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The Pistons Want to Win Now

But dealing their first-rounder and young players won’t change the direction of the franchise

Stan Van Gundy (AP Images)
Stan Van Gundy (AP Images)

From time to time, it’s good to remind ourselves that members of NBA front offices are humans just like us. They probably sit around and debate LeBron vs. MJ, argue about college basketball prospects, complain about boring games, and enjoy hypothetical trades as much as we do.

The latest example of a strangely humanizing event came Tuesday afternoon, when Marc Stein reported the following:

First question: What exactly are the Detroit Pistons trying to do here? Stan Van Gundy’s squad missed out on the playoffs this year by four games. They vaguely contended for a back-end spot, but vanished in the last few months of the season.This was probably to Detroit’s benefit. The Pistons would have been a mere patch of grass along LeBron James’s rampant path to the Finals.

Acquiring a "win-now veteran" would be wonderful if the Pistons existed in a parallel universe where a deep postseason run was a reality, not a dream. If "win-now" means a return to their 2015–16 state — 8-seed in the East — then this move makes sense in a tightly sealed vacuum. But if "win-now" means win a playoffs series, maybe even two, something the Pistons haven’t done since 2007–08, then a veteran is not moving any needle, Space, automotive, or otherwise. Meanwhile, the 12th pick would net Detroit Zach Collins, Harry Giles, Donovan Mitchell, or Frank Ntilikina. In a deep draft like this one, one of those guys is bound to be the diamond in the rough. Can the Pistons afford to pass on that chance for a middling role player? I guess if they consider him a "win-now" vet, then *gulp* sure.

Second question: Where does Stanley Johnson fit into all of this?

The Pistons’ prized 2015 draft pick (eighth overall) was branded as a steal from the get go. Johnson was a hypothetical 3-and-D guy whose athletic measurements and upside pointed toward a bright future. The jury is still out on Johnson, but so far, he’s been underwhelming, shooting 36.7 percent from the field and barely reaching 30 percent on 3s. On defense, a predicted strength, his place on such a mediocre team has made it even difficult to confirm that his skills have translated well to the NBA from his one year at Arizona.

It’s not a good sign that Johnson, who has a team option for next season, is the best pick of the Van Gundy era. But his youth is still a plus; the Pistons could — and probably would need to — package him with the 12th pick for this "win-now" veteran they seek. It’s not a smart move, but if the Pistons decide to say goodbye to Johnson in this manner for say, Jae Crowder, Wes Matthews, or a player like Danilo Gallinari, the biggest winner might be Johnson himself. A change of scenery could do him some good.

With Van Gundy at the helm, it seems like the Pistons will be a franchise that repels the concept of tanking, even if it could be more beneficial than gunning for the useless bottom seeds in the East. Given that Detroit doesn’t have any untouchable pieces, or any pathway to overcoming LeBron for that matter, this strategy seems more short-sighted than anything.

Third question: How valuable are Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond?

Last week Van Gundy went on Detroit radio to defend Drummond’s lackluster season, as the big man struggled to meet the expectations tied to his max contract (five years, $127 million). Meanwhile, Jackson, who struggled with knee tendinitis this season, has not met a trade rumor he doesn’t like, the latest of which could be a swap with Phoenix’s Eric Bledsoe.

If a trade doesn’t work out, the Pistons are hoping that both Jackson and Drummond return to their pick-and-roll bread and butter. A win-now combination for a win-now team? The Pistons and their incoming veteran better hope so.