Monday, March 25, 2013

Drummond, at Age 19, is Already Pistons' Best Player

The Pistons’ best player is 7'0" tall, a teenaged rookie who suits up for the games these days in Armani.

He’s wearing dress pants with razor sharp creases instead of warm-ups. His shoes are pointy and shiny instead of leather and high tops. His shirt is collared instead of a tank top. His role is now that of the NBA’s tallest cheerleader.

Andre Drummond isn’t your typical basketball Redwood. His back is screwed up, for one. And his value has shown the most when he hasn’t been on the floor.

The math has been painfully simple. The Pistons are suffering from subtraction by subtraction.

This is another basketball season wasted in Detroit.

Coach Lawrence Frank is finding out, in his second year on the job, that his father’s Pistons weren't these bums. 

The team is cruising down the home stretch, its engine turned off weeks ago. In a league where supposedly any team can beat any other on any given night, the Pistons are routed with shocking regularity.

Early last week, Frank—fresh off a brief hiatus while he tended to his ill wife back in New Jersey—played one of the cards of desperation that some coaches play in order to shake a moribund team. Call it a verbal shock to the heart.

“We have to restore the pride in being a Piston,” Frank told the press Monday before the team went out and got shellacked by the Brooklyn Nets, 119-82, on the Pistons’ home floor.

It’s a card of desperation, right up there with “everyone has to look in the mirror.” It’s a plea to the base character of his players. And it’s falling on deaf, uncaring ears.

When Frank took the job of coaching the Pistons in the summer of 2011, he referred to the past. He spoke of championship banners won, a mystique forged. He fancied himself as the guy that could do what Flip Saunders could not in the end, what Michael Curry could not and what John Kuester could not.

Frank thought he could restore the Pistons back to the championship status they were in 2004 and 2005. It has proven to be folly.

But Coach Frank has a few pieces to work with. Whether he will have the time to use them remains to be seen. 

His boss, Joe Dumars, has a fetish for firing coaches after two seasons. The Pistons have shown no real improvement from the mess they were when Frank took over from a shell-shocked Kuester.

Those pieces are point guard Brandon Knight, big man Greg Monroe and Drummond—who has already achieved Best Piston status after just 50 games of his rookie season.

The Pistons drafted Monroe out of Georgetown in 2010, Knight out of Kentucky in 2011 and Drummond from Connecticut in 2012. You could do worse than be products of those three college programs.

Everyone else on the roster is expendable, except maybe veteran point guard Jose Calderon, who brings wisdom and experience.

Around this trio of recent first-round draft picks, Dumars—or his successor—has to construct a squad that is at least capable of not being run out of the gym on a regular basis. Whether Frank is the coach that will be around to work with Dumars’ new pieces is circumspect.

But it should all be built around Drummond. Even Monroe, a great player, plays second fiddle to the rookie.

Drummond is 19, but that’s irrelevant. He is the Pistons’ best player because he has that delightful basketball combination of size, athleticism and nastiness that serves all the good centers well. He defends the paint like a king does his castle. He swats shots away with disdain. Rebounds find their way into his big hands. He runs up and down the court with such long, loping strides that you’d swear he can make it from foul line to foul line in no more than three of them.

Drummond doesn’t, yet, score like a proper big man should in the NBA. He has no low post moves, really. But he is not like Ben Wallace, the Pistons’ last dominant (defensively) big man, in thatDrummond doesn’t have hands of granite. Big Ben didn’t develop any offensive moves because he physically couldn’t. Drummond has shown signs, even at his tender age, that he can be deft around the basket.

Frank worked Drummond into the rotation slowly early in the season, too slowly for many people’s taste. The coach stubbornly refused to play his prized rookie more than 20 minutes or so per night, even when Drummond’s extrapolated numbers proved him to be one of the best rookies in the NBA and probably the best rookie center.

But for all this praise, the best proof of Drummond’s worth is happening right now, as the kid misses game after game—almost 20 now—with a bad back.

In Drummond’s absence the Pistons have collapsed like a house of cards. They are shockingly inept with Drummond out of the lineup. They are pushovers in the paint, and lost everywhere else on the court defensively. The only rebounds they grab these days are the ones that fall directly into their hands.

The Pistons, with Drummond on the sidelines, have become a disinterested, wretched mess of a basketball team. They are unable, perhaps even unwilling, to play anyone tough right now.

Drummond’s absence and the Pistons’ subsequent freefall into oblivion are about as coincidental as cause and effect.

So it's not too much to say that Drummond, at 19 years old, is the Pistons’ best player right now. It was not too much to say back in 1981 about Isiah Thomas, when the 20-year-old rookie from Indiana University became the Pistons’ best player just a few minutes into his first game.

Thomas didn’t stop there; he became the franchise’s best player of all time.

He did so with no small help from Dumars, Thomas’s backcourt partner starting in 1985.

Now Dumars must help the young center Drummond by building a team around him, in Dumars’ role as GM.

It’s a task that is best done with Dumars watching in an Italian suit instead of Drummond.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The West Won, Red Wings Head East--Finally

The news that the Red Wings are moving to the Eastern Conference should have been announced by one of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, not a league spokesman.

The Five-Star General of choice should have gotten up, like in a military briefing, and announced that the Red Wings’ years-long occupation in the West was finally over with.

It’s peace for our time. We don’t have to fear fear itself anymore. The Korean War is ended. It’s pulling out of Vietnam, without Saigon falling.

The Red Wings’ mission out west has been completed. The NHL is letting the Winged Wheelers pull up their stakes from Los Angeles. That time share in Anaheim is going up for sale. They won’t need the guest house in San Jose.

Vancouver is a beautiful city, but it’ll have to survive without the Red Wings. The oxygen masks marked “Denver” can be put away.

No more looking around Dallas—Dallas—for good ice. The Alberta twins, Calgary and Edmonton, and their 9:30 p.m. Detroit starts won’t be missed.

So long, Minnesota. We hardly knew ye. St. Louis and the Gateway Arch? We’ll miss your breweries but not much else. Somehow we’ll have to live without that hockey Mecca, Phoenix.

Columbus will have to go back to being that town where Ohio State University calls home. Nashville? Love your music, loathe your hockey tradition.

Finally, there’s Chicago. Like Dorothy said in the Wizard of Oz, “Chicago, we’ll miss you most of all.”

But the soon-to-be truncated rivalry with the Blackhawks—which began when they were the Black Hawks—isn’t enough to make the Red Wings grow wistful for the West.

No more 10:30 p.m. Detroit starts. No more playoff games watched by hundreds of thousands who showed up as bleary-eyed zombies the next morning at work.

The Red Wings have carried the West long enough. Their occupation has ended. General Bettman says it’s OK for the Red Wings to join the East.

Fittingly, the news came down this week, with the Red Wings making one of those lovely Western Canada swings through Alberta. They reacted so giddily, you half expected that they would drop their hockey sticks and run to Philadelphia.

Or Boston. Or New York. Heck, even New Jersey, and no one runs to New Jersey unless they’re in the Mob.

The Red Wings are moving to the East for the 2013-14 season. It’s all part of the realignment that was signed off on by the players association.

It’s Christmas in March for the Red Wings and their fans, particularly those old enough to remember the Original Six, when a trip “out west” meant you were taking the train to Chicago and Detroit.

The Red Wings will be placed in a division with four, count ‘em, four, Original Six organ-eye-zayshuns.

Detroit. Montreal. Toronto. Boston. And the New York Rangers are just a division away. Only the Chicago Blackhawks, from the O-6, are left behind in the West. The Blackhawks are a dynamic hockey club with a wealth of young talent, and they started this season with a streak of getting points in their first 24 games. It’s their turn to prop the West up.

That’s what the Red Wings did, you know—prop up the West. Don’t let anyone in the league offices in New York tell you otherwise. But the NHL loved having the Red Wings playing all those games in the Mountain and Pacific Time zones.

The Red Wings, with their expansive fan base and their Stanley Cups and their annual appearance in the playoffs, papered the houses, from the old Fabulous Forum in Inglewood to the arenas in San Jose and Anaheim, and all the way to Columbus. Especially Columbus.

For two decades, the Red Wings’ success was a boon to the attendance out west. It wasn’t unusual to see more blood red and white jerseys in the seats than those of the home teams.

Those days are done. The Red Wings will be rekindling rivalries that go back to before World War II.

The fans are beside themselves. They’re rubbing their hands together at the prospects of seeing the Canadiens and the Maple Leafs and the Bruins in Joe Louis Arena more than once every Leap Year.

The beauty of the move is that, finally, the powers that be saw the value of having the Red Wings in the Eastern Time zone.

It’s what’s best for the NHL, really.

The timing couldn’t be better. Look at the standings. All four of these Original Six brethren—even long-suffering Toronto—are good teams. It’s not just that they share lineage, they’re highly competitive.

NBC is a winner, too. The league’s TV network surely must be busting buttons when they see all the tradition-rich games featuring the league’s top squads that they can schedule for Sunday afternoons.

Remember Detroit-Toronto in Steve Yzerman’s young years? Remember how exciting those games were? And the Maple Leafs weren’t even any good back then.

I can see the smiles on the faces of the old-timers when they see those iconic Canadiens jerseys skating up and down the JLA ice several times a season.

You missed the Bruins’ visit to Detroit? There’ll be another one next month; you won’t have to wait until the next presidential election cycle.

Not all the teams in the new division are filled with tradition, but that’s OK. The Red Wings will also be joined by Florida, Tampa Bay (though Yzerman is the GM), Buffalo and Ottawa. But as Bettman pointed out, the Florida markets are filled with transplanted Michiganders.

The winners, clearly, are the Red Wings and their brand in this league gerrymandering. No more jet lag, and during the playoffs, no less. Fox Sports Detroit will enjoy higher TV ratings. A road trip from Toronto to Detroit is back in play, and vice versa.

The Red Wings’ mission out west is complete. They’ll be able to get through a hockey season without spending half of it waiting for their bodies to adjust to the time.

You miss games in L.A.? I guess you’ll have to wait until the Finals.