“I like to KICK… STRRRRRRETCH… aaannd KICK!”
It’s time to renew that all-time great NBA rivalry… Fort Wayne versus St. Louis!
Imagine if the industrialist owners of those 50s-era NBA midwestern franchises were just a tad bit more civic-minded. We’d never know for sure, but while we NBA fans might indeed be watching Detroit versus Atlanta tonight at State Farm Arena (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL), we could very well find ourselves rooting for expansion franchises.
The Pistons are the Pistons because the top gadgets supplied to the automotive industry were cranking out of a foundry run by Fort Wayne’s Zollner Machine Works. The NBL team was branded by company executive Fred Zollner’s family as the Zollner Pistons, and the cagers brought multiple championships to the northeast Indiana city, prior to the BAA merger in the 1940s. It was Fred who was known as “Mr. Pro Basketball”.
The Pistons came close to claiming back-to-back NBA titles in the 1950s, falling in the Finals to the (Philly) Warriors, the (Minny) Lakers and, probably, some (Greedy) point shavers. It was the Fort Wayne-versus-Minneapolis 19-18 stall-fest, in 1950, that would soon usher in the shotclock era. Around Indiana, it was reasonable to project that their Pistons would soon overtake those Lakers as the NBA’s next dynasty.
Allen County built War Memorial Coliseum (probably a favorite venue of the late George Carlin) on the outskirts of its county seat in 1952 to keep the Pistons around, and the arena hosted the 1953 All-Star Game. Yet not even five years after getting into his new palace, Zollner was ready to high-tail it out of town.
The Hawks’ town-trotting owner, Ben Kerner, felt Milwaukee wasn’t big enough of a beertown to support the brave new world of high-scoring NBA hoops, bailing for St. Louis in 1955 after just four years in America’s Dairyland. Zollner was watching closely, and it wasn’t long before he announced a move from Motor Parts City to the Motor City itself. The decision was questionable, since a decade before, Detroit clubs in both the BAA and the NBL folded. Is Detroit even a basketball town, like Fort Wayne?
I imagine some disaffected Hoosier shifting his fandom to the Hawks after the 1957 move out of Fort Wayne. To continue supporting Midwestern pro hoops, it was either that, or root for the Royals who just relocated that same year to Cincy themselves. Otherwise he’d have to settle cheering for Minneapolis, and nobody likes the Lakers. At least St. Louis, he’d reason, looks like they’re not headed anywhere soon.
No matter whether their teams were winning from one season to the next, Kerner and Zollner each struggled to keep the teams profitable in their new NBA locales. Zollner eventually sold the franchise to Bill Davidson, who kept the Pistons in (and mostly around) Detroit for the ensuing four decades. Revenue for Kerner’s Hawks stagnated after winning the 1958 NBA title in St. Louis, and no enterprising locals were willing to let him off the hook. He did find some takers, though, in recent Georgia governor Carl Sanders, and Atlanta-area real estate developer Thomas Cousins.
Pro sports was off to a rocky start in Atlanta in the 1960s, in part due the tumultuous race relations that percolated at the time. But the continued success of Henry Aaron with the Braves facilitated the race to establish Atlanta as the Deep South’s first major-league city.
Fifty years ago, Loving v. Virginia was perceived as the harbinger of some kind of national crisis. Tonight, people will spend their Friday nights sharing arm rests regardless of their background, while multi-racial Oklahoma Sooner legends Blake Griffin and Trae Young trade baskets.
As competitors both franchises were stuck in neutral for decades, before the Pistons surpassing the Hawks by winning NBA titles in 1989, 1990 and 2004. But throughout their tenure in Motown, the Pistons have seemed like the NBA’s Club Castoff. Largely, a team accustomed to making-do with players other teams had already given up on.
As sad-sack as the Cleveland Cavaliers of the early 1980s were, couldn’t find a steady role for Bill Laimbeer, and they couldn’t foresee a future with coach Chuck Daly. Orlando saw more of a chance at a championship-winning future with Grant Hill, and the Magic were more than happy to part ways with Ben Wallace in order to grab for the brass ring.
Same deal with the Wizards, who couldn’t believe their luck when Detroit was willing to hand them All-Star Jerry Stackhouse in 2002 for the low-low price of Rip Hamilton. Portland had to shed their JailBlazers notoriety, so Rasheed Wallace found himself getting passed around.
Pistons got three NBA trophies for making smart moves and draft decisions to accompany these acquisitions. But the strategy doesn’t always work out, as those who recall Joe Dumars bidding against himself for Josh Smith’s services can attest. In 2018, with current owner Tom Gores’ team formally back in town, his new management is trying the same tack. Gores put ex-Sixers executive Ed Stefanski in charge of stewing the Pistons Potluck for a new generation.
Stefanski was with Toronto back in 2011, when that club gave Dwane Casey a shot to coach. Last season’s NBA Coach of the Year found himself washed ashore after his Raptors got Thanos’d in the playoffs yet again by LeBron James. The votes Casey earned for that coaching honor was attributed to first-place Toronto’s offensive resurgence, something Raptors management now entrusts to his successor and ex-assistant, Nick Nurse.
Casey has been directed to eventually replicate that success, with a new set of staff, for a Detroit franchise that hasn’t seen much of a functional offense since the 2007-08 Flip Saunders-led team bowed out of the Eastern Conference Finals. He and the Pistons are turning to the mammoth Andre Drummond (18.9 PPG, NBA-high 16.6 RPG) and a slew of castoffs headlined by Griffin (career-high 27.3 PPG, 40.7 3FG%, 10.7 RPG).
Blake’s star shone brightly in making the Clippers the surprise marquee club in L.A. for a half-decade. But with his injuries and dwindling assertiveness, the Clips were looking for an out, in hopes of spending Steve Ballmer’s cash on some future superstar instead. In mid-season last year, Detroit was more than happy to take in both him and his freshly-inked multi-year contract ($39 million in 2021-22, the season he turns 33 years of age).
The NBA’s 29 other teams, including the Oklahoma City Thunder for obvious reasons, where unwilling to give shoot-first, shoot-next, shoot-last point guard Reggie Jackson a shot at scratching out an All-Star career as a lead ballhandler. The Pistons were the exception. Now with Casey at the bat, Detroit has to craft a gameplan where Jackson (3.7 APG, lowest since his 2012-13 season as a Thunder reserve) and the big men all share the ball, and a cast of role players all chip in to make the trio’s lives easier. If that sounds like a big challenge, that’s because it is proving to be one.
The Pistons (5-5) squandered a 4-0 start to this season, dropping five straight games before escaping Orlando with a 103-96 win on Wednesday. Edging a Ben Simmons-less Sixers team at home, in a 133-132 overtime win over two weeks ago, is perhaps the signature victory thus far.
After years of entrusting DeAndre Jordan to patrol the paint, Griffin isn’t fond of Drummond’s interest in expanding his range beyond the three-point line. The spread floor, in Blake’s estimation, only makes it more likely he’ll face double teams on his post-ups and forays to the hoop. The more pressing issue is that Griffin’s teammates aren’t scoring much from long distance, either.
Detroit’s 30.5 3FG% has them ranked next-to-last in the NBA, with Griffin the sole Piston popping above a 35 percent clip. Getting Ish Smith (33.3%), Jackson (30.4%), Langston Galloway (29.3%) and Reggie Bullock (23.3%; 44.5% last season, 2nd in NBA) unstuck would do wonders for this offense (NBA-low 47.9 eFG%), although some of that requires more mindful inside-out play from both Griffin and Drummond.
The Piston defense has been solid but front-heavy, as it is too reliant on Drummond, the sole player averaging at least one steal and one block per contest, barely (1.0 SPG, 1.3 BPG). They’re heavily reliant on Stanley Johnson and rookie Bruce Brown contesting shots and drives well from the wing, a strategy that doesn’t work when their opponents get hot.
Fortunately for the Pistons, their opponent tonight is the Hawks, who struggle to string together two or more productive possessions on offense (17.7 TO%, 29th in NBA; 21st in 3FG%, 24th in FT%). Rookie guard Trae Young will need better movement and execution out of Taurean Prince, the marquee for tonight’s 50 Years in Atlanta celebration, who returns to the starting lineup, as well as Kent Bazemore.
A combined 4-for-24 on threes during Wednesday’s 112-107 loss to the Knicks, none of that trio of Hawks stood out in a good way until it was too late for Atlanta to dig out of another unnecessarily large second-half hole. The Hawks’ Net Rating in 3rd quarters is an atrocious minus-25.9, and no other club is as bad as Chicago’s minus-12.9.
The Pistons would love to feel sorry for Atlanta, but they have their own troubles getting off the blocks to start games (minus-13.6 Net Rating in first quarters, 29th in NBA). The team that shakes out of their doldrums after leaving the locker room is likely to be the one with something to cheer when they return to the tunnels.
As new Piston and recent NBA champion Zaza Pachulia once said, “Nothing easy!” With exception to a couple noteworthy eras, it has not been a simple task for either of the Hawks or the Pistons to sustain competitive success over much of their five decades in their respective NBA towns.
But unlike Detroit, Atlanta isn’t satisfied with the approach of cobbling together unwanted spare parts to build a something better than an Edsel. This is the type of town that moves on from the rusty Ford plant to make room for Porsche.
If all goes well, by the time we celebrate the Hawks’ 60th, and 75th, seasons in the ATL, perhaps fans at The Farm will have some worthy banners to point to, as evidence that the best engines can indeed be built from scratch.
Let’s Go Hawks!