The Detroit Pistons have a storied and illustrious history that began back in 1948. They are one of the six active NBA teams who were a part of the Basketball Association of America (BAA) which was the predecessor to the NBA. Over the past 69 seasons they’ve claimed three NBA titles and have boasted some of the most memorable and iconic players in NBA history: Isiah, Rodman, Big Ben and Mr. Big Shot.
However, all of that success and star power hasn’t precluded the franchise from making some boneheaded decisions over the years. From bumbling free agency moves to head-scratching draft picks *cough* Darko; the Pistons have often left their fans in a state of bewilderment. No franchise is perfect when it comes to management decisions; but, perhaps, none have also made questionable moves year after year (and decade after decade) quite like the Pistons have.
We’ll take a look at some of these decisions (we could honestly have made a list of 50 and still had some left over). You’ll notice a recurring theme as there’s a Hall of Fame Piston player and former executive who is responsible for many of these moves. But hey, Piston fans, things could have been a lot worse: you could have had Isiah Thomas running this franchise into the ground instead of the Knicks! Nonetheless, here are the 15 worst management mistakes in Detroit Pistons history.
15 Lowballed Allan Houston Which Led Him To Sign With The Knicks
In the summer of 1996, Allan Houston was a 25-year-old SG who had just averaged 20 PPG and finished 5th in the NBA in made three-pointers. It seemed like a foregone conclusion that the Pistons would sign Houston, an impending free agent, to a long-term deal to complement Grant Hill. Five teams, including Detroit, offered Houston a contract that summer and the Pistons’ offer was…wait for it…the lowest of the offers. The Pistons offered Houston $30 million while the Knicks offered $56 million and you can guess which offer Houston went with. (BTW, the difference between those two offers would be about $46 million in today’s age with inflation.)
Houston would go on to play nine years in New York, become one of the most beloved players in Knicks history, and would never get unjustifiably booted from MSG.
14 Traded Ricky Pierce To The Clippers
Pierce was a 1st round pick by the Pistons in 1982 but only lasted 39 games with the team before being shipped to the Clippers. With the Clippers, and later with a host of other teams, Pierce would then become the NBA’s best 6th man over the next 15 seasons. Pierce twice averaged 20+ PPG, off the bench, and became the first player to start fewer than 10 games in a season yet still make an All-Star team. When Pierce retired in 1998, he had scored more points as a reserve than any player in NBA history outside of Steph Curry’s daddy.
As good as Vinnie Johnson was in his 6th man role, Pierce was younger, bigger, and better than The Microwave ever was. Who knows how long the Pistons’ championship window would have lasted with Pierce coming off the bench?
13 Traded Two 1st Round Picks For Stacey Augmon And Grant Long
During the mid-1990s the Pistons had a couple of strong draft selections in Allan Houston, Lindsey Hunter, Theo Ratliff, and of course, Grant Hill. So with all of this success in drafting players, what did the Pistons decide to do with two future 1st round picks? They decided to mortgage their future by trading these picks, along with two future 2nd round picks, for journeyman Stacey Augmon and Grant Long. Augmon didn’t even last half the season in Detroit and Long would play just one more year with the Pistons. This started a string of horrible draft decisions for the Pistons as all the players they drafted in the first round from 1997-2001 combined to start eight games for the team.
12 Left Rick Mahorn Unprotected In Expansion Draft
If you watched the 30 for 30 “Bad Boys” then you should remember Isiah Thomas saying that those late 80s championship-winning Pistons were, essentially, a 9-man team. One of those nine men was Rick Mahorn who wasn’t a star, but was a valuable role player who helped set the identity, and culture, of those Pistons teams. In 1989 GM Jack McCloskey left Mahorn unprotected in the upcoming NBA expansion draft and the fledgling Minnesota Timberwolves scooped him up just 48 hours after winning an NBA title. The Pistons were devastated and McCloskey even tried to re-acquire Mahorn during the team’s victory parade through the streets of Detroit!
Mahorn eventually would make his way back to Detroit but it would be seven years later as a 38-year-old. Sometimes chemistry is just as important as talent and the Pistons never truly recovered after losing a player who epitomized the blue-collar nature of Detroit.
11 Waiving Bob McAdoo
When Bob McAdoo joined the Pistons for the 1979-80 season, he was already a 5x All-Star, a 3x scoring champion, and a former MVP. He would put up good numbers for Detroit in 58 games with averages of 21 points and 8 boards and was still just 28 years old. However, he had some injury issues which would spill over into the following season. Fed up over McAdoo’s lack of time on the court, GM Jack McCloskey would cut McAdoo after just six games in the 1980-81 season thinking that the former MVP was a shell of earlier self and had nothing more to contribute. Motivated by this move, McAdoo was out to prove to McCloskey, and everyone else, that this was not the case. He would join the Lakers for the 1981-82 season as a 6th man and would go on to win two NBA titles as a backup to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
10 Letting Chuck Daly Leave As Head Coach
After nine seasons as the Pistons coach, Daly resigned after the 1991-92 season and stated that the players “needed to hear another voice.” You can’t fault the Pistons’ management for letting Daly step away, but you can fault the management for not fighting harder to keep the man who turned around the franchise. I’m sure if the Pistons threw more money at Daly, then he would have thought his voice was the right one for the team. Also, it wasn’t like Daly was retiring as he would go on to coach the Nets and the Magic over four more seasons so the passion was still there. It’s a bit ironic that just weeks after resigning from the Pistons, Daly would go on to coach the Dream Team in the 1992 Summer Olympics. He’s good enough to coach the greatest team of all-time but not the Pistons?
9 Signing Charlie Villanueva And Ben Gordon To $95.7 Million
After letting Allen Iverson and Rasheed Wallace walk in free agency, the Pistons had gobbles of cap space to play around with. So what did they do with this nearly $100 million in cap money? They used damn-near all of it on the likes of Charlie Villanueva and Ben Gordon: two offense-only players who weren’t even full-time starters on their previous teams. Perhaps the most puzzling thing about these deals was that they were completed on the first day of free agency! These weren’t the third or fourth options for GM Joe Dumars; these were his dual Plan A’s!
Gordon would be traded three years into his five-year deal and Charlie V would start a total of 27 games for the Pistons over five seasons. The Real MVP is Villanueva’s agent who netted his client a contract that paid him $1.4 million for every start that he made!
8 Drafting But Not Signing Randy Smith In 1970
The Pistons drafted a total of 16 players in the 1970 Draft but just three would ever play a game in the NBA. All three would become multi-time All-Stars, two would become Hall of Famers…but just one would actually play a game with the Pistons! Bob Lanier was the #1 overall pick in that draft and he spent a decade of his Hall of Fame career in Detroit. Dan Issel was the team’s 8th round pick but he elected to join the ABA before embarking on a Hall of Fame career with the Denver Nuggets. Randy Smith was picked in the 14th round by Detroit but couldn’t agree on contract terms with the Pistons and went back to college for one more season (which was allowed at the time).
Smith would then be picked by the Buffalo Braves who would later become the LA Clippers. With the Braves/Clippers, Smith would become a two-time All-Star and, to this day, remains the franchise’s all-time leader in points and steals. All in all, the Pistons 1970 NBA Draft produced players who would make a combined 17 All-Star Games as well as two plaques in the Pro Basketball Hall of Fame.
7 Releasing Larry Brown From His Contract
In two years as coach of the Pistons, all Larry Brown did was go to back-to-back NBA Finals, defeat the heavily-favored Lakers in one, and push the Spurs to seven games in the other. He got a team without a superstar to win an NBA championship when many so-called pundits thought you needed multiple stars for that to happen. So how did the Pistons reward Brown in 2005? Instead of redoing a contract that he had vastly outperformed, the Pistons bought out Brown which enabled him to sign with another team, the New York Knicks.
Granted, Brown was and is a coaching vagabond who has had 14 coaching stops in his career, but you would think the Pistons could have gotten more than two years out of him. He coached for four years in both San Antonio and Indiana and neither of those teams ever even made the NBA Finals! The Pistons undervalued the worth of a head coach and they haven’t made an NBA Finals since then.
6 Signing Josh Smith
As soon as Josh Smith inked a $54 million contract with the Pistons in the summer of 2013, EVERYONE knew it was a bad basketball fit for J-Smoove. The Pistons already had 2/3 of their frontline of the future, and present, with Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond. Somehow, Dumars thought that Smith, a power forward, could easily convert to a small forward and play on the perimeter. Smith was a square peg in a round hole from the start and never found his groove in Detroit. We’re talking about a player who is, statistically, the 3rd worst three-point shooter of all time being asked to play out in space. Smith wouldn’t even last two seasons in Detroit and would be cut 28 games into the following season.
Even though he can’t compare to Bobby Bonilla, due to the terms of his release, Smith will continue to collect $5.4 million from the Pistons every year until the 2019-20 season!
5 Trading Chauncey Billups For Allen Iverson
After advancing to six straight Eastern Conference Finals, Joe Dumars thought his team had plateaued and decided to shake things up. Thus, two games into the 2008-09 season, Dumars shipped Billups to Denver for Allen Iverson who finished fourth in the NBA in scoring the season before. This move entirely wrecked the Pistons culture as this was a team who preached “team” and whose whole was greater than the sum of its parts. While Iverson is a Hall of Famer and a transcendent talent; he’s not exactly a team-first player which is what you need at the point guard position (Charles Barkley even gave him the nickname “Me, myself, and I-verson”).
In Detroit, Iverson’s scoring average dropped 9 points from the previous season and the Pistons would be swept in the first round of the playoffs. Meanwhile, Billups returned to his native Denver and would lead the Nuggets to their first conference finals in 24 seasons.
4 Trading Away Dennis Rodman
Dennis Rodman needed a new beginning in more than one way and his ticket out of Detroit was required for that to happen. He was the one who actually requested a trade so I don’t fault the Pistons for sending him to San Antonio. However, I do fault the team for what they got in return: one year of Sean Elliott. Elliott (who would rejoin the Spurs a year later) was a nice player but Rodman was the game’s best defensive player AND rebounder! He was a two-time Defensive Player of the Year who was coming off back-to-back rebounding titles. Imagine if Kawhi Leonard was grabbing 18 boards per game: that was Rodman on the defensive end in the early 1990s.
The season after they traded Rodman, the Pistons would plummet to 20 wins and miss the playoffs for the first time in a decade. Meanwhile, Rodman would play two seasons in San Antonio and win two more rebounding titles. He would then join the Bulls and win NBA titles and rebounding titles in each of his three seasons in Chicago.
3 Drafting Jimmy Walker #1 Overall Over Walt Frazier And Earl Monroe
You want to know how the Pistons went 13 years in between postseason series victories during the 1960s and 1970s? By making incompetent moves like they did in the 1967 NBA Draft. They held the #1 overall pick and desperately needed a guard. Staring at them were two sure-fire stars: Earl Monroe and Walt Frazier. Monroe averaged 41.5 PPG as a senior at Winston-Salem and Frazier put up 18 PPG and 12 RPG as a senior at SIU (had the school tracked assists, Frazier may have averaged a triple double!)
So who do the Pistons decide to grab?
With the first pick of the 1967 NBA Draft, the Detroit Pistons select Jimmy Walker! Jimmy…Walker. No, not J.J. from Good Times but Jimmy Walker who had a decent NBA career but is best known for being Jalen Rose’s estranged father. Walker wasn’t as “Dy-no-mite” as Monroe and Frazier who would team up with the Knicks, win NBA titles, and go into the Hall of Fame. However, Walker does have this nugget on his resume that neither Monroe, Frazier, nor any other athlete can claim to have. He was also drafted with the last pick of the 1967 NFL Draft which makes him the only person to be drafted first by one league and last by another.
2 Playing Grant Hill On A Bum Ankle
We all know the story about Grant Hill’s injury woes that followed him from Detroit to Orlando; but in recent years Hill has shed some light as to why the ankle injuries happened in the first place. What the Pistons’ team doctors labeled as a “bone bruise” was actually a broken ankle that Hill tried to play on during the team’s playoff run in 2000. Remember Isiah Thomas hobbling around vs. the Lakers in the Finals? That was the standard set by the players and certain higher-ups within the Pistons’ organization wanted Grant Hill (ON A BROKEN ANKLE!!) to live up to that standard.
All the medication in the world wouldn’t allow Hill to be anywhere close to his All-Star self and it affected the rest of his career. Hill would sign with Orlando that summer but his ankle never truly healed. Over the length of his seven-year deal with Orlando, Hill played in just 35% of the team’s games and lost the explosiveness that made him the 1990s version of LeBron.
1 Drafting Darko Milicic in 2003
Let’s go back and look at the reason why Joe Dumars took Darko #2 overall in 2003. The Pistons already had their small forward of the future in Tayshaun Prince so Dumars thought drafting Carmelo Anthony (picked 3rd) would have been a redundant pick. Okay, so what about PF Chris Bosh (picked 4th) or SG Dwyane Wade (picked 5th)? Or what about any of the other five future All-Stars picked outside of the top 5? The Pistons would go on to win the NBA title in that season, but that could have been the first of who knows how many titles had Dumars just gone with the best available player.
Darko played just over 500 minutes as a Piston in two-and-a-half years before being traded and embarking on a journeyman career. This decision was undoubtedly the worst in franchise history and 14 years later the Pistons still haven’t truly recovered.
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