Detroit Pistons could be historically bad this year. Just in time for a stacked NBA draft

Detroit Free Press

Omari Sankofa II
| Detroit Free Press

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If you’re a Detroit Pistons fan who has been rooting for the organization to embrace a rebuild, the early portion of this season has provided a lot to look forward to.

The rookies have had prominent roles, the free agency signings are delivering and they’ve had two wins that show even if the team isn’t built to win many games this season, they can hang with much of the NBA. 

Despite the positives, the Pistons are losing at a historic rate. At 2-7, they are tied for the NBA’s second-worst record. They have the hardest-remaining schedule in the league, according to Tankathon — that only includes the first half of the schedule, since the league has yet to announce the second half. But the Pistons are going through the wringer, and the schedule won’t offer any relief. 

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FiveThirtyEight projects the Pistons will finish with the worst record in the NBA at 18-54 for a .250 winning percentage, which would be one of the lowest in franchise history. Only two Pistons teams — 1979-80 (.195) and 1993-94 (.244) would have worse records. 

Since taking over the franchise in June, general manager Troy Weaver has signaled the franchise is looking at a more sustainable path to success. The goal is to build a culture young players can grow and thrive in, and teach winning habits, even as they experience more losses than wins.

Pistons learning Jerami Grant’s maturation into playmaker isn’t a fluke ]

With that in mind, the season is going according to plan. And it’s a good year to secure the NBA’s best lottery odds, because the player at the top of the 2021 draft class is not only projects to have All-Star potential, but epitomizes many of the traits Weaver is prioritizing. 

Oklahoma State freshman Cade Cunningham is currently the top player on at least four prominent draft boards — ESPN, The AthleticSports Illustrated and NBC Sports. He’s a 6-foot-8, 220-pound versatile forward who many believe can be a lead playmaker in the NBA. He handles the ball and passes like a point guard, but has the height and wingspan (7-1) to be a multi-positional defender. Through 10 games, he’s averaging 19.1 points, 6.1 rebounds and 3.7 assists.

The Pistons prioritized size this past offseason. Two of their three first-round picks, Killian Hayes (6-5) and Saddiq Bey (6-8), are big for their positions. Their No. 1 target in free agency, Jerami Grant, is a 6–8 forward and a versatile defender.

Cunningham would give the Pistons another supersized player and enable the Pistons to build switchability on defense and rebound. 

Killian Hayes’ hip injury: Surgeon explains paths to recovery, future outlook ]

Of course, having the worst record in the league doesn’t guarantee the top pick. Thanks to the NBA’s new lottery odds introduced with the 2019 draft, the league’s three-worst teams each have a 14% chance at the No. 1 pick. The worst record guarantees a top-five pick, but the odds of landing the fifth pick (47.9%) are nearly as high as securing a top-four pick. 

Thankfully, the rest of the top five is expected to be strong. USC freshman center Evan Mobley and Gonzaga guard Jalen Suggs are also strong prospects, and mock drafts will certainly change once the G League Ignite begins play in February. The Ignite have two players in Jalen Green and Jonathan Kuminga who are expected to be lottery picks and could see their profiles rise leading up to the draft. 

The prospect of Cunningham adds a big sweetener to a season that has already had successes, looking at it through the lens of what the future of this team could look like. 

All three of the Pistons’ first-round picks — Hayes, Isaiah Stewart and Bey — have had significant roles in the rotation. Hayes was a Day 1 starter before tearing his hip labrum Monday, and showed flashes of the defensive and playmaking ability that made him appealing. Bey is looking like one of the steals of the draft, and is hitting 45.7% of his 5.8 3-point attempts per game. Stewart is already an impact offensive rebounder and has usurped the backup center role. 

READ: How Pistons got ‘inside scoop’ on Isaiah Stewart, a perfect fit for rebuild

Their offseason free agency signings are also living up to expectations, if not exceeding them. Grant is performing at an All-Star level and settling in comfortably as their lead option on offense. Josh Jackson is enjoying a strong start to the season on an inexpensive contract. Delon Wright has shown he can be a reliable playmaker, and Mason Plumlee has been a steady contributor as the starting center. 

The Pistons have picked up two big wins against contending teams. They completed a 23-point comeback against the Phoenix Suns on Friday. And they picked up their first win of the season against the Boston Celtics on New Year’s Day. The Pistons have been in nearly every game this season, despite losing most. 

The losses may pile up, but with a strong 2021 draft approaching, headlined by a prospect with clear franchise player potential, a reward may be waiting for the Pistons. 

Contact Omari Sankofa II at Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa. Read more on the Detroit Pistons and sign up for our Pistons newsletter.

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