Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was never supposed to be Detroit’s savior.
Four years ago, when selected by the Pistons in the 2013 NBA Draft, his name was met with a resounding “What the fuck?” Michigan guard Trey Burke was still on the board, and nothing would have been better for a struggling franchise than to get a hometown hero playing in their colors.
At best, the pick was confusing. Caldwell-Pope, the SEC Player of the Year out of Georgia, was mostly unknown to his new Big Ten fan base. He never even played in the NCAA Tournament. Burke, meanwhile, was national player of the year, and had just hit one of the greatest shots in college basketball history. At worst, the pick was the last straw for many fans frustrated with the decline of a team that not so many years before was one of the most feared in the league. Less than a year later, GM Joe Dumars was out, replaced by Stan Van Gundy.
Van Gundy has piloted the team to a slow but steady improvement, culminating in the end of a six-year playoff drought last season. Though they were swept by the Cavaliers in the first round, the Pistons hung with Cleveland in three of the four games, and their performance gave hope that a contender could be built around the pick-and-roll offense of Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond.
That hasn’t happened. The Pistons are again the eighth seed—with a worse record—on course to get knocked out of the playoffs by the Cavs again. They opened the season 11-10, while Jackson was hampered by injury, and are 18-22 since his return. Drummond is a tremendous talent who puts up astronomical rebounding numbers, but his game is still limited, and his horrendous free throw shooting makes him a liability in close games. Both were reportedly shopped at the trade deadline, and Pistons fans must have been frustrated to hear the rumor that the Kings turned down an offer that would have swapped Drummond for DeMarcus Cousins.
But since the deadline, Detroit has experimented with a different formula. Rather than its stars, the team’s strange mix of role players and young guys have become Van Gundy’s go-tos, suggesting an alternative path forward for the Pistons.
Signs of a shift became clear with the team down ten against the Hornets, in the fourth quarter in the first game after the All-Star break. Rather than play either of his two best players in this situation, Van Gundy instead turned to a lineup of Ish Smith, Caldwell-Pope, Tobias Harris, Marcus Morris, and Jon Leuer. Neither Drummond nor Jackson played the final 19 minutes of the game.
Naturally, those five came back and won by six in overtime, with Caldwell-Pope providing the fireworks. The guy no Pistons fan wanted scored the team’s last 11 points of the fourth quarter, and hit some truly wild shots in an inspiring night for an oft-listless team. Of course, he’s streaky, and just a few nights later his missed shot and technical foul sequence almost cost Detroit a win. But Kentavious just might be the future of the franchise.
And now we might have a genuine point guard controversy, too. Reggie Jackson is obviously the better basketball player, but is he better for the team? He doesn’t pass or move as well as Ish Smith, and opposing offenses are clearly targeting his still-hobbled knee. Jackson has a probably-deserved reputation as a selfish player, and his shot selection led to a players-only meeting not long after this return.
Furthermore, is Jon Leuer better than Andre Drummond? No, he’s not, but the four-year Wisconsin Badger and Frank Kaminsky prototype provides the range, spacing, and adequate free-throw shooting that Drummond does not, giving Detroit a different kind of firepower as they pursue comebacks. Last night, Leuer notched 22 points in a game where Drummond went 1-10 from the free throw line and caught an ejection in the third quarter.
Leuer, Smith, and the acquisitions of Harris and Morris have all panned out excellently for a mid-market front office that doesn’t have the latitude to screw up many decisions. Morris, in particular, absolutely exploded Tuesday night, dropping a career-high 37 points in another comeback overtime win, this time against the Trail Blazers. In between those two games was a last-minute loss to Boston, in which Caldwell-Pope led the team in scoring and Stanley Johnson had one of his better games in an otherwise-disappointing sophomore season.
Of course, the Pistons are still the Pistons—a below .500 team—and despite Leuer’s good play, they lost to the Pelicans by 23 last night, albeit on the back end of a home-and-away back-to-back. The revolution won’t be immediate, as evidenced by KCP’s five points on 11 field goal attempts, or Johnson submitting another anonymous game.
But as these low-key players make more of a name for themselves, the Pistons have tough decisions ahead. With so much money already tied up in Jackson and Drummond, they’ll have to let at least some of their guys walk. Caldwell-Pope might even be eyeing a max contract as he enters restricted free agency this offseason. He might not be reliable or efficient enough to warrant that kind of investment, but as KCP has put together spectacular games more consistently, the 24-year-old’s talents might be too enticing to pass on. All it takes is one team, after all.
As painful as it is to watch two of your best, most talented, and most expensive, assets ride the bench in big moments, that just might be what the Pistons have to do for the rest of this season, relying on guys like Caldwell-Pope and Smith to make or break the team, instead of Reggie Jackson. Van Gundy, as of now, won’t change a starting lineup that usually forces a need for comebacks, oddly claiming he doesn’t want to mess with a formula that leads to wins. But the play of his alternative lineups might eventually force his hands.
At the very least, the Pistons have a real shot at the sixth seed, which would place them in a more competitive matchup against the Washington Wizards. And the little-used backup point guard on those Wizards? Trey Burke. A couple of things need to happen first, but it would provide a fitting coda if KCP takes his first big step onto the national stage against the guy the Pistons were criticized—wrongly, in retrospect—for not taking, against the guy Caldwell-Pope has proven to be much better than.