At the 7:15 mark in the fourth quarter of a blowout loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers on a sleepy November Friday night, perhaps the most exciting bit of drama occurred for the Detroit Pistons since the team won the Be Very Bad Stakes to get blue-chip prospect Cade Cunningham (unless you count Cade crossing up Jalen Green at Summer League if mixtapes are more your thing).
With the score at 87-60 to the Cavs, Saddiq Bey was at the line shooting two very inconsequential free throws. After the first make, coach Dwane Casey motions down the bench to scarcely-used fourth-year swingman Hamidou Diallo to enter the crime scene that some larrikins would have you believe was a “basketball game.”
In the above clip, from what we can see, Casey stands up to summon Diallo. Hamidou slowly unfolds from his seat like a scroll that just won’t remain tightly rolled up, peels off his mask and saunters down the sideline to the table.
It would appear along the way, without casting wild assumptions, that Hamidou said something that drew the ire of Casey as he strolled past. Immediately, Casey pivots, calls veteran guard Rodney McGruder instead, and while the camera has since panned away, at the very end you see a rather apathetic-looking Diallo retake his spot on the bench.
Good? No, you’d be fair to draw the conclusion that it is, in fact, very not good.
Now we could sit here and throw imaginary darts at the make-believe dartboard of possibilities that Diallo may or may not have said as he walked past the head coach. I’d be highly skeptical if hard truths about what EXACTLY was said ever emerged (at least until a 30 for 30 on this championship roster is produced with Diallo assuming the role of problematic trade bait a la Adrian Dantley), but we can safely presume it had something to do with Diallo’s dissatisfaction at his current role.
I think that’s a pretty lukewarm take if we’re being honest.
Now, this starts a cornucopia of spot fires that won’t be easily squashed, partly helped by recent reports of the Pistons being potential suitors for wantaway Kings big man Marvin Bagley III. But let’s put on our finest trilbies and crack the curious case of what the hell is going on.
I think the first place to start is indeed Diallo’s current role, or lack thereof. It’s pretty clear that ever since Cade Cunningham made his long-awaited debut on Oct. 30 against the Orlando Magic, that it was Diallo who found himself the 11th man in a 10-man rotation. Since Cade’s debut, Diallo has only appeared in two games, a start against Brooklyn the night after Cade’s debut as the rookie sat out for injury management on the second night of a back-to-back, and garbage time in a blowout loss to the Bucks on Nov. 2.
That is 26 minutes in two weeks for anyone interested in the maths.
The Bench Rotation
Casey has come on the record recently stating that both Hamidou and Josh Jackson were in a battle for minutes, and it would be an ongoing competition throughout the season. Jackson, the Detroit native, is winning the early rounds.
#Pistons Dwane Casey on Josh Jackson’s decision-making and passing: “He’s done an excellent job…he’s keeping it simple and doing an excellent job defensively. It’s going to be an ongoing battle between Josh and (Hamidou Diallo).”
— Rod Beard (@detnewsRodBeard) November 10, 2021
Fans have seen this and have unsurprisingly not reacted positively to Diallo’s lack of involvement given the bench unit’s rather obvious limitations and struggles early in the season, including from veteran Cory Joseph and sharpshooter Frank Jackson.
We could sit here all day and talk about the bench unit’s limitations and the need to stagger Cade’s and Killian Hayes’ minutes more but that isn’t the point.
What I will say though is, optically, it’s understandable for Hamidou to be frustrated given this perceived double standard of accountability between himself and some of the other bench players, but that’s the unfortunate reality of the nature of this Pistons unit.
Cory Joseph isn’t losing his minutes, not to Hamidou anyway. Maybe Saben Lee usurps him as the backup point guard (until then he’ll continue to light the G League on fire), but Hamidou isn’t playing point.
Frank Jackson is the best shooter on the bench, in theory, and while his shot has been AWOL, the lingering temptation of regression to last year’s mean keeps him in the rotation. Hamidou, as a career 29% distance shooter, isn’t taking over the role of bench marksman.
That, to Casey’s original point, leaves Josh Jackson as the only likely avenue in for Hamidou, as the athletic presence and secondary playmaker. It’s reasonable to assume Josh’s better defensive acumen and slightly tighter jump shot has given him the inside lane to those minutes.
The only other option I can see is a small ball unit with Lyles at the center spot and Diallo as an athletic small four, at least while Kelly Olynyk is out, but I digress.
I’ve been pretty vocal in calling for more Diallo minutes, but I’ll do my best to view this in the most objective lens possible.
Diallo isn’t the shooter Frank is, nor creator Josh is, so it is difficult for him to beat out those two guys for wing rotation minutes. That’s the cold truth. While an athletic freak, people can sometimes confuse activity with efficiency, especially in a defensive sense. Diallo does have tendencies at times to either fly around aimlessly and overshoot/gamble on plays, or even more concerningly, just straight up fall asleep and get cut backdoor.
The issue is that this is obviously another development year with the team sitting 3-9, with no climb out of the abyss approaching on the horizon. There are things Diallo does well. You don’t have a 35 point game in the NBA being a total offensive dunce.
The issue that I noticed when Diallo did play, was what he was doing out there.
CoJo is a terrible point guard for him, and the offense the bench runs has him standing in the corner, really ideal for a 29% career three point shooter known for his slashing.
— Ben Quagliata (@bensquag) October 29, 2021
As someone rightfully pointed out to me in the replies, Diallo is the latest installment in “Athletic Slasher Stuck In Three-Point Tundra,” following previous iterations starring Glenn Robinson III and Sekou Doumbouya.
So even when he was playing, he was, in my opinion, being miscast. Incorrect usage leads to poor play, poor play leads to losing your spot in the rotation, losing your spot in the rotation leads to being part of garbage time clean up crew, and being part of garbage time clean up crew leads to, well, what we saw last night.
Handling The Demotion
As our man Ku Khahil said, while Diallo seemed … unimpressed, he at no point refused to enter the game like some initial hasty reports may have suggested (and as you can see in the above video).
OKAY, everyone. Don’t twist my words. My tweet is right there.
Hamidou Diallo never refused to go in. He did make it a scene and let it be known he was pissed off.
At no point did he refuse to go in.
— Ku (@KuKhahil) November 13, 2021
Had Hamidou refused to enter at all, then we’d be having a much more serious discussion about whether he ever sees the floor again and what potential punishments are dished out etc.
But that didn’t happen so there isn’t really much to address here as far as I’m concerned. You’d like Hamidou to maybe maintain a cooler demeanor and address this in-house rather than let it spill out in a public forum if it was bubbling away, but I don’t see much else to really concern myself with from a long term perspective.
I did like this small touch from Troy Weaver.
Troy Weaver and Hamidou Diallo just walked off of the floor and into the locker room.
— LN. (@ellenk124) November 13, 2021
Diallo is a Weaver guy. He was part of the front office that drafted him in Oklahoma City in 2018 and traded for him last season before giving him an extension in the offseason. Weaver will want Diallo to work out in Detroit, for his own reputation as much as Diallo’s.
In an incident like this, you want leadership from the top of your organization. Weaver putting an arm around Diallo (at least that’s how I’m reading it) is the first step, and I assume Casey and Diallo will also address this in private as well.
NBA history is littered with instances of guys flat out refusing to check in to the game for myriad reasons. Hell, the guy we mentioned upthread, speculated Pistons’ target Marvin Bagley III, refused to enter a game for Sacramento NOT THREE DAYS AGO. Granted that situation is way further along in terms of fractures in that relationship than anything here.
So yes, plenty of guys have flat out said no, Diallo didn’t do that, which is the smallest crumb of comfort in this burnt excrement muffin.
Diallo can’t be traded until Dec. 15 due to him being a returning free agent. That gives us a full month of rumors swirling and whispers of discontent and insolence.
Diallo signed a two-year, $10.4M deal in the offseason. It’s a cheap contract with the extra afforded flexibility of a team option next season. It’s not a hard contract to rid yourself of if this does turn into a real problem, but I’d be surprised if anything more concrete came of this isolated incident.
Remember that analogy I used earlier, about a scroll that won’t remain bound? Well, Diallo is that scroll, but unfortunately for him, Dwane Casey has found the best rubber band money can buy and has him tightly secured.
Unfortunately, that rubber band snapped and Diallo sprang out in public fashion. Let’s hope that’s all it is.