By taking advantage of the amnesty clause, the Pistons could have ended one of the darkest stretches in team history. They chose instead to keep much maligned forward Charlie Villanueva, making some fans very unhappy but giving the club more roster flexibility next summer.
Villanueva has become a symbol of everything that has gone wrong with the franchise since its run of six consecutive trips to the Eastern Conference final. He's an offense-minded, finesse player in an organization that has traditionally succeeded on physical defense and toughness.
Following two seasons as a rotation player in which he often surrendered as many or more points than he scored, Villanueva was sidelined two months with an ankle injury last season and couldn't crack coach Lawrence Frank's rotation when he returned.
Villanueva still has two years and $16.5 million remaining on the contract he received from president of basketball operations Joe Dumars in 2009. He was the logical choice to get sliced off an increasingly younger roster through the amnesty clause but, other than appeasing those fans and opening up a roster spot, it wouldn't have provided any significant benefits. The Pistons would have remained over the salary cap even if his contract was subtracted.
If Villanueva is still on the roster entering next offseason, his contract would suddenly become an asset. Expiring deals are always in demand, and the Pistons might be able to swap him for a draft pick and/or another player who fills a glaring need.
The Pistons' four consecutive losing seasons can be traced to Dumars' desire to plunge into the free agent market three years ago rather than watch an aging contender steadily decline. Early in the 2008-09 season, he boldly traded starting point guard Chauncey Billups to Denver in a blockbuster deal that sent Allen Iverson and his expiring contract to Detroit.
Dumars' reasoning was sound. He thought his core group had reached a plateau and by trading Billups, he created salary-cap room that he didn't otherwise have to make those necessary changes.
It's how Dumars spent the money that led to the Pistons' three consecutive trips to the lottery. He squandered it on high-scoring shooting guard Ben Gordon and Villanueva, incorrectly assuming his team needed to get away from its defensive roots in order to match the firepower of the superstar-led contenders.
Gordon's disappointing run with the team ended in June when he was traded to Charlotte for forward Corey Maggette and his expiring contract, though the Pistons had to throw in a future first-rounder to make it happen. They could wind up taking the reverse approach with Villanueva next year. If that fails, Dumars still has the amnesty clause in his back pocket.
In the short term, the biggest concern with Villanueva is having a brooding veteran at the end of the bench. The Pistons have plenty of options at power forward, led by Jason Maxiell and Jonas Jerebko. Greg Monroe will also slide over to that position when rookie Andre Drummond or Ukrainian free agent Slava Kravtsov plays alongside him. That leaves Villanueva and Austin Daye, who shifted to power forward during summer league play, fighting for scraps as the "stretch four," a power forward who can knock down 3-pointers.
"That's what I bring to this team -- that versatility to stretch the floor, put the ball on the floor," Villanueva said recently to pistons.com. "That's why I'm here. That's the reason they brought me here is to be that stretch four. We don't have a guy on this team that can do the things I can do."
If some fans had their way, Villanueva wouldn't even be on the team. It appears they'll have to wait until next year to get their wish.
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