Tales of Tanking: A conversation about the Pistons and Timberwolves race for the bottom

Detroit Bad Boys

With the second half of the season officially underway, Detroit Pistons fans are checking the NBA standings on a nightly basis. The team they’re keeping a close eye on? The Minnesota Timberwolves. Two teams, both bad, losing their way to the bottom so that they can land the right lottery combination and, of course, land a prized prospect like Cade Cunningham or Evan Mobley.

Our Brady Fredericksen exchanged thoughts with Canis Hoopus’ Kyle Theige on all things bad basketball, failed rebuilds and tanking to the top (or bottom?) this season:

Brady Fredericksen, Detroit Bad Boys: The Pistons and Timberwolves are locked in a tight race for the worst record in the NBA this season. For Detroit, it’s new territory – truly trying to rebuild and land a potential star talent like Cade Cunningham. They’ve been bad for over a decade, but this is different. The Wolves have been in a similar spot all of these years, does this year feel different or like more of the same?

Kyle Theige, Canis Hoopus: Great first question! As any basketball fan is aware, the Timberwolves have been bad for, well, basically ever. More recently, we had our brief moment of “success” when Tom Thibodea was calling the shots (both on and off the court), but since then it’s been a never-ending rebuild (not to be confused with a “restore” haha). Since Gersson Rosas, our latest president of basketball operations, took over back in 2019, the primary emphasis for the franchise has been on reconstructing a broken roster and trying to pivot to a youth movement in order to create a “sustainable model” for success.

Almost two years into the “Prosas” and the results clearly haven’t been there, which for some can start to deteriorate the “trust” part of this whole equation. Mix in the grim reality that because of the Andrew Wiggins/D’Angelo Russell trade, the team currently only has a 40.1% chance at keeping their own 2021 first-round draft pick, and you can see why a broken fan base is once again reeling.

But to specifically answer your question, I personally think this still time around feels different and that there is light at the end of the tunnel. The Wolves have been besieged by injuries, COVID-19, and the inability for the youngest team in the league to regularly practice and watch film, which has created a cocktail of dysfunction (and losing). But most fans still trust the front office, they believe in the new head coach (Chris Finch), and maybe with some trade deadline activity and a little luck, the future can look much, much brighter than it might in March 2021.

Let me throw it back to you: the Detroit Pistons haven’t been in a situation like this since probably 1993-1994 (when they finished 20-62). How is the fan base handling so much losing? And how much trust is there in Troy Weaver’s ability to “restore” rather than “rebuild”…?

Brady Fredericksen, Detroit Bad Boys: It has been a loooooong time indeed. Detroit has really mastered the art of trying to be good while failing miserably at it over the past 12 years. This season, though, the fanbase is as optimistic as they’ve been in a long time. Weaver has brought in quality players — both in free agency and through the draft — and this rag-tag bunch is competitive most nights. That may chance in the coming weeks as they potentially look to move some of those productive veteran pieces, but the “Core Four” of Saddiq Bey, Isaiah Stewart, Saben Lee and, to a lesser extent due to injury, Killian Hayes, have given everyone a jolt of excitement.

Now, do I think their Grant Hill is on this roster? Not at all. That’s why landing the No. 1 pick and Cade Cunningham is the biggest goal here. The Wolves have obviously been through this exercise, previously with Kevin Love, but have landed a second transcendent big man years later with Karl-Anthony Towns. Outside of the one playoff season with Jimmy Butler and Thibs, the franchise’s trajectory really hasn’t changed much. Finding star talent like that is supposed to solve a bad team’s problems — at least that’s what the big pro-tanking crowd tells us. Why haven’t things gotten much better during the KAT era?

Kyle: Like any dysfunctional organization, the root of any and all issues usually leads directly to the top. In this case, the “top” is Glen Taylor, the majority owner of the Minnesota Timberwolves. While he’s not as “hands-on” as other owners in professional sports, the proof is in the pudding when it comes to Glen’s decision making, especially in terms of who he brings in and how much power he gives them (for example, giving Tom Thibodea both the head coaching position AND the president of basketball operations title).

Constantly swinging and missing on front office hires has created a perpetual rebuild that dates back basically to the day Kevin Garnett was traded, with small pockets of optimism sprinkled in between large waves of pessimism. With all of THAT said, many in the fan base still subscribe to the “Trust the Prosas” model, and, if like you mentioned above, the team can get lucky in this upcoming NBA Lottery, the entire perspective on this team would once again quickly pivot to being extremely bullish.

Earlier on you mentioned Killian Hayes, who was a fan favorite leading up to the 2020 NBA Draft for Timberwolves faithful. His rookie season has obviously not gone like many had hoped (due to his injury), but how are Pistons fans feeling right now about the 19-year old? Is there any regret about passing on Tyrese Haliburton, or have fans been able to be patient considering we’re only half-way into all of these guys’ rookie seasons?

Brady: Ah, man, Pistons fans know all too well how poorly the combo head coach/president of basketball operations experience goes with Stan Van Gundy. It’s interesting that Wolves fans are excited for Gerson Rosas, a former Pistons front office hand. I’ve heard mixed things on some of his decisions thus far, but much of that stems from how wonky the Ryan Saunders firing/Chris Finch hiring was.

As for the fan temperature on Killian Hayes — it has been hit or miss. The fanbase is generally still excited for him, especially with his potential return to the court later this month. He struggled early this season, but part of that was due to this roster being entirely new. He was learning the NBA game alongside a core of guys who were still learning to play together — doing so without summer league — and that’s difficult for any point guard, let alone a 19-year-old rookie. It’ll be interesting how he meshes this time around. I still think he has great potential, he just needs to adjust to the speed of the NBA game.

As for Haliburton… it depends on who you ask. I was a big fan coming into the draft. He just has such a smooth and mature game, but I think he’s a low ceiling, high floor guy too. The way he’s playing right now is very impressive, but is his true form really that much better? I don’t know. The Pistons would probably be in position to grab one of the play-in game spots if they had Haliburton on the roster… I don’t think that’s good for the rebuild, though. Their scrappy, win-some-lose-most trend has been for the better.

Anthony Edwards has been playing a lot better for Minnesota recently. The team has a number of interesting young guys in Edwards, Jarrett Culver and Jaden McDaniels. What is the vibe around that group and do they feel like guys who can be core-type players around KAT going forward? That’s what this endless cycle of sucking is all about, right?

Kyle: “The endless cycle of sucking” was actually the backup option for the Timberwolves 2020-21 marketing campaign (I kid, I kid).

Minnesota is in a fairly unique situation right now, with a core of what most people would consider “win now” talent (Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell, Malik Beasley) but also another, younger core of players selected in the last two drafts (Jarrett Culver, Jaylen Nowell, Naz Reid, Anthony Edwards, Jaden McDaniels, and our Euro stash Leandro Bolmaro). As of now, it hasn’t really clicked for Jarrett Culver, who has battled injuries and confidence issues since arriving from Texas Tech, but the rest of the “young core” continues to impress, especially undrafted free agent Naz Reid and the 28th pick in the 2020 Draft, Jaden McDaniels.

If KAT can remain happy and stay loyal to the team that drafted him (which by all accounts is still the case), the hope is that these young guys can start to fill-in around the edges of the “win now” core in hopes of finally putting an end to the cycle of sucking.

To put a bow on this back-and-forth, I wanted to get an overall idea of what you (and the Pistons fan base in general) is hoping for over these last few months. It seems like no string of good fortune will truly hurt our team’s chances in the upcoming 2021 NBA Lottery, but what is the boldest prediction you have for the last 35 or so games? Or what type of finish to the season would make it a success in your eyes?

Brady: I’m rooting for Minnesota to figure it out, not only because I like KAT, but because I like when non-traditional teams rise to contending status. The Timberwolves from 2003-04 with Kevin Garnett, Sam Cassell and Latrell Spreewell were one of my all-time favorites. I’m glad the Pistons faced the Lakers in the NBA Finals that year rather than that Minnesota team — I don’t think it would have been quite as smooth a ride to the title.

Minnesota is further down this cycle of sucking road than Detroit. The Pistons are still in search of the star, and their supporting cast doesn’t really seem to feel like a group of future stars right now. That could change of course. The team sits at 10-27 right now and has an easier second half schedule. Assuming Weaver doesn’t deal any veterans, this group can probably go 12-23 to finish with a 22-50 record. Now, if they deal Delon Wright and Wayne Ellington (heck, and Mason Plumlee?) that number drops SIGNIFICANTLY.

For the sake of the #FadeForCade, Pistons fans are just hoping they’re three games worse than the Timberwolves.

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