Like the economy and the auto industry, the Detroit Pistons are on an upswing, delving into the free agent market to sign Josh Smith and bringing back their talented young core that’s been developing without much notice.
Former UConn center Andre Drummond could become a force in the coming years, and power forward Greg Monroe has a punishing post game. The addition of Smith makes the Pistons a legitimate contender for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference after some difficult times in Motown.
Team president Joe Dumars made the decision to add longtime Piston Rasheed Wallace to the coaching staff. Wallace retired during 2012-13 after an injury-plagued final season with the Knicks, but his addition to the Pistons’ staff shows the organization’s seriousness about developing Drummond and Monroe.
For Wallace, it’s an opportunity to make a further impact on the game and pass on the skills that made him a splendid interior defender.
“There’s a few things I have to do differently as far as preparations, practice — it’s fun, exciting,” he said. “I know that I can [coach], I know that I have the skill set to be able to help a lot of younger players out, but on the other hand, do I want to do it? Do I want that retirement freedom to be able to do things with my kids. It was a blessing in disguise because my kids are back in Detroit and I have the best of both now.”
The Pistons were once one of the prouder organizations in the NBA, but a series of questionable moves, plus the aging of Wallace, Richard Hamilton, and Antonio McDyess, and the trading of Chauncey Billups for erratic and selfish Allen Iverson, caused a tailspin.
Detroit reacquired Billups for leadership, while its lottery picks over the past few seasons — Drummond, Monroe, and Brandon Knight — appear ready to flourish.
“[Smith’s] that good of a player, and to have him on this team, expectations should be raised,” said Monroe, who averaged 16 points and 9.6 rebounds in 2012-13, his third season. “When somebody like that joins the team, expectations are going to rise, and you can’t get around that and I understand that. Whether he’s here or not, people on the team want things to be different.”
The Pistons’ core is brimming with potential, especially Drummond, who dominated the Orlando Summer League, scoring 23 points with 18 rebounds Thursday against the Heat. Scouts feared he would be a major bust after just one uneven season at UConn, but Drummond has impressed the organization with his workmanlike attitude and willingness to learn.
A back injury abbreviated his 2012-13 rookie season, but he could emerge as one of the league’s top defensive stoppers.
“I thought we were a playoff team last year; I never doubt our team,” the optimistic Drummond said. “With any team, you bring in a big star [Smith] like that, the expectation of your team raises a lot higher. The fans will expect a lot more, the media’s going to expect a lot more, everybody’s going to expect a lot more. But you really can’t feed into that yet. We haven’t played with him yet and we haven’t even started. We can’t go off what people say.”
Drummond will be Wallace’s No. 1 project. The Pistons want to return to being a staunch defensive team with imposing players in the paint. Wallace helped out the Knicks during the playoffs, working with Amar’e Stoudemire, and that experience encouraged him to take the idea of coaching more seriously.
And he has quickly bonded with Drummond.
“He’s still young and still growing and depending on his athleticism a lot,” said Wallace. “To tell you the truth, a lot of 19-year-olds do.”
Wallace has always been considered a skilled player who had trouble controlling his emotions. His one season in Boston was a mostly positive experience as he helped the Celtics to the NBA Finals before fouling out in the Game 7 against the Lakers.
Technical fouls as an assistant coach will be frowned upon. Wallace realizes he will have to readjust his attitude to maintain an even keel on the sideline. He is a mentor now, someone the young Pistons watched when they were in their pajamas getting ready for bed. Wallace shaved off his customary wooly hair as a sign of professionalism, and he understands his role in the Pistons’ ascension is important.
“I’ll tell you what the big thing is, when I was playing I had that passion and fire,” he said. “Being a coach, I can still have my passion, but I have to tone it down because I can’t make a difference now. I can talk mess but I can’t back it up.”
A NEW DIMENSION
McHale will help Howard
Rockets coach Kevin McHale and GMDaryl Morey were at the Orlando Summer League with their chests out, proud that their offseason objective of becoming a primary contender in the Western Conference has come to fruition. They nabbed Dwight Howard from the Lakers with a four-year, $88 million deal, then re-signed Francisco Garcia.
Morey has been preparing for two years to get Howard, accumulating salary cap space by trading veterans for draft picks, and then trading those picks, signing players to back-loaded deals, and finally dumping Carlos Delfino and Aaron Brooks. Finally, Morey unloaded troubled forward Royce White on former Rockets assistant GM Sam Hinkle, now the GM in Philadelphia, to create even more space.
McHale stepped down as GM in Minnesota in 2008, and was fired as coach of the Timberwolves in 2009, but he convinced Morey he could lead the Rockets and would develop big men, which attracted Howard, who was desperate to escape Los Angeles. The Rockets may not be the favorites in the West, but they could challenge the Thunder, Spurs, Warriors, and Clippers.
“He’s going to add a great deal,” McHale said of Howard. “And I think James [Harden] loves to pass, loves to drive and kick, and we have a lot of guys who move the ball pretty good. He’s going to do really well with us. His ability to control the paint off the board and off the defense is going to start a lot of [fast] breaks for us.”
Howard struggled in Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni’s pick-and-roll offense, was horrible at the free throw line, and dealt with injuries to his back and shoulder. The Rockets hope a good relationship with McHale, considered one of the best power forwards in history, will help Howard further develop his interior game and improve as an offensive threat.
“You’re a finished product the day you retire,” McHale said. “Until then you’re always doing something, you’re always evolving and changing, and I think Dwight is in the process of evolving and changing. He says he feels way better now than he has been, his back feels better. Again, I just anticipate him coming in and doing what he did for years, being the best, most dominant center in the league.”
Howard maintains he never wavered in his decision, despite reports that he verbally committed to the Rockets and then changed his mind and was on his way to Los Angeles to discuss matters with Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak.
“He was a little bit upset about that,” McHale said. “He said, ‘I didn’t change my mind.’ I had a pretty good feeling but when it was finally done, you’re really happy and really looking forward to getting going after we signed him and being part of our team.”
Omer Asik, meanwhile, says he does not want to be Howard’s backup and would like a trade. The Rockets apparently won’t oblige.
Asik averaged a double-double last season, his first as a starter. He was third in the league in rebounding at 11.7 per game, trailing only Howard and Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic.
“You can play two bigs, and you’ve got to get spacing and your smaller guys have to make sure they keep the court spaced,” McHale said. “We’ll see where it goes with Omer. I mean, Omer had a great year for us last year. He really became one of the top centers in the league, but when you have an opportunity to get Dwight, it’s hard not to. I’m sure right now Omer is a little down in the dumps, but we’ll pick him up.”
For the first time since the Timberwolves reached the Western Conference finals in 2004 with Kevin Garnett, Sam Cassell, and Latrell Sprewell, McHale has a legitimate contender.
“I’m looking forward to getting together with the team and putting everything together,” McHale said. “I feel really comfortable that we can compete with anybody.”
THE DREAM’S ALIVE
Honeycutt hunts for job
Overshadowed on the impressive team the Rockets featured in the Orlando Summer League was former UCLA standout Tyler Honeycutt, who is trying to catch on in an NBA training camp after passing through Sacramento and Houston with little impact.
Honeycutt, who turns 23 on Monday, was one of the top high school swingmen in the country when he committed to UCLA in 2010, but after two solid but not spectacular seasons with the Bruins he declared for the draft and was the Kings’ second-round pick. He played 24 games in two years with the Kings before being shipped to Houston in the Thomas Robinson/PatrickPatterson deal. He was waived by the Rockets 13 days later.
Honeycutt finished the 2012-13 season with Rio Grande Valley of the Development League and now sees his NBA career at stake after failing to establish himself with two teams. At such a young age, Honeycutt finds himself in a difficult position, fighting for a chance for a training camp invitation, realizing that he is quickly becoming an afterthought to NBA front offices.
“I’m just trying to get comfortable; I really haven’t played in the last two years,” he said. “I’m just finishing the D-League. I am just going out here and trying to show my all-around game, rebound, pass the ball, make the right plays, and knock down the open shots when I’ve got them.”
Honeycutt had the chance to develop into a bona fide NBA prospect but he, like many others before him, bolted college prematurely, believing his game would adapt better to the NBA. The Kings were filled with young players, so Honeycutt and his not-quite-ready-for-the-NBA game was relegated to working out before games and after practices to sharpen his skills.
“I kind of use it as a chip on my shoulder because I want to show everybody what I can do,” he said. “I belong in this league. I haven’t played summer league before and I’ve been doing all right.”
Honeycutt is part of several storied UCLA recruiting classes that have experienced difficulties at the next level. Honeycutt’s classmate Malcolm Lee was a 2011 second-round pick of the Chicago Bulls and was dealt to the Minnesota Timberwolves on draft night. He was traded to the Golden State Warriors in a salary-dumping move last month.
“Everybody is trying to get their chance. Not everybody is fortunate enough to make it but they want to at least make money somewhere playing basketball,” Honeycutt said. “Of course, this is the level everybody’s trying to get to, and as for myself, I’m trying to get back into the league.”
The options are limited. Honeycutt could crack an NBA roster, return to the NBADL, head for Europe on a more lucrative contract, or remain in the States, waiting for a tryout. The life of an NBA journeyman is not easy, and sobering for those who never expected to be in that position. Honeycutt was hurt by his decision to leave school and then landing in a place that had little use for a developing player.
Honeycutt is fighting for his professional existence, trying to display a game that league scouts haven’t seen since high school — attempting to show his game remains relevant.
“It’s something I have to weigh at the end of the [summer], see after this summer what I’ll do,” he said. “Of course, every player’s dream is to play in the NBA, but not everybody has the chance.”
The Pistons are quite interested in Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo, but they don’t have a package to offer that would attract president of basketball operations Danny Ainge to making a deal. The Celtics would presumably ask for emerging center Andre Drummond, who is as close to untouchable as a younger player can get. Detroit would like to send the Celtics Brandon Knight and an expiring contract, but that wouldn’t be nearly enough. Detroit doesn’t have a first-round pick to offer because of the Ben Gordon deal that gave the Bobcats the choice of a Pistons draft pick over the next four seasons . . . There are going to be several players squeezed out of the free agent market and forced to sign below-market deals. One of those players is former Celtic Nate Robinson, who is coming off a sparkling season with the Bulls. His reputation may precede him during free agency. Robinson is seeking a multiyear deal and security considering he’s played for four teams in the past three years. But with the market drying up by the day, Robinson may have to accept something near a minimum deal or the biannual exception of $2 million despite deserving more. Teams are just trying to organize their salary caps, so many of the lower-priority players will begin to sign in the coming weeks . . . Former Celtic Chris Wilcox wants to return to the NBA after an uneven season in 2012-13. Wilcox, who had surgery in March 2012 for an enlarged aorta, said he never got into proper shape because of the long recovery from the surgery. He’s going to be 31 in September and will have to show he can rebound and play solid defense to get a job . . . Looking for an NBA job, 34-year-old Rasual Butler suited up for the Pacers as the oldest player in the Orlando Summer League. Butler hasn’t played a full NBA season since 2009-10 and was out of the league last season.
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.