Why Detroit Pistons are eyeing short route to winning: ‘We’re not really rebuilding here’

Detroit Free Press

On Jan. 2, with the Detroit Pistons reeling from injuries and in the throes of a losing stretch, owner Tom Gores entertained the possibility of a rebuild. 

It was a notable shift for Gores, who has been open about his desire to put together a contending roster since he purchased the franchise in 2011. A few weeks later, the Pistons traded Andre Drummond and bought out Reggie Jackson and Markieff Morris — signaling that the youth movement was underway. 

Considering the Pistons haven’t won a playoff game since 2008 — with three first-round sweeps since then — there has been much speculation over their path back to contention, as well as whether they’re willing to take a step back to build something more sustainable. Team officials have preached the importance of getting the draft right and continuing to develop the young talent already on the roster. 

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But the more the Pistons’ brass talks about the future, the less it sounds as though they’re interested in tearing the roster down to the studs and attempting to build a contender from scratch. 

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After being hired as general manager in June, Troy Weaver rejected the term “rebuild,” instead referring to it as a “restoring.” Last month, Blake Griffin said his conversations with head coach Dwane Casey gave him the impression that the Pistons want to compete next season. Casey said something similar a day before the draft lottery, noting that the Pistons will “compete to win” in 2020-21. 

On Wednesday, Casey gave a bigger hint as to what the Pistons are planning. 

“We’re not really rebuilding here in Detroit,” Casey told reporters. “I think our basketball fans deserve a lot. We like to use the word ‘retooling,’ ‘restoring’ as much as ‘rebuilding.’ It doesn’t have to take a long time because if our young guys are making the progress we expect them to make, it shouldn’t be a long-term restoring.”

How the Pistons will go about “retooling” the roster remains to be seen. The organization hasn’t had much luck with the “rebuild-on-the-fly” strategy this past decade, producing just two playoff berths and zero playoff wins despite multiple lottery picks and big contracts. 

It can be done, though. This season’s playoffs have been a testament to how smart drafting, trades and free agency signings can pay off in a short amount of time. 

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Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, drafted in 2014 and 2017, respectively, have led the Nuggets to their second consecutive playoff berth and first Western Conference finals since 2009. Their third-highest scorer in the playoffs, Michael Porter Jr., was drafted in 2018, sat out the 2018-19 season with a back injury and started just eight games this year as a rookie. The Raptors, who came within moments of making their second-straight Eastern Conference finals, were led by Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet, who entered the league in 2016. (Siakam was taken 27th overall by Toronto, while VanVleet was an undrafted free agent.) 

Weaver, who spent more than a decade with the Oklahoma City Thunder before coming to Detroit, preached the merits of “retooling” during his introductory press conference. The Thunder have made the playoffs 10 of 11 seasons while cycling through stars. Last summer, they turned Russell Westbrook and Paul George into an assortment of assets, including an up-and-coming guard (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander), talented veterans with trade value (Chris Paul and Danilo Gallinari) and multiple first-round picks. 

“In Oklahoma City, we retooled the team a few times,” Weaver said. “Just having flexibility and turning great players into more players, more picks. Just having the flexibility and being able to move on the fly with a tremendous front office led by Sam (Presti), a lot of good people there. We were in a mode that we have to be extremely flexible and open minded.” 

When healthy, Blake Griffin is an All Star-caliber forward. Considerig Griffin’s improved health, further development from the young players and around $30 million in available cap space, it’s logical that the Pistons could be competitive next season. 

As for free agency, Casey said that the Pistons want to be smart and aggressive. They’re one of just six teams projected to have cap space, positioning them as players in free agency and the trade market. It’s not a marquee free agent class, but players such as VanVleet and 2019-20 Sixth Man of the Year Montrezl Harrel would certainly boost the Pistons’ overall talent. 

But what’s the plan beyond next season? Even if Griffin puts together another All-Star campaign in 2020-21, he has a player option for 2021-22, worth $36.6 million, before becoming an unrestricted free agent. Derrick Rose will be an unrestricted free agent after the 2020-21 season. The Pistons’ vets and their developing young players are on mismatched timelines.

Casey noted that the front office wants to build something that will last. Their cap space provides plenty of ways to prioritize the present, future or both, though that plan will be clearer when free agency begins. 

“We want to be aggressive and if the opportunity is there, talking to Troy and Tom and Arn and Ed, we want to be opportunistic if something presents itself,” Casey said. “We never want to turn away from that. We want to be smart. We want to build something that’s going to last and will be consistent, will be sustainable, with our cap space. As I tell my kids all the time, ‘don’t let the money burn your pockets.’ “

“We have to make sure we’re really smart in what we’re doing and not get off course. We want to build with the young team and add to Blake and Derrick and our older guys, yet still make sure we’re very prudent in what we’re doing and be strategic in how we select those guys as far as free agents and that sort of thing, because again, just because we have it doesn’t mean we have to spend it right now.”

Contact Omari Sankofa II at osankofa@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa. The Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here’s how you can gain access to our most exclusive Pistons content. Read more on the Detroit Pistons and sign up for our Pistons newsletter.

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