by Gautham Nagesh
Two games is not long enough to draw definite conclusions about the 2011-12 Detroit Pistons but at least two things have become obvious: this team is pudding soft on defense and rookie Brandon Knight should be the focus on offense. Both points were punctuated during Wednesday night’s home opener, a thorough drubbing by the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Blessed with natural scoring instincts, Knight played with verve and audacity while powering several second half runs on his way to 23 points and six assists in 28 minutes. The rookie from Kentucky appears poised beyond his 20 years and the game comes to him naturally, a stark contrast to the guttural efforts offered by backcourt-mates Ben Gordon and Rodney Stuckey. Knight showed unnatural calm in pump-faking top pick Kyrie Irving before nailing a triple at the halftime buzzer to cut the lead to eleven. But Detroit the never came closer than four points after the break.
Ironically Knight’s stroke invokes a young Gordon, the version the Pistons were hoping for when they handed over the keys a few summers back. Today’s Gordon played effectively against the Cavs but still failed to make an impression. Even when he’s on, Gordon is just a 6-3 shooting guard that prefers spotting up off screens to finishing at the rim. He lacks natural playmaking instincts or the ball handling needed to drive at will. Such players are rarely the stars of contenders, even when they score 25 as Gordon did Wednesday.
Gordon’s shots would be far more useful in Knight’s hands, for the future and the present. But removing the former free agent prize from the starting lineup would be final acknowledgement of the folly of his signing by Joe Dumars. Unless Joe D can find someone to take Gordon’s contract off his hands the bet is he stays on the court. But Knight would offer more hope to the fans and energy to the other players, who seldom see the ball once it touches Gordon’s hands.
Regardless, Detroit’s biggest failing is in the paint, where the interior defense was carved up by the likes of Samardo Samuels, Tristan Thompson and Anderson Varejao. Second-year center Greg Monroe is the brightest spot on the team apart from Knight but woefully miscast as the enforcer. A finesse player and improving rebounder, Monroe will never intimidate on the block. In fact size is sorely lacking on the entire roster. Charlie Villanueva’s return after Friday is unlikely to help.
When Dumars built his first championship squad he relied on the combination of an undersized but dynamic help defender in Ben Wallace, augmented by an excellent if aging on-the-ball defender in Clifford Robinson. Wallace is now too old to battle bigger men on a nightly basis and still soar to block shots, but he could potentially play the role of Uncle Cliff in the starting lineup. Jonas Jerebko is one of the team’s more capable performers but he is abused in the post and on the glass regularly as starting power forward. The undersized Swede is a poor complement to Monroe and would be more appropriate as the first big man off the bench.
For the second time the Pistons were handled on the glass by double digits, a worrying indication of things to come. Even with Villanueva’s return Dumars should be seriously considering every big man on the market for whom he needn’t sacrifice Knight or Monroe. Without additional talent up front Detroit is looking squarely at a top-five draft pick. For some that would be success, but in the uncertain world of the NBA lottery banking on the draft is foolish. Allowing the team’s fanbase to continue its erosion in owner Tom Gores’ first year wouldn’t seem wise either.
In light of Detroit’s deficit in talent, criticism of Dumars for re-signing Tayshaun Prince and Rodney Stuckey seems especially unfounded. Absent Knight and Monroe they are the Pistons’ best players and most consistent veterans. It’s troubling to think what this team would have been without either, particularly Prince since backup Austin Daye has proven poorly-prepared for the spotlight. Daye is essentially a spot-up shooter at this point. Bad things tend to happen when he puts the ball on the court.
A long season appears in store for Pistons fans but at least Knight offers some hope for the future. Early against the Cavs he appeared overmatched by Irving, who looked more mature and dynamic. But Knight has a lightning release and seemingly unlimited range on his jumper, which could become one of the game’s most deadly. His decision-making already makes him the team’s best options at point guard.
Whether it happens next week or next year, Knight’s ascension is inevitable. Someone has to play the candy coating to mask this team’s gooey caramel center. Maybe the sweet taste will help fans get over what looks to be the worst Pistons team in recent memory. Progress this season will be measured not in wins, but in how many young players the Pistons have confidence in keeping for the long-term. After just two games we know Brandon Knight should be one of them.