(In the vein of the highly esteemed David Shoemaker, AKA The Masked Man’s Deadspin column entitled “Dead Wrestler of the Week”, we here at MAMBINO are going to parse our way through the worst contracts the NBA has to offer. Part dedication to the great men who have swindled their way to big checks, part commemoration to GMs that should have been fired and part commentary on the ills of a capitalist society gone wrong, we’ll be here every week with a look at the L’s worst deals)
Contract: 5 years, $35 million
Signed by: Detroit Pistons
Salary this season: $8 million
2013 Slash Line: 7.2/3.8/0.7 in 52 games
“My comment to Charlie was in fact ‘You are cancerous to your team and our league.’ I would never be insensitive to the brave struggle that cancer patients endure. I have lost loved ones to this deadly disease and have a family member currently undergoing treatment. I would never say anything that distasteful. The game of life is far bigger than the game of basketball.”—Kevin Garnett
And with that eloquent statement in response to a most heinous allegation, the Big Ticket simply said what a lot of us were thinking.
No, not about cancer, although I’m sure there’s not a person alive who doesn’t want the disease eradicated.
About Charlie Villanueva being cancerous to the team and perhaps the very league that team operates in. Whether he’ll admit it or not, Charlie V is a physical manifestation of the precipitous decline of Detroit Basketball.
Born with alopecia, a condition that makes hair growth impossible, an already imposing human being looked even more ominous. Regardless of how it set him apart off the hardwood, the disease had zero effect on Charlie’s on-court skills. The son of Dominican immigrants dominated high school competition in New Jersey, and after a brief flirtation with jumping directly into the pro game, decided on the University of Connecticut to sharpen his roundball acumen.
At 6’11” Villanueva had turned himself into a product of the times—a jump shooting big man with the ability to play inside-out all on his own. However, unlike many cowardly bigs who with a shooting stroke would prefer to remain on the perimeter for a less physically demanding game, Charlie was willing to mix it up in the paint as well as duck out to stretch the floor for his teammates. As a freshman, Charlie was a key contributor to the 2004 National Champion Huskies behind the defensive brilliance of Emeka Okafor and steely cold game-time assassinations from Ben Gordon. As one of UConn’s best players his sophomore season, Villanueva then averaged just over 13 points and almost 9 rebounds. He declared for the NBA draft soon after, lottery-bound with a tantalizing skillset and infinite potential.
The Toronto Raptors took the stretch four with the seventh overall pick, hoping that he could team with Chris Bosh to form one of the greatest front court tandems in the game. Despite a nightly 13 points and 6 rebounds, the Raps split up their young duo after just one year, shipping Villanueva out to Milwaukee for a sorely needed point guard in T.J. Ford. It didn’t help that Villanueva’s reported defensive malaise lived up to his reputation. Despite his agility and athleticism in getting to a corner three, Charlie transferred little of that to the other side of the floor. His massive frame lumbered lazily running back in transition and showed little desire to become anything more than a sometimes adequate defender. In college, he had played with Emeka Okafor, Josh Boone and Hilton Armstrong guarding the rim behind him. With Chris Bosh often in that spot, much more was expected of him defensively and the near 7 foot forward never became even adequate in that avenue.
Villanueva slowly improved with coach Skiles and the Bucks over the next three years, ultimately resulting in his best season in 2008-2009; 16 points, nearly 7 rebounds, while shooting a decent but not spectacular 35% from long range in 27 minutes. He was by no means a particularly a high efficiency player, doing his offensive damage on 16 shots and just 3 free throws a game. However, he was just 24 at the time, and at 6’11” with a nice looking jump shot, perhaps he just needed the proper setting to bring the best out of him. It seemed that even as physical appearances still had NBA onlookers wondering “what is wrong with that guy?”, it was the same superficiality in his game that kept such a flawed player as a desired prospect.
He had become a free agent at a fortuitous time in the NBA. While many had realized that Villanueva would never be a star, many were still emboldened that he could be the key piece to a championship puzzle. The Detroit Pistons were one of those many.
Dee-troit Bas-ket –ball had just come out of one of their most promising periods in NBA history. The team had made the playoffs in eight straight years, the middle six seasons going to the Eastern Conference Finals. Mixed in there were two Finals berths and one championship. That core had been broken up, with Chauncey Billups jettisoned to Denver in exchange for the expiring contract of Allen Iverson, whilst the Wallace boys, Rasheed and Ben, had gone to rival teams in free agency. At the end of the 2009 season, the Pistons still made the playoffs as an eighth seed, but were below .500 for the first time since 2001 and out of the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 2003.
Luckily for the team and their GM Joe Dumars, there appeared to be a quick fix rebuilding available after one year. By not re-signing thirty-somethings Rasheed and Iverson, the front office had Detroit positioned itself to be $20 million dollars underneath the salary cap to swing for a big ticket free agent, or at the very least, pieces that could augment what was a championship-level core just twelve months earlier. And even then if Joe completely struck out in luring anyone to D-Town that summer, he could preserve cap space for the summer of 2010, when players like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Amar’e Stoudemire, Carlos Boozer and Rudy Gay would be ready to move.
For years, Joe D had been a source of controversy in the Motor City. It seemed that every fantastic move he made—acquiring the undervalued Rip Hamilton, Billups, Wallace and Wallace—was buttressed with terrible ones—drafting Darko Milicic over Wade, Bosh, Carmelo Anthony or…just about anyone else in the 2003 draft. With so many “can’t lose” options on the table that summer, it was almost so easy that even Joe D couldn’t screw this up.
If that remote chance was a bulls eye, Dumars would have won the gold medal in archery. Blind archery. Blind, quadriplegic archery.
In July 2009, Joe didn’t just sign one of the worst free agent contracts still in existence, but two. That summer, he signed guard Ben Gordon to a five year, $60 million dollar deal while simultaneously inking Villanueva to a five year, $35 million dollar deal.
In one day, Joe had locked the future of his franchise to five players that had capped out their salary situation, including a player that had been a career bench player (Gordon), an aging and unhappy shooting guard (Hamilton), a shoot-first point guard from a mid-major collegiate conference (Rodney Stuckey) and two overpaid forwards who had never made an All-Star team (Tayshaun Prince and Villanueva). At the time, it didn’t completely appear that feeble; Gordon was still in his mid-twenties, and a potential star, while Stuckey was in just his second season before everyone realized that he was a positionless gunner with a poor shooting stroke and even worse on-court decision-making abilities. Needless to say, this expensive era of Pistons basketball hasn’t worked out. Joe D invested in all the wrong players, none of whom developed under two terrible coaching regimes. The Pistons haven’t won a playoff series since 2008, haven’t made the postseason since 2009, while hitting a high-water mark of just 30 victories.
Chief reason for this? A man whose been cancerous to his team. Villanueva has been a complete disappointment for the Pistons, both as an on-court performer and locker-room leader. He’s gotten in fights with every single coach that’s walked through the Auburn Palace doors—granted, they’ve all been massive flameouts—and played the worst basketball of his life. In his first year in Detroit, Villanueva scored just 12 points, grabbed just below 5 rebounds and shot a very pedestrian 35% from long. His reputation as a poor defender certainly didn’t betray his actual capabilities, as coach John Kuester soon removed Charlie V from the starting lineup.
And somehow, he’s gotten worse in the subsequent three years of his mammoth deal. His point totals have declined every season, to where he’s chipping in a mere 7.6 ppg on 40% shooting overall. He’s now rebounding about as well as a good shooting guard at 4 boards a night, even though he’s 7 inches taller than your average NBA backcourt player. Four years into a five year pact, Villanueva has started just 27 games. Luckily for the Pistons, he’s started to get along with new coach Lawrence Frank, who last year got so fed up with Villanueva’s attitude and unwillingness to give even two—nay, one shit about defense and benched his ass despite a $7 million dollar salary. He played just 13 games during the 2011-2012 season, a testament to the fact that on the court, he was simply doing more harm to his team than good.
More to Garnett’s point, Villanueva’s presence has been cancerous to the league as a whole. The NBA is undeniably worse off when the Pistons aren’t great. At their various peaks in the 80s, 90s and 00s, the Pistons were the squad that everyone loved to hate; the worst kind of villains that were bullies on the playground and straight A students in the classroom. They were brilliant, conniving, physical and dominant. They played Detroit Basketball: ball-sharing unselfishly, brokering a grinding pace of game and certainly, under any circumstance…no lay-ups. But none of this works when their best and highest paid players don’t abide by any of these unwritten rules that Isaiah, the Bad Boys, the Wallaces, Billups and Hamilton helped forge. These overpaid, ill-conceived pistons were and are a disgrace to the great name and tradition of the Pistons.
It’s hard to put even a large portion of the blame on Villanueva—after all, he’s not the guy doling out the hideous contracts, hiring the incompetent coaches, busting draft picks or trading for useless players. However, he’s emblematic of who the Pistons have become: lazy, selfish, unbelievably talented and ultimately disappointing.
Kevin Garnett is an asshole. But that doesn’t mean he’s not right. For failing to live up to your contract and sullying the good name of one of the NBA’s best franchises, we salute you, Charlie Villanueva.
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