Now or Never
Not your typical Piston defender, Charlie Villanueva isn’t giving up.
by Patrick Hayes / @patrick_hayes
Leave it to a sports talk radio personality to be a loudmouth, but the first question Detroit Pistons forward Charlie Villanueva fielded on media day spoke for a lot of Pistons fans, even if it did so in a less than tactful manner.
“What do you say to people who think you’re soft?” the reporter asked. Villanueva, taken aback slightly by the bluntness of the question, fought back whatever emotion he was feeling. Resisting the urge to react in the defensive, he gave the diplomatic and even-keeled response we’ve grown to expect from Charlie V, one of the most accessible players in the NBA.
But that niceness might be the root of the reason Charlie V has not been embraced by fans the way a young high profile free-agent signing is expected to be. Villanueva signed a contract that will pay him in excess of $7 million a year to play the frontcourt in Detroit for the next five years. Legendary Pistons like Bill Laimbeer, Rick Mahorn, Dennis Rodman, Corliss Williamson, Rasheed Wallace and Ben Wallace have manned that position over the years. And let’s face it — as funny as it would be to see the reaction, no reporter would dare ask any of those guys about being soft.
Villanueva just doesn’t have the disposition of any of those players, and fairly or not, he’s being asked to become that type of player for the Pistons.
He was benched late last season by coach John Kuester largely for his failings defensively. And despite what the team and Villanueva himself frequently referred to as a great offseason spent getting in the best shape of his career, Villanueva, even with his big contract, came into camp as an underdog to man the starting power forward spot.
That all changed when promising incumbent starter Jonas Jerebko went down with a season-ending injury seven minutes into the preseason. Suddenly, Villanueva went from a player the Pistons hoped would have a bounce-back season to someone the team desperately needs production from, particularly at the defensive end, where Jerebko’s presence will be missed the most.
Don’t get me wrong — I’m not making a case that Villanueva is ‘soft.’ Soft guys don’t make it to the NBA. Soft guys don’t play half the season, as Villanueva did last season, with a painful plantar fasciitis injury with nary a complaint. Soft guys don’t sustain a broken nose, have surgery, and miss only one game of action.
The bar set by his predecessors hasn’t done Villanueva any favors. Last season, comparisons to Rasheed Wallace were prevalent, but also misinformed. After all, despite all of his flaws, no one ever called ‘Sheed a poor defender. Rodman and Ben Wallace are two of the top defensive players in NBA history. Laimbeer was among the top rebounders of the 1980s. And no one exuded toughness the way Mahorn did.
Comparisons are inevitable. Every team that has had past success, that has legendary, beloved players, wants their new guys to fit those molds. Fans just need to tweak those comparisons slightly in Villanueva’s case.
When the Pistons traded for Mark Aguirre in 1989, they were bringing a premier scorer and uninterested defensive player on to a team known for its defense. There are great stories in Pistons lore about Laimbeer and Isiah Thomas sitting Aguirre down upon his arrival, explaining the culture of the team and, in no uncertain terms, telling Aguirre in his new role.
Aguirre responded by posting career-bests in both defensive win shares and defensive rating his first two full seasons in Detroit. He was never what anyone would consider a lockdown defender, but he was strong and gave effort at that end of the floor while also supplying his trademark offense.
Is it weird to compare Villanueva to a small forward? Perhaps a bit. But Chris Webber recently said he thinks Villanueva is a small forward in a power forward’s body, so thinking of Charlie V’s game more like that of an instant offense player like Aguirre might make some sense.
But if you insist on Villanueva as a power forward, think of him in the role that Terry Mills played for the Pistons in the 1990s.
Mills, like Villanueva, was a big man whose game was more predicated on a good perimeter touch than anything he was able to do inside. Over his three best seasons in Detroit, he averaged about 15 points and 8 rebounds per game — numbers that are very much attainable for Villanueva. Despite being slower-footed and not particularly athletic defensively, also similar characteristics to Villanueva, Mills was able to have a couple OK defensive seasons on back-to-back Pistons playoff teams.
The Pistons signed Villanueva believing he was young enough to shift his game and embrace their defensive ways. That line of thinking might have been a mistake, but that doesn’t mean Villanueva can’t be a useful player for them if those expectations are modified slightly. If he does his job offensively and simply makes an effort to battle harder on defense, he’s the best option the Pistons have at the power forward spot right now.