While teams like the Spurs and Mavericks can carefully audition young role players to eventually take over as “The Franchise” once the time is right, others are under the gun — both basketball-wise and at the box office — to find out ASAP precisely who they’re going to hitch their wagon to and take their best shot at a championship.
The Detroit Pistons are in that second group. After snapping an eight-year run of making the playoffs, which included an NBA title in ’04, an NBA Finals loss in ’05, and four other appearances in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Pistons landed in the Lottery this year. And for a fan base and front office that’s grown accustomed to success, that’s not going to cut it for too long.
Rodney Stuckey has been identified as Detroit’s future franchise player ever since Chauncey Billups was traded in November 2008. But is Stuckey living up to the crown and progressing at a good pace? This season the third-year pro averaged 16.6 points, 3.9 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 1.4 steals per game. Only a handful of players — LeBron, Kobe, D-Wade, Monta Ellis, Tyreke Evans, Chris Paul, Stephen Curry and Andre Iguodala — were able to crack 16 ppg, 4 rpg, 5 apg and 1.5 spg, and Stuckey was just a handful boards, dimes and steals away from joining that group.
Being a true franchise player, however, means more than just putting up numbers. Does Stuckey — who shot 40 percent from the field and 22 percent from three-point range — have the trust of his teammates and his coach that he can carry the Pistons? Does he elicit grown-man fear from opposing defenses that he can slice them up whenever he gets in the mood? In the Detroit games I watched that came down to the wire, Rip Hamilton and Ben Gordon were called upon just as much as Stuckey, maybe even more so, when the team needed a big shot. On one hand that’s a good problem to have when you can keep defenses guessing on critical possessions; but on the other hand it pokes a big hole in the Stuckey-as-The-Franchise argument.
If Pistons president Joe Dumars is convinced Stuckey is his guy, I think the best move would be to trade Hamilton this summer.
When he was healthy this year, Rip proved he could still play, dropping 18.1 points a night in 48 games. And while he’s got a monster contract ($37.8 million over the next three seasons) to unload for a 32-year-old, Rip could be attractive to a mid-level contender looking for a scorer to help them get over the hump. In return, Detroit may be able to add some more pieces to surround Stuckey. But more importantly, Stuckey would finally feel like this is really his team, that he’s really The Franchise.
Stuckey is a young respectful guy, and Rip is a respected vet. He’s one of the last remaining links to Detroit’s championship squad, where he was the top offensive option. And it’s not like he’s washed up today, so it’s completely understandable that Stuckey would still defer to Rip — even if Rip accepted a secondary role to the young gun — no matter what his coaches, team execs and shot distribution might be telling him.
If Stuckey is supposed to be Detroit’s meal ticket, next season is “put up or shut up” time. Not saying he needs to hoist the team on his back and go championship-or-bust — but by the end of a player’s fourth year, most of the time, we know whether or not they’ve got superstar quality. Kobe, Wade and Tim Duncan all won a ‘chip by the end of their fourth year as the best or second-player on their team. LeBron, Deron Williams and Paul Pierce had at least led their team to a conference finals by the end of Year Four, while CP3, Dirk Nowitzki and Allen Iverson had at least taken their teams into the second round.
Stuckey played in the conference finals in ’08, but that was his rookie year as a backup. He has to prove he can do postseason damage as the alpha male if he’s going to be considered franchise material. Especially in Detroit, where the rafters hanging overhead in The Palace are a constant reminder that middle-of-the-pack isn’t good enough.