Niyo: For youthful Pistons, the future is now ahead of draft fate

Detroit News

You can win for losing.

It’s just not as easy as it looks in the NBA, where the race to the bottom isn’t quite the mad dash that it once was but still takes a special kind of fortitude.

And to their credit, it’s one that these up-and-coming Pistons don’t seem to have, something they proved again Monday night in a 109-105 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers at Little Caesars Arena.

Dwane Casey’s team was conveniently shorthanded for this one, as the pregame injury report featured nearly half of Detroit’s roster — including all the team’s veteran starters — sitting out for a variety of reasons

Leading scorer Jerami Grant was sidelined for the fifth time in the last seven games, this one officially due to a quad contusion. Cory Joseph was out with bronchitis. Mason Plumlee and Wayne Ellington simply were resting. Throw in Rodney McGruder (elbow), Dennis Smith Jr. (knee) and now Sekou Doumbouya (concussion protocol) and what’s left was a starting five that again featured three rookies and a playing rotation that didn’t have a player over the age of 25.

“Obviously, it’s different,” Cavs coach J.B. Bickerstaff said, noting this opponent looked nothing like the one he saw in their last meeting back in late January. “But what you know is, these guys are NBA players and they play extremely hard and they’re well-coached.”

And that, along with some of the precociousness in that young core Troy Weaver has assembled in his first year as general manager, sets them apart from some of the competition they’re facing down the stretch.

That, too, was obvious from the opening tip Monday, as the Pistons outworked, outhustled and outshot the Cavs in jumping out to a 23-point lead in the first quarter.

By the time the rookies took a seat on the bench for the first time, Saddiq Bey had 18 points — he drilled his first six three-point attempts — Isaiah Stewart had outrebounded the entire Cavs team and Killian Hayes had twice as many assists as the visitors. They were running, scoring in transition, throwing alley-oops and, for a time, clowning the Cavs.

“After we went on that little run, in the huddle I brought the guys together and said, ‘Look, this is how we should play all the time,’” said Josh Jackson, who at 24 was the grizzled veteran of that starting unit. “Everybody agreed that it was really fun to play that way.”

Fun to watch, too, though undoubtedly there were some fans cringing even as they cheered, in the seats and watching on TV at home. Because if this is the Pistons’ idea of tanking, those pining for Cade Cunningham or Evan Mobley in Detroit might be out of luck unless Weaver truly hits the lottery this summer.

The league has made changes over the last few years in an attempt to discourage all-out tanking — flattening draft lottery odds, threatening fines and even expanding the playoffs. So now the teams with the three worst records in the regular season all have the same odds (14%) of landing the No. 1 pick and staying in the top four (52%) in the final draft order.

But with Houston and Minnesota in a death spiral, and Orlando nearing terminal velocity after jettisoning most of its starting-caliber talent, Detroit’s bottom-three status that once seemed secure is in serious jeopardy.

The Pistons (18-40) own the worst record in the Eastern Conference, but just barely now, with Orlando (18-39) a half-game back. And that’s only good for third-worst overall, three games off the cellar-dwelling pace set by the Timberwolves and Rockets with 14 games left to play.

Minnesota has been at the bottom of the standings all season, while Houston has gone 4-33 since early February. And both those teams have extra incentive to lose down the stretch. Minnesota owes its 2021 first-round pick to Golden State if it falls outside the top three, thanks to last year’s D’Angelo Russell trade. Houston’s first-rounder is only protected it’s a top-four selection; otherwise, it gets sent to Oklahoma City.

But there’s now competition tumbling from above the Pistons in the standings as well.

Orlando (18-39) is just 6-21 since a win over Detroit in late February, and they’re 3-10 since last month’s trade deadline, when the Magic shipped out Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon and Evan Fournier. The Magic even managed to blow a double-digit lead at home to lose to the Rockets on Sunday night. Meanwhile, Oklahoma City (20-38) is 1-12 since the deadline, including a loss Friday night in Detroit facing a lineup similar to the one the Pistons put on the court Monday.

Why does that matter? Well, finishing with the third-worst record would give the Pistons a 66.9% shot at landing a top-five pick, since teams can drop a maximum of four slots in the draft order.

And if you’re of the belief that there are five prospects who’ve separated themselves in this 2021 class – Cunningham, Mobley, Jalen Suggs, Jalen Green and Jonathan Kuminga – then that certainly matters. Of course, there’s likely a difference of opinion about some of those players among NBA personnel executives. (Most mock drafts didn’t have Florida State’s Patrick Williams or Auburn’s Isaac Okoro going in the top five last year.)

There’s also this bit of encouraging news, though: It sure looks as if Weaver managed to land a future starter or two – or three, quite frankly – while picking outside the top five in last year’s draft.

Hayes looks more comfortable with each game since his return from a hip injury and is showing off the unique skillset – the size, the vision, the creativity and, yes, the defense — that led Weaver to select him seventh overall last November. He finished with career highs in points (12), assists (nine) and minutes (33) in the victory.

Meanwhile, Bey, who just set a franchise rookie record for three-point shooting, and Stewart, who leads all NBA rookies in rebounding, both are contenders for NBA All-Rookie team honors. That’s now five times this season Bey has hit six or more three-pointers – an NBA rookie record. And Stewart posted his third consecutive double-double with 18 points and 16 rebounds, dominating the Cavs’ Jarrett Allen.

“I’m excited about the future for all of these guys, man,” Jackson said. “They’re really good listeners, they pick up things fast, and they work their asses off. So they deserve it.”

So if this stretch run means more minutes for them, well, the Pistons will happily live with a few accidental wins along the way.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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