Joe Dumars 2.0
With his defensive prowess, no-nonsense approach, and blue-collar work ethic, Avery Bradley is everything that the Detroit Pistons’ past success has been predicated on.
Last November, my father and I watched our beloved Pistons show a pulse for the first time in the early season, during a win against the then-league best, 14–2 Clippers. Even so, the irrational confidence that had carried our young core to the playoffs the previous year, was noticeably absent on that late-November night. At the time, despite playing without our starting PG — Reggie Jackson — through the first month of the season, the Pistons were 8–9. In retrospect, the win against LA would serve as the season’s peak, as the Pistons went 25–36 the rest of the way, to finish 10th in the putrid East.
Aside from their regression, the Pistons were hard to root for. Our best player (Andre Drummond) doubled as arguably the team’s most despised guy, by way of his complete lack of effort on defense. Our second-best player (Jackson) carried himself like an All-NBA PG, but played like most team’s back-ups. Our third-banana (Tobias Harris) was a glorified role-player. Our fourth-option (KCP) was a streaky heat-check guy. And Stanley Johnson, who was the most surprising rookie of 2016, suffered a sophomore slump so atrocious, that it’d be a disservice to past draft busts to label him as just. On top of it all, the team had an attitude, defense, and identity problem.
And so, last Friday, after I learned that the Pistons traded Marcus Morris for Avery Bradley, I wasn’t only shocked by SVG’s display of competence, but was also overcome with a sense of relief, in that it was the franchise’ first respectable trade or free agent signing since Rasheed Wallace in 2004.
Over the past eight years, the front office, in an attempt to master an express rebuild, instead, saw its splashy acquisitions turn disastrous. In 2009, the Pistons traded Chauncey Billups for 33 year-old, Allen Iverson. Instead of squeezing out the last years of the former-MVP’s prime, Iverson helped the Pistons suffer their earliest playoff exit in eight years. That summer, the team attached its hopes to free agents, Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva. Both guys regressed dramatically compared to their previous output, as the Pistons missed the playoffs for the first time in nine years. In 2013, the front office proved it hadn’t learned from its past mistakes, by signing then-All-Stars, Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings. It was a marriage in Hell, as both players, along with Greg Monroe, Drummond, and Kyle Singler, formed arguably the league’s worst-shooting crunch-time five.
And so, Friday’s trade was unquestionably the Pistons’ first glimmer of hope this decade. Immediately, Bradley becomes the team’s best player, and while you can fairly attribute that to the Pistons’ lack of talent, it’d be selling Bradley short. Last year, the Celtics’ shooting-guard, despite sharing the back-court with Isiah Thomas, who averaged 28.9 PPG, while also playing on a team in which three other guys averaged double-digits, Bradley was able to drop 16.3 PPG.
That being said, Bradley’s greatness stems from his output on the other end, as he has become one of the NBA’s best perimeter defenders, second to only Jimmy Butler and Kawhi Leonard, if that. This is why his potential impact on Detroit goes far beyond statistics. On a team as defensively inept as the Pistons, Bradley can guard the opponent’s first-option on a nightly basis. Further, he is one of the league’s hardest-workers, an attribute that is lacking in Detroit. Bradley brings no baggage, and a no-nonsense approach that has the potential to rub off on the Pistons’ young core. With that said, above all, Bradley may well be the first player the Pistons have had since the ’00s, that the city will fall in love with. Already, in Bradley, the fanbase sees noticeable comparisons with one of the franchise’ past icons — Joe Dumars.
Knowing Bradley’s repuation as a defensive work-horse, it was impossible for Pistons’ fans to imagine his fit in Detroit, without reminiscing about Joe D. On the ’80s Bad Boys, while Isiah was the superstar, Laimbeer was the heart and soul, Rodman was the motor, Mahorn was the enforcer, and Salley and Vinnie were the x-factors off the bench, Dumars was the Pistons’ rock.
For a team whose success was predicated on defense, it began and ended with Dumars. There’s a reason MJ continues to stand by his claim that Dumars guarded him better than anyone else — he was that good. Ironically, he was the one decent soul on the Bad Boys; a class act that carried himself without an iota of entitlement or swagger. He simply let his play do the talking.
Likewise, Bradley carries himself quietly, outside the confines of the NBA’s swagger-soaked era. Despite being continually overlooked, Bradley’s defense is beginning to generate praise, with Kyrie calling him the best defender he’s played against, while others contributed to the outcry stemming from Bradley’s absence from this year’s NBA All-Defensive First and Second Team, after he was selected to the First Team in 2016. Still, you don’t hear anything from Bradley.
It’s become exhaustingly cliche to examine the relationship between cities and their teams, specifically, certain team’s ability to embody the identity of the town they inhabit. We’ve always romanticized teams that display the gritty, underdog-mentality of blue-collar cities such as Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Cleveland, and Chicago. With that said, for the teams and fans encompassing this group, this mutual identification can’t be understated. Justifiable or not, these cities carry themselves with a chip-on-their-shoulder that isn’t found in the New Yorks, LAs, or Miami’s of the World.
For as much as Detroit has been considered a football or baseball town, historically, while more recently, being defined as “Hockeytown” by way of the Wings’ 20-plus years of success, the Pistons have forever exemplified Detroit’s soul. Granted, the manifestation of the city, through its basketball team, has benefitted from the Bad Boys and the Ben/Chauncey/Sheed rendition of the ’00s — whose rallying cry was “Goin to Work”, no less — sharing an identity rooted in grittiness and swagger, one in which both teams won by playing conventional basketball predicated on hard-nosed defense, rebounding, and low-post scoring.
That being said, unlike the Tigers and Lions, who still generate palpable passion during rebuilding years, the Pistons struggle to maintain a diehard following during periods of losing. Granted, this would seem to contradict any evidence pointing toward a true fanbase that lacks a bandwagon-mentality, but on the flip side, it serves as an example of Detroit’s no-nonsense approach when it comes to their basketball team.
In other words, whenever the Pistons have lacked the framework forever associated with the franchise, which has happenend during the better part of the ’90s, as well as this entire decade, fans check out, in large part due to feeling misinterpreted by the team the city identifies closest with. It may sound like complete hypocrisy, but it’s not. Whenever any Detroit team has been at their winningest peak, no one comes close to the impact that the Pistons have on the beating heart of Detroit.
That being said, the resurgence of the passionate Pistons fanbase isn’t strictly reserved for moments of championship contention, rather, it sproughts up when certain players are able to strike a cord with the city. For a point of comparison, look at Ben Wallace’ initial arrival to Detroit. In 2002, Wallace served as the lone bright-spot on a Pistons team that was ousted early in the playoffs. And yet, before Chauncey, Rip, Tayshuan, and Sheed came to town in the next two years, Big Ben was the Pistons’ heart and soul, winning Defensive Player of the Year in 2002, as that season served as the beginning of the franchise’ future success.
That’s not to say that Avery Bradley will undoubtedly have the same effect on the team and the city of Detroit, but it’s in play. And for as much as Detroit loved being represented by the brashness of Mahorn, Laimbeer, and Rasheed, at its core, the city took more pride in identifying with Dumars and Big Ben — quiet guys who emobided the blue-collar identity of the city, specifically, in the way they went about their work, not needing any recognition.
For the entirety of Avery Bradley’s career, Detroit has been a basketball graveyard. Little does he know, the city is a sleeping giant, waiting to be woken up out of its sleep. We’ll soon find out if Bradley has what it takes.