Achilles was the grandest warrior of the Trojan war. With godlike looks to match his skills on the battlefield, Achilles lead Agamemnon’s forces to legendary status. Achilles was a man to emulate and any athlete would be floored to be compared to—if not for the frailness in which his rival Paris disposed of him. It’s why on Saturday night when I received a text from my brother that said, simply, “Jennings f#$@ed,” my heart sank. I wasn’t watching the game. I was at a bar and it was loud and there were too many people there and I couldn’t see the TV screens, but eventually I saw the replay of Brandon Jennings falling back on his heel and my deepest fears aligned with that of Homer and The Muses when Paris’ arrow penetrated Achilles’ foretold only weakness. Then I took to Twitter—
Out for the season; a season that began as the more-than-half-a-decade of previous Pistons seasons began, except worse. When the same-look Pistons took the court at the end of October to begin the 2014-2015 campaign, everything felt normal. And normal, for the Detroit Basketball fans of recent memory, meant more than not winning, it meant not even competing. The last time the Pistons were extremely relevant and elite, I was just beginning to drive a car. The 2004 and 2005 seasons were magical, but since Larry Brown left, revered owner William Davidson passed away, and the team was sold to a once-Michigander Californian, the Detroit Pistons have been the biggest annual joke in the biggest joke of a professional sports league that is the NBA.
It’s important to start with the Davidsons selling the team to Tom Gores, because that was the official ending. We knew the Going to Work Pistons were dead, but the selling of the team to Gores was the nail in the coffin. Bill Davidson owned the Pistons forever, and was instrumental in their three championship wins and their move to the palatial Palace of Auburn Hills—one of the best and for the longest time most profitable sports and entertainment venues in the country. When the team was sold to Tom Gores, many Detroiters were confused. Growing up in Genesee, Gores left and made his millions in and resides in Beverly Hills, California. He had Weezer-caliber dreams and has achieved his goals, and we can’t fault him for that, but—it’s different than what we’re used to.
As is common place in many cities, it is normal for team owners to not reside in said team’s hometown. In fact, many of them have no connection whatsoever to those towns. But in Detroit, we’ve been spoiled with owners who grew up on our streets and made their money with local businesses they started and invested their time and funds in helping to revive and sustain our communities, in the suburbs as well as the city. Tom Gores brought none of that familiarity to the table, so Detroiters were wary about the new ownership. Bill Davidson went to every game and sat on the court because he loved being a part of the team he owned. Tom Gores goes to a handful of games a season and sits in a suite as not to mix with the regular folk (not that regular folk sit court-side, but you get the perception). But as Tom Gores may well find out, it doesn’t matter what your background or where your mailing address is, if you can come here and provide a winner, the rest will be buried below the surface.
It hasn’t been that easy, though, for Gores and company. Following in the footsteps of the Mike Curry mistake and the John Kuester losers, Gores’ first move was to hire former Nets head coach Lawrence Frank to try and build a winning program back in the Piston red, white, and blue. It didn’t work. My friends and I went to a lot of games in the Lawrence Frank era—because they were cheap (pro tip: go the Pistons games now because once they get good, there is no more expensive ticket in town than the successful ‘Stones). We went because they were cheap, yes, but we also went (A LOT, I must stress) because the NBA is silly and the talent, in years past, have been so imbalanced that the prospect (every season) that we might have a competitive Pistons team lead my friends and I to the Palace. Just the idea that we’d slowly begin to see the teams grow around the talented Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond were enough to titillate our basketball senses that were so thirsty for the years of the past when the superstar-less Pistons ruled in a land of ball hogs. But Lawrence Frank wasn’t enough and Mo Cheeks never lead to mo’ wins and it was time for Joe Dumars to go as general manager.
It looked like Tom Gores had bought himself a team that was more of a headache than anything. He booted Dumars and just gave the entire team to Stan Van Gundy. Stan Van Gundy had had success as a coach in the league, but giving him both general manager powers and coaching responsibilities seemed like a big joke at the time. It didn’t help that a loophole in a Joe Dumars trade relieved Van Gundy of the difficult decisions to be made about the first round draft pick because the Pistons didn’t have one. If all of that didn’t convince us that there wasn’t any change in Pistons morale coming anytime soon, the beginning of the season would cement those thoughts in our minds. It was just more of the same. Sure, Stan Van Gundy was here and he was a big name, but Josh Smith was still there with shot selections that made Miley Cyrus look like a good decision maker. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was just about as average as possible at the time, looking unclear of what his role on this team was supposed to be, giving KCP the nickname Kid Can’t Play. We had two big men and Josh Smith, and it didn’t seem like there was room for all three of them on the court at the same time. The Pistons were just an absolute mess—no identity, no sense of a future, and they were the worst that they had been since the Tom Gores era, and fans were letting Gores know. The beer was as expensive as the tickets and no one was having that. The Pistons were averaging the worst attendance in the league.
Then Stan Van Gundy came out and announced that the team was waiving Josh Smith, and as you know by now, the Pistons went on a month-long stretch of Eastern Conference elitism. It appeared that Josh Smith was doing more bad than poorly choosing his shots, he was literally inhibiting a team of young talent from finding its groove. Stan Van Gundy saw it; he saw his team’s potential without Josh Smith and he didn’t want to wait around for the contract to be up. He wanted to win now. But it would take convincing of owner Tom Gores to waive Smith, and it was convincing that didn’t seem to be much of a task for Stan Van Gundy as it—for the first time to Pistons fans—became clear that Tom Gores was committed; committed to winning, sure, but also a commitment to the fans and his coach and his players to doing whatever he has to do to make the Pistons relevant and entertaining as soon as possible:[youtube http://youtu.be/yx7wCqM0zlM]
The rest is well-documented. You know how it went. The Pistons won five straight games after waiving Josh Smith. The jokes were in immediately: of course it was Josh Smith that was the cancer rotting in the Pistons clubhouse. We joked about it, but we knew, like metal, that this was just a phase. We especially knew it when the Pistons were down 18 at the Spurs. Same ol’ Pistons, until the world flipped over on itself and the Pistons won more than just a game, they won back their city’s faith. It all happened so fast, but an inbound steal lead to Brandon Jennings taking the lead away from the Spurs with just .01 seconds left. Then, the rallying cry (NSFW, I suppose):[youtube http://youtu.be/4y0P4IdZDTE]
In what normal circumstances would be embarrassing for Fox Sports Detroit and the Pistons organization that a vulgar word from the head coach made it onto the television broadcast, instead became the very proof to Detroiters that Stan Van Gundy might just be the right guy for the job. Not only was he developing our young talent and managing to get the best out of every player on the court, but he also possessed the kind of grit and determination that children of the Midwest see so frequently in their mustached dads coaching them outside on the driveway hoop. With their sixth win in a row in San Antonio and their seventh win in a row the next day in Dallas, the Pistons suddenly had a must-watch date with the Eastern Conference’s best Atlanta Hawks, and a chance at destiny to break a Pistons all-time record of wins in a row. Yes, the same Pistons I described above as the muck of the league were giving themselves a chance to do what none of the immaculate Pistons teams in the past ever had done and that was win eight games in a row. How hard it is to win consistently in the NBA; these FORM A WALL Pistons were not a joke.
Not to be mistaken with the bandwagon, my friends and I went to the match up against the Hawks and, aside from winning, it couldn’t have gone much better. FORM A WALL was in use as much as we’d hoped. There were signs available in the Pistons shop. Cheerleaders were wearing shirts that said it. The team was introduced to Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”. And when defense stops were in dire need, the fans we were among in the lower bowl chanted “Form a wall! Form a wall!”. Stan Van Gundy was surprised at how quickly the phrase became the Pistons mantra. But he will soon learn that we take these sort of things seriously around here. Stan Van Gundy has played on big stages with amazing teams, but even when his teams sold out the Amway Center in Orlando, it was probably nothing like the 70 percent-full Palace of Auburn Hills that Friday against the Hawks. It’s just different here than in Central Florida. Ask David Price. Stan Van Gundy is slowly learning how much we care about basketball. As many sports implants to the Detroit area are overwhelmed by the level of excitement surrounding our teams, Stan Van Gundy learned quickly that the FORM A WALL mantra was the exact sort of no-BS, blue-collar, you-gotta-get-your-hands-dirty-to-accomplish-something proverbial expression that a starved-for-good-basketball rust belt city can get behind. And it’s the mantra the organization needed. There were the Bad Boys Pistons. The Going to Work Pistons. And, when Stan Van Gundy takes us to the Eastern Conference Championship in 2-3 years, Brandon Jennings and company will still be the FORM A WALL Pistons.
Yet now there is that vital piece of the structure missing from the wall. With Brandon Jennings out for the remainder of the season, the Pistons look to D.J. Augustin to keep morale up. My first thought, of course, was oh, no. The season that suddenly had so much promise is gonna find its way back to the gutter. My second thought was how much it must suck of Brandon Jennings. Jennings, who had such an average experience in Milwaukee and a dismal second chance in Detroit was finally getting around to being the leader, scorer, and passer everyone thought he could be. It was quickly becoming a career year for Jennings, with some ridiculous performances this past month. He had 34 points against Toronto. He had 37 against the Pacers. And he had the most telling game just before his injury in Milwaukee when the Pistons played the Magic. Jennings scored 24 points and 21 assists. Twenty-one assists! The difference between the Josh Smith Pistons and the Brandon Jennings Pistons is that under the leadership that Jennings has provided in lieu of Josh Smith is that everyone is getting involved. They were playing like a team. And now Jennings has to sit on the sidelines and watch his team try their best wihtout him. That was my second thought. How crappy that must feel (I had hernia surgey once, which meant that I couldn’t workout at the gym and go drinking with my friends for a few weeks, and that had me down in the dumps. And I’m not even a professional athlete. I can’t imagine what stars like Brandon Jennings go through when this happens).
My third thought was okay, this sucks for Brandon and the team, but it’s not the end of the season. The Pistons will not falter in wake of losing their leader. They will not tank the season. The bright spot here is that younger players will get a bigger opportunity to develop their skills. Most intriguing is second-round pick Spencer Dinwiddie. We’ll get to see him grow and mature much quicker than he would have been able to with Brandon Jennings at the helm. Because now backup D.J. Augustin has his shot to lead the team, and judging by his career-high 35 points and 8 assists in a loss against the Raptors Sunday night, Augustin will be more than competent at taking over full-time for Brandon Jennings. It’s a performance like the one Augustin gave against the Raptors—in the midst of what seemed like the sky was falling once again on the Pistons—that has me believing that Josh Smith’s absence isn’t the biggest factor in the Pistons’ success this season, but it is instead Stan Van Gundy’s presence.
The Pistons don’t have to win a championship for this to be a successful season. They weren’t ever going to do that with Brandon Jennings. But without Brandon Jennings in the starting lineup every night, it is still important that Van Gundy, Augustin, and company propel themselves to a playoff berth and use that success to build on next season and the FORM A WALL seasons to come. I believe they can do it still, because Stan has proven to me that he can get the absolute best out of players—a skill that has seemingly left the majority of NBA coaches in recent years. And I sure hope they make the playoffs, because I would love to go to that series and see my basketball team back in relevancy. It was fun at the Hawks game. It was fun because I saw and heard things at The Palace that night I hadn’t seen or heard since high school. I saw the whole lower bowl full—of Pistons fans. I heard younger fans cheering for their heroes—fans who had never seen Chauncey and the gang tear it up in Auburn Hills. I saw people wearing jerseys of players on the current team for once.
And when Greg Monroe intercepted a last-second inbound that went off of a Hawk’s hand and out of bounds to force an official review of possession—when public address announcer John Mason yelled “Deeeetroit” and we all yelled back “Bas-ket-balllll”: the Pistons had the ball back. And their fans had basketball back.