Greg Eno

Mentally, Today’s Pistons Still Not Ready for Prime Time

In Basketball on November 30, 2015 at 9:11 pm

The new Piston was treated to dinner upon his arrival to the team.

It was a high rollers affair, organized by the high prince of the Pistons and attended by his goon squad.

One of the goons, with a sour puss, looked at the invited, special guest with a highly suspicious eye.

“I have only heard bad things about you,” the goon said, “but Isiah says that you’re OK.”

The goon then reminded the special guest that he’d better mind his Ps and Qs, or else.

Mark Aguirre, by all accounts, didn’t say much at the dinner. But he did a lot of listening. Or else.

It was February, 1989 and Pistons GM Jack McCloskey had just struck what I still believe to this day, to be one of the most courageous trades in Detroit sports history.

Courageous, or foolish!

McCloskey got small forward Aguirre from the Dallas Mavericks for small forward Adrian Dantley, straight up.

McCloskey basically told the Mavericks, “I’ll give you my headache for yours.”

The trade was made when the Pistons were on one of those West Coast jaunts that can make or break a basketball team.

On the surface, things looked like they were going swimmingly for the Pistons, who were 32-13 and dominating their division. Their mission of winning a championship, one year after falling to the Lakers in a heartbreaking, seven-game Finals series, appeared to be on course.

But McCloskey had a headache: Dantley.

And Dallas had one of its own: Aguirre.

It was felt among the Pistons’ inner circle, i.e Isiah Thomas—the aforementioned high prince—that Dantley, with his tendency to hold the basketball while the shot clock drained, was needlessly cramping the team’s style on offense. Passing the ball to A.D. was akin to throwing it into a “black hole.” The words were Isiah’s.

Dantley, for his part, began to feel ostracized by his teammates, who looked at him cross-eyed as the reason why the Pistons offense had a tendency to bog down.

Meanwhile, in Dallas, ownership had had its fill of Aguirre, who the team had selected first off the board in the 1981 draft out of DePaul University, but whose years of petulance were wearing thin on ownership, players and the coaching staff.

By 1987, Dick Motta, Aguirre’s first coach in Dallas and who put up with the small forward’s antics for seven years, had taken to calling Aguirre, at various times, a “coward” and a “jackass.”

So when McCloskey and the Mavericks talked about their respective headaches, you had yourself the makings of a big trade.

McCloskey told me several years ago that he didn’t want to trade Adrian Dantley. His preference was to have Dantley talk to coach Chuck Daly about his concerns, but according to Jack, Dantley didn’t want to have any part of a discussion of detente.

So when the 1989 trading deadline approached, McCloskey made the trade. Dantley for Aguirre, straight up.

My headache for yours.

At the dinner in Sacramento—where the Pistons were on the second leg of their four-game western swing—Bill Laimbeer, Isiah’s no. 1 goon, sneered at Aguirre and let the new guy know that his antics in Dallas were well known in the Pistons locker room.

But Laimbeer told Aguirre that he’d get the benefit of the doubt because of Aguirre’s personal relationship with fellow Chicagoan Thomas.

The first three games of the Mark Aguirre Era in Detroit were rocky; the Pistons lost two of the three contests with no. 23 replacing no. 45 on the floor.

But the Pistons figured it out and finished the season on a 30-4 run, heading into the playoffs with a then-franchise best record of 63-19.

Two months later, the Pistons finished a sweep of the Lakers to capture their first-ever NBA championship.

Aguirre, at the ballyhooed dinner in Sacramento, was quickly indoctrinated into the Pistons Way.

The Bad Boys of 1989-90 understood that what goes on between the ears and how mentally tough you are, can make the difference between winning and losing a division, a playoff series, and a championship.

The bitter disappointment of the 1988 Finals didn’t break the Pistons—it steeled them.

And the success of 1989 didn’t spoil or soften the Pistons—it drove them.

Today’s young Pistons are finding out that it’s not all about your basketball skills—it’s also about the mental grind of an 82-game season and how you navigate through it.

Right now, the Pistons are getting failing grades in the mental category.

They’re 8-9 this season, but three of those losses have come against a trio of NBA dregs: the Los Angeles Lakers, the Sacramento Kings and the Brooklyn Nets.

Those three teams are a combined 12-39 this season. All the losses have come on the road, but that’s not enough of an excuse to be 0-3 against them.

Maybe the Pistons’ 5-1 start was the worst thing that could have happened to them.

Pistons czar Stan Van Gundy has done a marvelous job, in just 18 months, of making over the team, from top to bottom on the roster.

But the Pistons are still too young, too immature, and too flawed to handle success with the degree needed to be considered a top flight NBA team.

The 5-1 start has crumbled into 8-9 because of inconsistent effort, poor shooting and the inability to beat teams that the rest of the league is stomping into the floor.

Words like “frustrated” and “lack of energy” have been used to describe the team, by both players and coach.

The Pistons can’t shoot and they only seem to hang their hat on defense when the mood strikes them.

But this uneven play shouldn’t be a total shock, because the Pistons have very young players at key positions, especially at point guard and in the middle.

Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond have the potential to form a terrific duo that on many nights can dominate opponents with their inside/outside/slashing play.

But on too many nights already this season—and we’re only just a month into it—their play has been inconsistent and their starting compatriots have dug big holes in the first half. Van Gundy has already bemoaned Drummond’s lack of energy at times and only 17 games of 82 have been played.

drummond van gundy

Getting through to Drummond has proved difficult at times for Van Gundy

The bench guys are like the Tigers bullpen; Van Gundy, like Brad Ausmus, has no idea what he’s going to get from his bench on a night-by-night basis.

Still, the 8-9 Pistons are a markedly improved team from last year, when a 5-23 start buried them by the holidays.

What’s happening here is a process.

Unless you draft someone like LeBron James or Michael Jordan or Lew Alcindor, awful teams don’t get good overnight in the NBA.

It took Isiah’s Pistons about five solid years to mature into a contender after he was drafted, and another couple after that to finally win the brass ring.

By the time the 1988-89 season rolled around, the Pistons were as mentally tough as any team in professional sports. Ever.

Remember, the 1987-88 team had to overcome the nightmare of Game 5 in Boston Garden in 1987, plus another tough loss two games later.

It was a process.

The 2004 champion Pistons capped their process as well, though it wasn’t quite as extended.

In 2003, the Pistons were embarrassed in the Eastern Conference Finals by the New Jersey Nets—swept out of the gym in four straight.

But a year later, steeled, the Pistons won the whole thing. And they came damn close to winning it again in 2005.

The 2004 Pistons got a key addition late in the season via trade.

He, too, was a player with a checkered past. He, too, was a risk.

Rasheed Wallace was that team’s Mark Aguirre.

The Pistons of today are probably not yet ready to contend to the degree that Van Gundy would feel that a bold move for a high profile player late in the season would make a big difference.

After 17 games, the Pistons are too flawed and too soft mentally. Too prone to stretches of malaise.

They obviously can’t even handle the small, marginal success of a 5-1 start. They can’t be taken seriously—not yet.

But they’re getting better.

It’s a process.


Long Overdue, Lions’ Enema Finally Begins

In football, Uncategorized on November 6, 2015 at 3:23 am

You know what they say. If you want something done, leave it to a woman.

Martha Ford, today, officially launched her campaign to be Michigan’s next governor.

At approximately 11:30 this morning, according to sources, Mrs. Ford, owner of the Detroit Lions, made a giant leap toward clearing her family’s name.

Mrs. Ford summarily dismissed team President Tom Lewand and General Manager Martin Mayhew in a move that at once was shocking and filled with common sense—because, well, these are the Lions and what is common sense in 31 other NFL cities is mind-blowing in Detroit.

Lewand and Mayhew, Lions employees during the Matt Millen Era, are gone.

Mrs. Ford put an end to the in-breeding.

As sweeping as these changes are, and as welcome as they are by a fan base that has suffered through decades of football ignominy, it’s still not totally safe to be a Lions fan.

The canning of Lewand and Mayhew is justified and overdue but this is only the first step toward cleansing.

The next move—the hiring of a new football czar in Detroit—is the real biggie.

But make no mistake. Mrs. Ford’s lowering the boom today—four days after she was embarrassed in front of friends and family by her team’s performance in London—is monumental.

This is not her husband’s football team anymore.

This afternoon, Lions fans feel like the folks who slowly and cautiously emerge from their cellars after a big tornado swept through town.

The sky is sunny, the air is calm and the birds are chirping. But all around, there are remnants of the storm’s destruction.

The feeling is, OK, the damage has been done, but where do we start the clean up?

Mrs. Ford finally put an end to the tornado that was Matt Millen, because Lewand and Mayhew were Millen lieutenants. They always had that stench on them, and in seven years of running the Lions, neither man could shake the stench.

After seven years, it was still impossible to look at Lewand or Mayhew and not see the ghost of Matt Millen.

That’s because the Lions are, today, not that much closer to winning a Super Bowl as they were when Millen got the ziggy early in the 2008 season.

Since that day—which was almost as glorious as this one—the Lions have made dozens of draft picks, signed a million free agents and made countless trades. They have fired two coaches and hired two more. They have had a quarterback throw for 5,000 yards and a receiver break the NFL single season record for yards.

And today the Lions are 1-7, non-competitive and the coach and the no. 2 receiver seem to be taking the media and the fans to task more than themselves.

If Jim Caldwell, who may be next to go, thinks the Detroit media is negative, then he must have the skin of an onion.

If Golden Tate thinks that the fans quit on his team, then there is a disconnect and a lack of accountability that was never going to be rectified under the current regime.

Like the Joker said in the 1989 version of “Batman,” this town needs an enema.

A football enema, right up the tight end.

The firings today are a great step forward. They were moves that probably would have not been made by Old Man Ford, were he alive today.

There were two L-words that Bill Ford will always be known for. Loyalty, and losing.

Today, Mrs. Ford shook the team’s history, its foundation and its self-afflicting ways to their core.

Still, that was the easy part. Pro sports is a produce-or-else business. It just hasn’t always been like that with the Lions. They’ve been notoriously slow on the uptake when it comes to this postulate.

The hard part—and the part that the Lions under Ford ownership haven’t gotten right in 41 years—is the next step.

Martha Ford has taken the keys to her football team away from Tom Lewand and Martin Mayhew.

It was overdue, but that was the no-brainer.

Anyone can fire. Pro sports teams fire all the time.

But only those who have grasped the art of hiring are the winners.

Mrs. Ford, Detroit’s football nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

Andre the Giant

In Basketball, Uncategorized on November 3, 2015 at 9:26 pm

The painted area of a basketball floor under the goal is not very biblical.

The meek shall not inherit it.

The paint is the belly of the sport’s beast. You go in, and you might not come back out in one piece—if you come out at all.

It’s where noses get broken, eyes get popped halfway out of their sockets and bells get rung.

Every night in the NBA, there’s more whacking in the paint than in a mobster movie.

Black Friday at the mall has nothing on the paint when it comes to jostling.

The three-second rule is there to save lives—kind of like the seat belt law.

The Pistons are 3-0 in this young season and one reason for that fast start is because of a monster-child who feeds off the meek in the paint.

Andre Drummond is nearly seven feet tall, 22 years old and he thrives in the paint like a vampire inside a blood bank.

Drummond swats away shots with disdain, like it annoys him that someone is trying to score inside. He grabs rebounds as if he’s Refrigerator Perry and every basketball is a pie.

With Drummond, the Pistons don’t have to worry about any nonsense in the paint. If an opponent is foolhardy enough to scoot away for a layup, Drummond is there to slap the basketball in one of two places—the third row of the seats or down the shooter’s gullet.

Basketball common sense says that in a rebounding situation, the defending team is at the advantage because they’re usually the closest ones to the glass, and thus have prime positioning to grab the carom.

Drummond disagrees.

Drummond figures that if it’s a rebound, then he’s entitled to it—no matter if he’s the defender or on offense. His appetite for rebounding is insatiable.

Through three games this season, Drummond has 19 offensive boards out of his 49 overall. He’s better on glass than pheasant is under it.

The Pistons aren’t unbeaten solely because of Drummond, but every successful basketball team has a heart and soul and for the first time in decades, the Pistons have one who isn’t a guard.

Chauncey Billups, Mr. Big Shot, was the money man for the Pistons’ championship team of 2004 and when Chauncey was traded in 2008 for Allen Iverson, the Pistons started to crumble like a cookie.

Isiah Thomas, he of the cherubic grin and the heart of an assassin, was all of 6’1″ but he was the unquestioned leader of The Bad Boys championship teams of 1989-90.

You have to go all the way back to Bob Lanier (1970-80) to find a time when the face of the Pistons franchise was a big man.

Correction—you have to go back to Lanier to find the last time the face of the franchise was a big man.

Right now it’s Andre Drummond. I dare you to tell him otherwise.

Reggie Jackson, toDrummondday’s Pistons point guard, is a fine player who wants to be a leader. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, the shooting guard, is this group’s version of Rip Hamilton—the Energizer Bunny who you wind up and he plays 40 minutes relentlessly.

But Andre Drummond is The Man.

Actually, he’s still A Kid, and that’s where this story should get terrifying for other NBA teams.

Drummond is 22 and—get this—despite all his prowess, he’s still trying to figure it all out. The dude is averaging 18.7 points, 16.3 rebounds and two blocks per game and he’s not even refined yet.

OK, so he doesn’t have an established low post offensive arsenal yet. But that’s like saying that you shouldn’t worry about the fire-breathing dragon because he can’t run fast.

Besides, Drummond will figure out what to do with the basketball when they dump it into him on the block. Coach Stan Van Gundy will make sure of that. Van Gundy’s offensive recipe calls for one big man surrounded by a bunch of shooters and slashers—and that big man isn’t the second coming of Tom Boerwinkle, either. SVG had Dwight Howard in Orlando and the coach seems hellbent on molding Drummond in the same manner.

So if you’re an NBA opponent and you’re putting all of your eggs in the “Well, Drummond doesn’t have an offensive game yet” basket, you’d better be ready to start making some omelets.

So far, in wins over Atlanta, Utah and Chicago, I’ve seen Drummond toss opposing big men around like rag dolls—whether to snare a rebound, dunk or otherwise impose his will. It’s ironic that he looks like a man among boys, because he’s practically a child in his own right.

Which gets me back to the terrifying part—for the rest of the league. Andre Drummond is just scratching the surface of his dominance. Even he’s not sure how good he can be. Just wait until Van Gundy, who’s starting his second season as Pistons boss, gets some more time with his prized big man.

Drummond has a great relationship with owner Tom Gores and it goes beyond basketball. The two men are said to have a special bond, and that includes Drummond being totally down with what Gores and Van Gundy are trying to build in Detroit—on and off the basketball court.

The Pistons finally have a player over 6’2″ that the city can get excited about. In a game of height, the Pistons have too long been a team of little people.

Now they have someone who makes the other guys look like Lilliputians.


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