The Pistons are going to need someone like this if they’re going to get where they want to go. But that’s why so much of the focus right now is on where they are, and the importance of staying there.
Detroit entered Tuesday night’s game against LaMelo Ball and the Charlotte Hornets tucked safely — for now — in the bottom three in the NBA standings, which is just about the only real safe haven for lottery-bound teams this summer.
That’s the new tanking target ever since the league flattened the lottery odds a couple years ago, giving the three NBA teams with the worst records the same chance of landing the No. 1 overall pick — or any of the top four selections, for that matter. Teams can only drop a maximum of four slots in the draft order, so finishing with the second-worst record — Houston appears to have the cellar secured — would give the Pistons an 80% chance at a top-five pick. The third-worst record would give them a 66.9% shot at the top five.
And there does seem to be a clear-cut hierarchy when it comes to this year’s draft prospects, a group headlined by Oklahoma State’s one-and-done star, Cade Cunningham, and USC’s 7-footer, Evan Mobley. Beyond that, there’s a precocious point guard in Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs and a couple of G League talents NBA teams seem to covet: an electric scorer in Jalen Green and a raw, athletic forward in Jonathan Kuminga.
All of which points us back to where the Pistons were Tuesday night, facing Ball and the Hornets for the second time in four nights since his return to the Charlotte lineup after missing six weeks recovering from a fractured right wrist.
Ball was the obvious frontrunner for NBA Rookie of the Year before he got hurt. And he quickly reminded everyone why in his first game back Saturday against the Pistons, filling the stat sheet with 11 points, seven rebounds and eight assists, including an under-handed, full-court dime that made all the highlight reels.
He’s the kind of player that fans pay money to see, certainly, but he’s already proving to be far more valuable than that to his team. Not coincidentally, Charlotte outscored Detroit by 19 points in Ball’s 28 minutes on the floor as the Hornets won going away this weekend.
Tuesday night, Ball was facing a Pistons team that is doing everything it can to tank while keeping some measure of plausible deniability. Detroit’s injury list for this game had nearly all the body parts covered, from Jerami Grant’s knee to Cory Joseph’s ankle to Josh Jackson’s tooth. (Mason Plumlee was sitting out to “rest” again even though he hadn’t played a game in eight days.)
Laugh if you want, and gripe if you must, but resting veterans while playing your best young players is a perfectly acceptable move for a team that’s building for the future like Detroit. (Especially near the end of a season like this, when there’s hardly anyone allowed in the arena, anyway.) Besides, even this strategy can backfire, as the Pistons showed in wins over Cleveland and Oklahoma City last month.
Yet that’s because most of the young players that general manager Troy Weaver has brought in here in his first year in charge look like keepers. Future starters, even, which is what they were again Tuesday night against the Hornets, with rookies Killian Hayes, Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart all in Dwane Casey’s lineup for the opening tip-off.
But stars? Well, maybe.
Bey’s certainly making his case as one of the league’s top newcomers this season. He’s a decent bet to land a spot on the NBA’s All-Rookie team, averaging 11.8 points, 4.4 rebounds and shooting 38.3% from 3-point range. Stewart’s impressive second half has been something of a revelation as well, driving opponents crazy with his high-energy approach and old-school mentality. (When the fans come back in larger numbers next season, I imagine we’ll see plenty of Stewart jerseys.) Even Hayes, who missed three months with a torn hip labrum, has flashed some of his potential with his court vision and defense.
Combine that with all the encouraging minutes from the likes of Josh Jackson, Frank Jackson, Hamidou Diallo, Saben Lee and even Sekou Doumbouya — the lone roster holdover that Weaver didn’t acquire — and it’s easy to view this as a young core with a bright future.
To see more than that, however, takes some squinting.
Look, Grant was Weaver’s big free-agent splash last fall, and he has been everything the Pistons thought he’d be in his first season in Detroit, if not more so. He’s still in his prime, too, having just turned 27.
And if you want to talk about tanking, you should probably talk to him first. He was drafted by the 76ers in the middle of their star-cross “Trust the Process” phase, and he was a second-year starter on the 2015-16 team in Philly that went 10-72 and landed Ben Simmons with the No. 1 overall pick.
And what we’re seeing now in Detroit, “it’s not the same,” Grant said. “It’s a lot different. It’s not a rebuild, as Troy always says. It’s not three or four years into the future. We’re looking forward to doing something big next year. So no, it doesn’t have the same feeling as there.”
He’s right. It doesn’t. And with any luck, it’ll have a similar feeling next season to what’s happening in Charlotte right now. The Hornets went 23-42 last season, but found some lottery luck and landed Ball with the No. 3 overall pick — he’d probably go No. 1 if that draft was held again today — before making a sign-and-trade deal with Boston to acquire Gordon Hayward, who’s sidelined by injury at the moment.
Now Charlotte’s sitting near .500 and likely headed to the playoffs for the first time in five years, with Ball in the middle of it all.
“LaMelo’s had a major impact on our winning this season,” Hornets coach James Borrego said. “For a young guy to put up those numbers, but to do it with a winning impact is significant for us. …I’m happy for him, and excited for him, that he gets a chance to continue that. And for us as an organization, this is a wonderful time for Melo to be center stage of this thing.”
There’s no guarantee what the next stages of Ball’s career will look like, of course. Just like there’s no guarantee Cunningham or Mobley or the others will have this kind of immediate impact as a rookie.
But the upside is there, and so is the talent. And that’s why the Pistons are here, if they’re being honest. Because if the plan is to do something big — and sooner rather than later — they’ll need more than what they have. There’s no shame in admitting that.