Charles Barkley and ‘Inside the NBA’ missed the mark by ripping Detroit Pistons’ effort

Detroit Free Press

The Detroit Pistons have rarely been in the national spotlight this season.

They’re one of two teams that have yet to reach double-digit wins, so that’s probably for the best.

Casual NBA fans want to watch stars. Local NBA fans want to watch winning basketball. The Pistons offer neither. It makes sense they’ve only played one national TV game this season, and are bypassed on sports talk shows.

The Pistons suffered a 118-88 blowout loss on the road to the Memphis Grizzlies on Thursday, a day after losing 140-111 to the Charlotte Hornets. They became a topic on TNT’s “Inside The NBA” afterward. Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith were critical of the Pistons, questioning how a once-proud franchise could only win seven of its first 37 games.

“Isiah Thomas is rolling over in his grave,” Barkley joked. He went on to defend coach Dwane Casey, who won a coach of the year award with the Toronto Raptors in 2018. The Pistons’ record isn’t fair to Casey, he suggested.

“We do this thing now where we blame head coaches, and coaches get fired,” Barkley said. “This team don’t compete at all. They don’t compete at all. It ain’t got nothing to do with coach Casey. It’s an embarrassment, because Detroit is a proud, proud city. You go back to Isiah and Joe (Dumars) and (Rick) Mahorn, (Dennis) Rodman, (John) Salley, those guys were warriors. Then you come with Chauncey Billups and his group, and you’ve got this thing here. This is a joke, man. … Put them in the G League.”

Smith went on to say the Pistons aren’t playing with the effort level needed to win games, and Barkley and Ernie Johnson contrasted Detroit’s struggles with the surging Grizzlies, who went 10-2 while standout point guard, Ja Morant, was out with a knee sprain.

The segment resonated with frustrated Pistons followers. A browse through social media showed several fans who saw some truth in Barkley’s words. The Pistons are in the midst of one of their worst seasons in franchise history. Their .189 winning percentage would be their worst mark ever and puts them on pace for 15.5 wins.

In some fans’ minds, something has clearly gone wrong. Obviously, the players must not care.

The Pistons are not good. There’s room for criticism. But the idea that effort is the primary reason why this team owns one of the NBA’s worst records is ridiculous. This roster wasn’t built to win many games, and has also dealt with injuries to key players. Effort can’t fix the fact that, almost every single game this season, the Pistons have faced teams with superior talent and depth.

Pinpointing effort as the reason the Pistons have struggled this season ignores a host of problems — some expected, and some unexpected — that guaranteed this year’s team would need significant luck to compete for a play-in spot.

Before the season began, I predicted the Pistons would win 28 games and finish 14th in the Eastern Conference. The first prediction was optimistic, partially because this team suffered injuries to Kelly Olynyk and Jerami Grant. But the second prediction will likely end up being dead on. I didn’t think there was a real chance they would sniff the playoffs.

None of this is a sign the Pistons are on the wrong path. By definition, rebuilding teams are going to lose a lot of games. As ugly as this has been to watch, this is part of the plan. It’s fair to be frustrated. But there are clear, rational reasons why they’re so bad this season. We don’t have to hunt for scapegoats.

‘Fuel meter’ down after Pistons rocked in Memphis and Charlotte ]

Dead money limits depth

Dead money is money on a team’s cap sheet that isn’t being paid to a player currently on the roster. It happens when players are released or bought out of their contracts. The player is free to sign with a new team, but their previous team still owes them their money and it still counts against the cap until the contract expires.

Nine NBA teams have zero dead money on their cap this season. Fifteen teams have less than $2 million in dead money. Five teams have more than $10 million in dead money. Only two teams have more than $20 million in dead money.

The Oklahoma City Thunder, per spotrac.com, have about $32 million in dead money on the books. The Pistons lead the NBA by a significant margin, with more than $45 million in dead money. This is the minutia casual onlookers tend to not care about. But it’s had a tangible impact on the Pistons’ win-loss record. Note that the Thunder are also one of the NBA’s worst teams.

Blake Griffin, a member of the Brooklyn Nets, is Detroit’s highest-paid player with nearly $30 million on the books. The Pistons saved some money by buying him out of his contract last season, and they’ll have significant cap space this summer once his money comes off of the books. But this season, his contract has been a $30 million anchor sinking the front office’s ability to put a competent roster together.

The Pistons did what they had to do with Griffin. He was still a productive role player, but is no longer the star Detroit needed him to be due to injuries. He didn’t have trade value. Saving $13.3 million in his buyout was likely their best-case scenario, and that’s what they did. The trade-off is they still have to pay Griffin this season. It’s not a situation this front office created, but it’s one they had to resolve and now have to ride out until they can splurge in free agency if they choose this offseason.

It’s a big reason why they’re arguably the NBA’s least-deep team and have struggled to replace the production of their injured talent. Effort and coaching only go so far.

Injuries thrust young players into big roles

Grant, the Pistons’ best player who was in the running for an All-Star berth and the NBA’s Most Improved Player a season ago, has been out since Dec. 10 with a thumb injury. Olynyk, one of the league’s more offensively gifted bigs and the Pistons’ biggest signing in free agency, only played 10 games before spraining his left knee Nov. 10.

Their two highest-paid active players are injured. Add their combined $33 million in salary this season to the $45 million in dead money already on the books, and the Pistons are currently without $78 million of potential production.

Of course, the Pistons weren’t very good with Olynyk and Grant both in the rotation. They were 2-8 before Olynyk’s injury. But all eight losses were against teams in the thick of the playoff race. They played the Chicago Bulls, Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers twice each, and the Atlanta Hawks and Milwaukee Bucks once each.

Their two wins were against the Orlando Magic and Houston Rockets — teams that, like the Pistons, are in the thick of rebuilding. If they had Grant and Olynyk for more games, they’d have a few more wins — not enough to get into the play-in race, but enough to ease regression fears.

The starting lineup features four first- and second-year players — led by 20-year-old rookie point guard Cade Cunningham — and in recent weeks, the rotation has incorporated numerous G League players. Trey Lyles has spent the majority of his time playing out of position at center since Olynyk’s injury. That’s not a recipe to win games.

Pistons trade deadline options: Will they move Jerami Grant now, or later? ]

NBA’s depth

Entering Saturday, the East has four teams within 2.5 games of the eighth seed. The West hasn’t been as competitive at the bottom, but still has four teams within two games of the 10th seed (final play-in spot). At this stage in the season, the Pistons, Magic and Rockets appear to be the only teams without a legitimate shot at making the play-in tournament.

The Indiana Pacers have an All-Star in Domantas Sabonis, three above-average starting veterans in Myles Turner, Malcolm Brogdon and Caris LeVert and a championship-winning coach in Rick Carlisle. They’re nine games under .500 and five games out of the play-in tournament. The San Antonio Spurs are several seasons into a rebuild, deeper than the Pistons and have one of the NBA’s greatest coaches in Gregg Popovich. They’re eight games under .500 and barely hanging onto the last play-in spot.

It’s not easy to win. It’s especially hard to win in today’s NBA. Teams with more talent, experience and depth than the Pistons are going to miss the playoffs entirely. Those teams will have tough decisions to make this offseason, if not ahead of the Feb. 10 trade deadline.

Detroit is in the midst of a developmental season. Losses are going to pile up. Effort can always improve. No coach is perfect, and Casey hasn’t been. But blaming the players for the paltry record misses a big point — this team is bad by design under second-year general manager Troy Weaver.

There’s a perception their young core is underperforming compared to last year’s team, which finished with a net rating better than their 20-52 record suggested they would finish with. But during the final 14 games last season — largely played without Grant and Mason Plumlee and heavily featured the young players — the Pistons went 2-12. Nine of those 12 losses were by double-digits. Sounds similar to this season, right?

What Pistons must target at deadline, regardless of Jerami Grant’s fate ]

The Pistons outplayed the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks from start to finish Monday. This team is capable of playing great basketball, but like most rebuilding teams, it hasn’t happened most nights. It’s not an indictment on the players, but a reflection of the fact that rebuilds are ugly, and it takes time for talent to bloom.

A day will come where we can reasonably expect the Pistons to be a better team than they currently are. That day isn’t today.

Contact Omari Sankofa II at osankofa@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa. Read more on the Detroit Pistons and sign up for our Pistons newsletter.

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