Something funny happened last Wednesday. It looked, for a game, like the Pistons might be tanking:
They deactivated Tayshaun Prince and Ben Wallace.
They started Austin Daye, who had spent much of the season on the bench.
They played Vernon Macklin and Walker Russell big minutes.
Lottery teams do this kind of stuff all the time. For many already-bad teams, mildly increasing the chances of landing Anthony Davis seems more valuable than the potential of a late-season win.
But that's simply not how the Pistons have done things.
Detroit general manager Joe Dumars has been a part of three championships -- the first two as a player and the last as general manager. In all three cases the Pistons marched through the playoffs beating teams that consisted of far more starpower and far more high draft picks.
The 2004 Pistons are the only modern-era team to have won a title without a significant contribution from a player it picked in the lottery (or a lottery pick it traded for on draft night).
From Dumars down, the Pistons evidently can't stomach the thought of losing, and certainly not for a draft pick. In 2010, Dumars told Dave Pemberton of the Oakland Press:
“It is impossible to feel good about losing,” Dumars said. “I understand that maybe from a fan and media perspective, ‘Oh, just lose games.’ Your mind can’t even get around that. Even down the stretch when we were way out of it, you feel better leaving the arena after you won a game as opposed to losing a game because at that point you’re not looking at standings and trying to figure out where you are because you know that you have to go through a lottery anyway."
Dumars has brought in like-minded individuals: a coach and players who apparently hate losing just as much.
There’s certainly a reasonable case that he has made mistakes in assembling the current roster. Refusing to tank might be another one of his strategic mistakes.
But it should be noted that the Pistons have denounced tanking -- and backed it up with their actions. In playoff-less seasons, the Pistons finished with a 4-1 run last year and a 4-2 run the year before.
The Pistons’ strategy (or stubbornness, depending on your point of view) has provided them little direct help.
In addition to Detroit, six teams -- the Warriors, Timberwolves, Nets, Kings, Raptors and Wizards -- will miss the playoffs this season for at least the third straight year. In the previous two years, all of them have drafted ahead of the Pistons at least once. And all of those teams that might own their own draft pick this June have worse records than the Pistons this season.
In other words, the Pistons’ reward for not tanking has been drafting the leftovers of the teams that apparently do tank.
Here’s the good news, for anyone who opposes tanking: drafting lower doesn't appear to have hurt Detroit much.
In 2010, the Pistons took Greg Monroe, who has been the best player in his draft class to date by most measures. In 2011, they drafted Brandon Knight, a player they appear to be very pleased with. I’m not sure Detroit would trade those two for the players selected higher by teams with allegedly better strategy.
Not to mention, the Pistons have won as many NBA titles as the aforementioned six teams combined, and Detroit has won all three of its championships since any of them won their most recent.
The Pistons lost at Indiana last night, though the game was much more competitive than when the Pacers routed Detroit in the season opener. The Pistons were even worse against the Raptors the night before, shooting 36.6 percent on field goals, 13.3 percent on 3-pointers and 62.9 on free throws. It was so bad, it might have looked like the Pistons were trying to lose. Even when pushing for victory, Detroit isn’t great.
But the signs the Pistons refuse to tank were aplenty. Macklin, the team’s rookie center who might be too raw for the NBA but needs minutes to find out, was deactivated. Frank’s rotation was tight once again, and he leaned on his veterans.
Most importantly: They won that one.
It’s not something the Pistons have done often this year or the previous two -- except for at the very end of the season, when so many of their opponents aren't trying nearly as hard to win.