It took about six games for Andre Drummond to debunk the reasonable -- albeit vague -- reasons that eight teams passed on him in the 2012 NBA draft.
All the talk about his poor conditioning, a lack of motor -- all of it melted away when you saw the supremely talented teen with the body of a player 10 years his senior put up 22 points and eight rebounds on the reigning Western Conference champs in 21 minutes, mostly through sheer effort.
The drafting of Drummond answered a question that had nagged the franchise ever since the mid-2000s powerhouse began to lose its traction atop the East: how to land a franchise player without being bad enough to pick at the top of the lottery. But it also created another: How could a franchise whose roster decisions quickly undercut a core that advanced to six straight conference finals surround such a player with enough support to keep him?
Things didn’t get off to the greatest start. Drummond’s first coach, Lawrence Frank, imposed a strict minutes limit on the young center as a rookie even though he was clearly the team’s most productive player. Frank’s successor, Maurice Cheeks, increased Drummond’s minutes, but he hurt the team by remaining steadfast in his commitment to a supersized front line of Drummond, Greg Monroe and Josh Smith. Cheeks’ successor, John Loyer … well, he didn’t really do anything of significance, but he did mark the third coach for the budding big man in his first two seasons.
The Pistons had been gifted one of the NBA’s best young players, but their organizational instability has mired both their and Drummond’s progress.
This was all a bit too familiar for team president Joe Dumars. The last remnant of the Bad Boys era, Dumars watched as the organization failed to give Grant Hill the support he needed. In the six seasons Hill played in Detroit, the team embarked on an awful teal rocket-powered, horsey-based rebranding effort, lost Allan Houston for nothing, hired four different head coaches and never assembled a roster around Hill that made it farther than the first round of the playoffs.
By the time Hill hit free agency, it was Dumars, just hired as president of basketball operations, who had the unenviable task of coaxing Hill to return. Despite their five years together as teammates, Dumars couldn’t convince the former No. 3 pick to stay.
This time around, the team has taken a more bold approach, and it started by removing Dumars from the equation. After 14 seasons as the key decision-maker in Detroit, Dumars, a key player for the first title-winning Pistons and the architect of the next rendition, finally stepped down from his perch. In his place, the team set its sights on a candidate who could prevent history from repeating itself.
Stan Van Gundy built his résumé around a freakishly good young center. He’s the coach who helped Howard develop from a raw, athletic dynamo who succeeded because of his otherworldly athletic gifts into the best center in the league, a top-five player with a refined enough offensive game to complement his physical gifts. He’s the coach who took a roster of what, at the time, looked like a collection of ill-fitting parts and molded it into a cohesive offensive and defensive unit that got all the way to the NBA Finals.
The fit in Detroit was an obvious one. Van Gundy, hired as head coach and president of basketball operations in May, gives the organization the intelligent and creative coach it has needed all along to figure out what to do with a roster whose talent is as obvious as its flaws. He provides the feisty, defensive-minded, us-against-the-world type of personality that has always formed a strong bond with the basketball community in Michigan. And the Pistons give Van Gundy the one thing he lacked near the end of his Orlando tenure -- organizational support and structure without the fear of the front office having a different vision.
But the most important element in all of this has always been Drummond. By hiring Van Gundy, the Pistons are sending Drummond a message that they’re going to give him the best tools to ensure his success. That ultimately might not be enough to keep him -- though most teams retain their high draft picks through their second contract, there are always many factors players consider in determining the best place to play. But such a large, long-term commitment is an unprecedented step for this franchise.
The Pistons of today are not just far removed from their recent run of winning and contending for championships. They are completely unrecognizable. Starting with their surprising run to a championship in 2004, the Pistons have embraced the notion that an individual superstar is not necessary to succeed in the NBA. That mentality worked when they were winning, but has become harder to defend in the years since they’ve fallen from contention.
Detroit has been on a rudderless search for the slightest sign of hope in the years since its most recent success ended. Any hope of finding their way back to the top rests with Drummond, but the organization’s commitment to Van Gundy is just as important because it shows they understand the need to surround him with resources.
One of the most successful franchises in modern league history enters a season trying to create a new identity. But for the first time in six years, it seems like they’re close to finding it.
Patrick Hayes is a writer in Michigan. Follow him, @patrick_hayes.