those four trips the Pistons took to the lottery were well spent. As they closed out their third straight road win at Milwaukee, gaudy numbers lighting up the box score next to the names of the fruits of those drafts, the likelihood of a fifth trip looked blissfully remote.