How will the Detroit Pistons approach their ‘retool’? Recent history can guide them

Detroit Free Press

Omari Sankofa II
| Detroit Free Press

There are a number of paths NBA teams take to build contending rosters.

If rebuilding were a spectrum, it would range from bottoming out and tanking for high drafts picks with the hope of landing young franchise players to   rebuilding on the fly by bringing in at least one established star, either via free agency or a trade, and building around him. The latter often involves trading away long-term potential (developing players and draft picks) in exchange for short-term gain. 

It’s unclear where the Detroit Pistons will land on that spectrum, but there have been hints that the organization isn’t as interested in a full-scale tear-down. 

“We’re not really rebuilding here in Detroit,” coach Dwane Casey told reporters last week. “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.”

[NBA executives ranked young players. Which Pistons could qualify in the future? ] 

On paper, Casey’s comments make sense. Even after moving on from Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson in February, the Pistons aren’t constructed to tank. Blake Griffin, 31, is one of the NBA’s best forwards when he’s healthy. There are several good role players on the roster, including Derrick Rose and Luke Kennard. Christian Wood showed potential to be a high-level starter, if not better, and could be back next season. 

Yet, “retooling” has bitten the Pistons over the past decade. Their high-profile free agency splashes have been for role players, rather than stars. They’ve had more success with trades, yet it hasn’t moved the needle for them in the playoffs. 

[ Pistons mailbag: Best trade partners? Can they move up in the NBA draft? ]

But the Pistons don’t have to look far for examples on how to retool the right way. Their new general manager, Troy Weaver, is experienced in it.

As an assistant GM for the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2008-2020, he was involved in both sides of the rebuild spectrum. Early in his tenure, he helped the organization draft Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Steven Adams. The Thunder retooled several times from there, moving on from Harden, then Westbrook, while adding assets and talent on the fly. 

[ Here’s what makes Sekou Doumbouya ‘one of the bright spots’ of workouts ]

The Thunder’s two trades last offseason — dealing  Westbrook and fellow former All-Star Paul George — were textbook “retools.” It netted them a young potential star in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander; a current-but-aging star in Chris Paul; a talented role player in Danilo Gallinari; three unprotected first-round picks from the Los Angeles Clippers; two first-round picks from the Miami Heat and two top-four-protected first-round picks from the Houston Rockets.

OKC made the playoffs this season despite prioritizing the future over the present. 

Of course, it’s easier to gain assets in a trade when you’re trading away an All-NBA-caliber player. The Thunder traded two and received a historic haul of assets. But there’s also a blueprint for trading an aging star, which other teams have done in an effort to jump-start their retools. 

Griffin is only a season removed from averaging 24.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 5.4 assists per game en route to his sixth All-Star appearance. And his health will play a major role in dictating the direction of Detroit’s rebuild.

Other teams have been forced to give up assets to unload their star players, as the Rockets did last summer to send Paul to OKC for Westbrook. But if Griffin is healthy, history suggests a trade market could open up for him. And if all else fails, they’ll still have roughly $30 million in cap space and the seventh pick in this year’s draft — both tools that can be used to avoid the “long-term restoring” that Casey alluded to. 

Here are recent examples of what a Griffin trade could look like for Detroit:

Memphis turns franchise players into assets

At the start of the 2018-19 season, the Grizzlies were in a similar boat as the Pistons. They had two big contracts in Marc Gasol and Mike Conley — aging franchise cornerstones. Gasol was 34, and Conley was 31. Like Griffin, Conley had missed most of the previous season due to injury; Memphis’ playoff window appeared to be closed.

They moved both players to contending teams, trading Gasol to Toronto ahead of the 2019 deadline, and Conley to Utah that July. The haul for both players was as follows: 

Marc Gasol

  • C Jonas Valanciunas
  • PG/SG Delon Wright
  • PG/SG/SF CJ Miles
  • 2024 second-round pick 

Mike Conley

  • PF/SF Kyle Korver
  • SF Jae Crowder
  • SG Grayson Allen
  • The 23rd pick of the 2020 draft (which became Brandon Clarke following an additional trade with the Thunder)
  • A protected future first-round pick

The Grizzlies continued to deal afterward, reaching an agreement with the Phoenix Suns to turn Korver and Jevon Carter into Josh Jackson, De’Anthony Melton and two future second-round picks, and trading Crowder and Andre Iguodala to Miami in a package centered around bringing in Justise Winslow. 

Those trades, along with getting lucky in the 2019 NBA draft lottery and landing Ja Morant with the second-overall pick, helped Memphis compete for a playoff spot this season. Like OKC, they did so while prioritizing the future. 

In both trades, the Grizzlies prioritized four things: future draft picks; young players with upside; veteran role players with trade value and future cap flexibility. 

But the biggest key for Memphis was that their star players were healthy and playing at a high level leading up to their trades. After only playing 12 games during the 2017-18 season, Conley rebounded to play 70 games in 2018-19 while averaging a career-high 21.1 points and 6.4 assists. Gasol had appeared in at least 70 games in three of his last four seasons in Memphis. He averaged 30 minutes per game during Toronto’s championship run last summer. 

Spurs move on from Kawhi

It’s not often that teams look to trade young superstars, particularly when they’re only two years removed from a conference finals appearance. But two summers ago, Kawhi Leonard forced San Antonio’s hand.

A quad injury limited Leonard to nine games in 2017-18, and friction over how the Spurs handled his injury eventually led to his exit. Two weeks before free agency began in 2018, he made it clear that he wanted to be traded. The Spurs eventually reached a deal with Toronto, sending Leonard and Danny Green to the Raptors in exchange for DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a protected 2019 first-round draft pick that became Keldon Johnson. 

While the Spurs received a four-time All-Star in DeRozan and a reliable role player in Poeltl, the trade hasn’t quite set them up for a quick retool. They lost in the first round of last year’s playoffs, and they failed to make this postseason for the first time since 1997.

While Leonard is two years younger than Griffin and already had a Finals MVP under his belt at the time of his trade, there were factors working against the Spurs. Leonard was also set to enter free agency in 2019, meaning any team trading for him would face the risk of losing him after a year. 

That’s exactly what happened with the Raptors, as Leonard signed with the Clippers a month after winning a championship in Toronto. But it ultimately worked out for them.

The same can’t be said for San Antonio, which took on additional salary to stay competitive and ended up missing the playoffs anyway. They did well to acquire a late first round pick, but Johnson has to prove he can be a consistent rotation player. 

The Spurs could still have additional moves to make. DeRozan, 31, and Aldridge, 35, have big expiring contracts, giving San Antonio an opportunity to receive additional value. But their last two seasons illustrate there’s not always a quick path toward reviving a playoff window. 

The Pistons control their destiny, and the decisions they make this offseason will set the course for next season and beyond. 

Contact Omari Sankofa II at 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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