Saturday, June 29, 2013

Final Destination - Why Drafting Kentavious Caldwell-Pope Will Get Joe Dumars Fired

"Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells! But I, with mournful tread, walk the deck my captain lies, fallen cold and dead." - Walt Whitman

At the very best of times, the NBA's annual talent allocation draft is a shocking spectacle that highlights both the most virtuous, and the most base aspects of the proverbial "American dream". The atmosphere surrounding the event itself resembles nothing if not a midway carnival; only if said carnival were being broadcast into millions of homes on live national television. The cameras roll, the photographers flash and one by one this year's cluster of the finest athletes college and international basketball have to offer, are paraded before the hungry eyes of fans, media and general managers. In the moments between picks, an endless stream of retired players, stat geeks, draft gurus, talking heads and mythical beasts named Dick Vitale throw out catchphrases like "wingspan", "upside", "motor" and "stroke" to explain why absolutely nothing they predicted about the Draft is coming true in real time. There are surprise picks, brilliant acquisitions, draft day trades and desperation hires that will likely throw franchises into turmoil for years to come. One franchise, the Dallas Mavericks even did their level best this year to not to make a selection at all; preferring to move down for a much cheaper player so they can stockpile funds to take a run a Dwight Howard in the near future. The players themselves are merely pawns in this grotesque drama; invited to the party so a voracious public can witness their triumphs, anxieties, relief and failed attempts to appear happy when presented with crushing disappointment. They do so willingly; for marketing purposes and because the promise of many, very large paychecks awaits those who's names are called in the "lottery" portion of the draft. At the very center of the maelstrom sits ringmaster, David Stern; a man who truly has become untouchable at this point in his career. The commissioner won't be back next season but for this one final draft he stood in all his glory; his taunts, gestures and smirks never more reminiscent of a brazen main-street pimp who fears no reprisal.

Frankly, I would watch the NBA draft even if Detroit didn't have a franchise; the spectacle itself has become must see television. Of course, for better or for worse Detroit does have an NBA franchise and so like millions of Pistons' fans worldwide, I watched this year's NBA draft with precisely one question on my mind: "Would Trey Burke fall to Detroit at number 8?" After wasting countless hours of my life reading "draft rumors" that turned out to be entirely fictitious as usual, I was fairly certain that Burke was indeed going to last until pick 8. There was even an outside possibility that Detroit could flop picks with Minnesota and get Burke at 9; they were rumored to be interested in some shooting guard from Georgia I'd never even heard of during the NCAA season. For once in the team's miserable existence, the stars were aligning just right. Burke was predictably falling because he isn't very tall, he isn't a ridiculous athletic freak and the draft was full of promising "big men" in a league where size often trumps the ability to play basketball. In short, I was genuinely excited as I sat down to watch the draft and if you're a Pistons' fan, I don't need to tell you that this was a rare occasion indeed. What played out across my television over the next hour or so was dramatic, compelling, heartbreaking and infuriating all at once. That night, I watched a Pistons legend commit career suicide for the most noble of reasons; to make his basketball team better in the long term.

Truthfully, despite overwhelming fan discontent, it's entirely possible that Dumars is correct and that Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is simply a better NBA prospect than Trey Burke. The scouting report on this kid reads like a how to manual for creating a threatening wing player at the pro level. He's 6'6", 240 lbs, has a sweet, pull up jump shot, excels in transition and has all the tools to become a very strong defender in the NBA. More than anything else, KCP is the kind of elite, scoring option at the shooting guard position that could eventually make Detroit one of the most dangerous offensive teams in the NBA. Unfortunately this scenario comes with two very relevant caveats; Caldwell-Pope must realize his vast potential and he's likely going to need a significant amount of time to do so. There's a difference between talent and skill; KCP has the necessary talent to become the next Paul Pierce, he is nowhere near the player he could be at this very moment. For starters, Kentavious isn't much of a ball handler; he has basically one move (grab ball, split defenders in the paint), relies almost entirely on mediocre footwork to create room for his magnificent shot and isn't very tough, or physical. He's also not much of a finisher at the rim, although he can throw down a highlight reel dunk with the best of them when he's completely unguarded. To put it bluntly; right now Caldwell-Pope is rawer than a sushi dinner and while he will immediately put some balls in the basket for the Pistons organization, it will be virtually impossible for him to justify his draft position in the short term. He needs time and quality coaching to develop properly and right now, neither commodity seems to be abundant in the Pistons' organization.

On the opposite end of the prospect spectrum, sits "hometown" hero; 20 year old point guard, Trey Burke. By virtually all accounts, Burke is as ready as a college point guard can be for the NBA. Fresh off a sweep of every major national player of the year award, a NCAA Finals appearance and one of the finest sophomore seasons in Michigan basketball history; there is no question that Trey's mental toughness is NBA-worthy. Burke simply does not wilt under pressure. Although he's very cognizant of the need to keep his teammates involved; when the chips are down Burke has absolutely no problem being the hammer that puts the nail in the opposing team's coffin. From a personality perspective, the kid is a born leader. He's calm, intelligent, thoughtful and mature beyond his years; while still possessing the passion and ruthless killer instinct necessary to succeed in the NBA. He's an elite passer, was easily the best pick and roll artist at the position in this draft, has a marvelous spot up jump shot (although it isn't as good as KCP's) and very, very rarely turns the ball over. Although he isn't the athlete that Caldwell-Pope is, it would be criminally unfair to describe Burke as "non-athletic"; he's quick, has an exceptional handle, possesses a number of shifty, open court moves and doesn't turn the ball over in transition either. Burke's problem near as I can tell is that no one thing about his game stands out all that much; he can pass, drive or pull up for jumpers on virtually any possession and as such is hard to classify in rigid, NBA point guard terms. Burke way well be the rare "combo-guard" who's called that because he can score or set up scoring with equal proficiency, but the term itself is still the kiss of death to many NBA general managers. Perhaps most importantly; Trey Burke isn't 6'6", 240lbs and he's much closer to his final destination as a prospect than a player in the mold of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.

To be fair to Dumars, he isn't the only person in NBA circles who wasn't sold on Burke as a game-changing point guard; Trey fell from the number 2 prospect to the number 9 pick for a reason after all and many savvy basketball observers saw Burke as nothing more than a decent rotation player at the pro level. The smart money is saying that in a vacuum, Dumars got the better player because if both guys reach their maximum potential; KCP will be a bigger star than Trey Burke by a significant margin. Additionally, a certain argument can be made that Burke would have been a luxury pick for a Piston's team that already has point guards Rodney Stuckey, Jose Calderon and Brandon Knight but definitely lacks a credible shooting guard to speak of. The problem with these arguments however is that absolutely none of the Piston's current options at the position are actually good at playing point guard and Joe Dumars is most certainly not operating in a vacuum. For those still clinging to the "Brandon Knight can eventually become an elite point guard" fallacy it would do to remember that last season Knight finished 40th amongst all guards with a dismal 21.3% assist rate. To place that into perspective; Milwaukee's Brandon Jennings has never seen a contested jumper he didn't fall immediately in love with and even he managed to score a 29.1% assist rate. Even newly crowed "guard-whisperer", coach Mo Cheeks basically called Knight a combo guard during his introductory press conference. Calderon is washed up and likely won't remain on the team and Stuckey has shown literally nothing as PG in his 6 year career that would indicate he's the solution at the position going forward.

Arguably more important than Detroit's point guard situation however, is the general sense of impending doom surrounding Joe Dumar's tenure as the team's general manager. Although there was a time when Joe Dumars was considered one of the better GM's in basketball, the past 8 years have largely served to obliterate his reputation as an elite NBA personnel man. While Dumars may have brought the team a title in 2004 and a finals appearance in 2005; his ineptitude since has lead the team into mediocrity, before bottoming out into a hopeless franchise that perennially tests the very limits of the term "slow rebuilding process." In virtually any analysis of the NBA landscape, the Pistons are considered a bad team, more disturbingly however; management has allowed the franchise to become largely irrelevant. Attendance figures are abysmal, the team lacks marketable star players (although Andre Drummond has potential) and the franchise is not considered a desirable destination for coaches or marquee free agents. The Pistons are perpetually one media crisis away from being a laughingstock; which might actually be an improvement when you realize that fans in the region have by and large lost interest in waiting for the team to get it's sh*t together. Fanspundits and local media have been extremely critical of Dumars as far back as 2009; the calls for his removal as architect of the franchise have literally been overwhelming for years now. As the wait for signs that the team will eventually turn around grows, both Dumars and the team itself continue to lose popularity and by extension, ticket sales.

In the final analysis, this is the true cost of drafting Kentavious Caldwell-Pope ahead of Trey Burke. In one fell swoop Dumars could have provided hope and laid the groundwork for the return of thousands of Pistons' fans desperate for some sign, any sign that this year's team would be different. Drafting Burke would have instantly made the Pistons relevant again; both in the state of Michigan and nationally because of Burke's sky-high profile during his NCAA career. Even with absolutely no improvement as a prospect or quality coaching at the NBA level, Burke would have given the Pistons an instant upgrade on their halfcourt offense and made Drummond and Greg Monroe better players from the season opening tip-off. Dumars could have bought himself a tremendous amount of goodwill and hopefully by extension, time to finally turn his colossal shipwreck into a legitimate playoff contender again. Instead, Joe went with his basketball gut and took the more dominant athlete with the higher potential to develop into an elite weapon at the NBA level. It was a brave decision, rooted in Dumar's unshakeable belief in selecting the "best available player" during draft night, regardless of whom the media or fans expect him to select. Joe has always been a cantankerous fellow and he's shown virtually no interest in "moving the needle" even as the franchise wasted into a trivial bottom feeder. This will likely then prove his undoing when KCP begins his long development process, the team plays another season without an actual point guard and fans continue to stay away in droves. For a guy who's been clinging on to his job like shipwreck survivor clings to a life ring; Dumars has shown precious little understanding of just how precarious his employment situation has now become. Tom Gores has made it abundantly clear that he is not a patient man; he requires some, significant signs that Joe can turn this franchise around both on the court and at the box office or he will terminate Dumars and find someone who will do so. As it stands right now, the current Detroit roster doesn't stand a snowball's chance in hell of saving Joe's job; this team is going to continue to lose and they'll do so while playing boring, ugly basketball in a nearly empty arena.

Perhaps, one day 3 or 4 years from now; the world will look back on this moment and realize that Joe Dumars ultimately saved the Pistons' franchise during the 2013 draft. There is no question that Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has the necessary talent to make this entire discussion an amusing historical afterthought when the talking heads have all had their say. Conversely, there is also no guarantee that KCP will amount to anything in the NBA, prospects with better physical gifts than his have flamed out before; often with a frightening degree of regularity. The simple truth however is that even when (if) Caldwell-Pope turns into Paul Pierce version 2.0; he will likely do so for another general manager unless Maurice Cheeks can somehow work a miracle with one of the 8 worst rosters in the league. I don't want to be a pessimist, but I would strongly advise against betting the farm on that happening ladies and gentlemen. No, what we witnessed on Thursday night was a suicide, plain and simple. Stubborn to the end, Dumars has decided to go out fighting for his beliefs as a talent evaluator and roster manager. In one, short hour, Dumars manged to lose gigantic portions of the fanbase; without the Pistons ever taking the floor as the notably crummy basketball team they will almost certainly be in 2013-14! When the bell tolls for Joe next offseason, it says right here that very few who follow this franchise will be moved to weep at his passing.

The sad part however, is that long after Joe Dumars walks the plank; it will be Pistons' fans who have to live with the consequences of passing on Trey Burke. I'm no NBA scout but something tells me that this kid has the heart to carve himself a place in basketball history. The problem is, he'll do it for Utah instead of Detroit and that's a damn shame folks.
- Sportsball Chic


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