The Detroit Pistons are finally approaching the homestretch of the season. The NBA trade and buyout deadlines have both passed, meaning that the current roster is intact until the offseason. With 19 games remaining, the most interesting story line for many fans is probably where the Pistons’ NBA draft lottery odds will be.
There’s still much for fans to look forward to, though. The Pistons have shown they’re going to remain competitive down the stretch, as recent road wins over the Oklahoma City Thunder and Sacramento Kings suggest. Killian Hayes is back from his torn hip labrum and rapidly improving, and the other rookies have continued to impress. Sekou Doumbouya has played some of his best basketball of the season this past week.
With just over a month of the season left to be played, here’s a mailbag looking at Hayes, the 2021 NBA draft and some looming decisions for the Pistons this offseason.
Mitchell hit 187 3-pointers as a rookie during the 2017-18 season. Through last Friday, Bey had 113 3-pointers through 52 games. With an additional 30 games on the schedule, he’d hit about 69 additional 3-pointers at his current pace, giving him a total of 182 for the season. I’m not sure if Bey would beat the NBA rookie record, but he would come close.
Bey would have some competition from Minnesota Timberwolves rookie Anthony Edwards, who also had 113 made 3-pointers through Friday. In an 82-game season, Edwards would be on pace for roughly 174 makes. So the math still favors Bey, who already owns the franchise rookie record in that category.
Jerami Grant is easy to pencil in here, since his status as the best overall player on the roster is unlikely to change next season. Hayes and Bey seem like safe bets as well. Bey has been a starter since Feb. 14, and it’s tough to see the Pistons upgrading their wing rotation so much that his shooting and positional versatility would knock him out of the starting lineup. It’s tough to see Hayes facing much competition from the current group of point guards. Even if the Pistons draft Gonzaga star Jalen Suggs, Dwane Casey could start both point guards rather than bring one of them off of the bench.
Mason Plumlee has likely been Detroit’s second-best player this season and will be in the mix as a starter if he returns next year. But he’ll have competition from Isaiah Stewart, who has made some significant strides as an offensive weapon during the last month. Casey could play Stewart at power forward, though Stewart would likely have to increase his 3-point output for that to work. If the Pistons were to draft USC big man Evan Mobley, that would create additional competition at center.
I like Hayes’ chances of cracking the starting lineup again by the end of this season. He’s looked significantly better this past week after a slow start to his rookie season, and no other point guard on the roster has his combination of playmaking and defense.
The Pistons opted to ease Hayes back into action and bring him off the bench after missing three months, and he’s currently playing his best basketball of the season. Through three games going into Saturday, he made nine of his 19 shots and dished 12 assists opposite six turnovers. Casey expects him to get even better as his conditioning improves. Once he can comfortably play 30-plus minutes, I think he will return to the starting lineup.
As for the second question, no one on the roster is untouchable. However, I don’t expect to see Hayes moved unless he either fails to live up to expectations before he’s due for his second contract, or the Pistons are presented with a deal for him they simply can’t turn down.
Their biggest need is shooting, no doubt. Grant, Bey and Wayne Ellington are the only high-volume 3-point shooters on the roster, and Ellington could depart this offseason.
I don’t think any player currently on the roster will prevent the Pistons from taking any particular player in the draft. If Jalen Green is available wherever the Pistons pick and he’s their highest-ranked player on their draft board, they will take Green.
Falling outside of the top-five of this year’s draft would be unfortunate, no doubt. Cade Cunningham, Evan Mobley, Jalen Green, Jalen Suggs and Jonathan Kuminga are universally considered to be the five best prospects in the draft, and there’s little consensus on how the rest of the lottery will play out.
But draft history suggests that the five best prospects are unlikely to end up being the five best players in the draft. The early returns on Troy Weaver’s first draft are very good, with Stewart, Bey and Saben Lee all outplaying their draft positions. Hayes looks better with each passing game. If the Pistons don’t get a top-five pick, it’ll hardly be a death blow for the rebuild. Weaver has shown that he’s willing to be creative on draft night and pick players he personally believes in, even if it’s not a pick that’s popular with draft pundits.
I would not be worried about the lottery if I were a fan. It takes years to accurately judge the quality of a draft, and whether or not a team made a good or bad pick. The Wolves have had five top-five picks since 2010 and only one playoff appearance and a single playoff win in that span to show for it. Good lottery luck is just one factor in the grand scheme of a rebuild.
The Pistons could maintain their current position, finish with the third-best lottery odds and still fall to the seventh pick. Or, they could finish with the seventh-best odds and end up with a top-three pick. That’s what happened in 2019, when the New Orleans Pelicans and Memphis Grizzlies overcame being tied with the seventh-best odds to pick first and second overall, respectively. If the Lottery Gods want the Pistons to move up, they will make it so.
But the Pistons have never moved up with their own lottery pick, and their historic lack of luck is probably a big reason why fans are nervously watching the standings. I would bet that the best player from the 6-14 lottery tier will have a better career than the worst player from the 1-5 tier. The Pistons just have to figure out who that player will be.
Contact Omari Sankofa II at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.