Ten spins of the proverbial wheel on Tankathon.com will give you a good idea of how varied the outcomes of the 2021 NBA draft lottery could be for the Detroit Pistons this summer. After Sunday’s slate, they’re in sole possession of the NBA’s second-worst record, with seven days and three games remaining in the regular season.
This is a great season to be bad. One player, Cade Cunningham, is an All-NBA talent. Three players — Evan Mobley, Jalen Suggs and Jalen Green — have clear All-Star potential. And while Jonathan Kuminga isn’t quite the surefire star like the aforementioned four players are, he has all the tools necessary to get to that point.
It explains why the last two weeks have been anxiety filled for many Pistons fans, who are praying the team doesn’t pick up too many more wins.
Historically, the Pistons have not been a lucky lottery team. They fell two spots from the fifth-best odds last year, and have never moved up with their own draft pick. The Memphis Grizzlies conveyed the second overall pick to Detroit in 2003, and the Pistons took Darko Milicic, the lone bust in an incredible top 5 of that draft.
The last time the Pistons had a top-5 pick with their own pick, it was when they selected Grant Hill third overall in 1994.
An argument can be made this is the most consequential final week of basketball for the Pistons in a very long time. They’re not jockeying for playoff position as they did in 2016 and 2019, two seasons that saw them secure the eighth seed and first-round sweeps to the Cleveland Cavaliers and Milwaukee Bucks.
They have a chance at something greater: Drafting a true franchise centerpiece who can take them out of the dregs of the bottom of the Eastern Conference. A player who can become a superstar, and establish the Pistons as a winning team in a sports market that’s accustomed to postseason success, but hasn’t seen any of its four major teams win a playoff game since the Red Wings defeated Tampa Bay at Joe Louis Arena on April 17, 2016.
No wonder fans are so nervous. The good news is the Pistons are in good position to finish with the second-best odds, which would give them a 79.8% chance of drafting within the top-five. The bad news? The Cleveland Cavaliers, Orlando Magic, Oklahoma City Thunder and Minnesota Timberwolves are all tied with 21 wins, and could supplant the Pistons in the tank standings if Detroit wins two of its final three games.
Is it unlikely? Sure. But it’s not impossible. The Pistons play the Minnesota Timberwolves on Tuesday, Denver Nuggets on Friday and Miami Heat on Sunday. The T’wolves have won six of 10. But the Nuggets, who are guaranteed to finish at least fourth in the West, could begin resting starters in preparation for the playoffs. And Sunday’s game will be the second half of a back-to-back for the Heat, who are in control of the sixth seed and should avoid the play-in tournament. They, too, could rest their players against the Pistons, unless they’re still in contention for the fifth seed, which would allow them to avoid playing Brooklyn or Milwaukee in the first round.
A 3-0 week could drop the Pistons to the sixth-best lottery odds, so we’ll do 10 spins on Tankathon for both the second-best and fifth-best odds, assuming they don’t fall all the way to sixth.
FADE FOR CADE: Where Pistons rank in 2021 NBA draft lottery standings
10 spins with second-best odds
Results: 4th, 5th, 3rd, 2nd, 1st, 3rd, 5th, 1st, 4th, 5th.
There isn’t a bad outcome here, but there’s also a significant difference between the first and fifth picks. Cunningham, widely considered to be the best player in the draft, would instantly be the Pistons’ most talented draft pick since Hill. He averaged 20.1 points, 6.2 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 1.6 steals for Oklahoma last season, thriving as their primary ball-handler. The Pistons could pair him next to Killian Hayes and trot out a big, offensively-versatile and defensively-flexible backcourt every night.
Kuminga, the near-consensus fifth pick in the draft, is more of a project. He averaged 15.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 2.8 assists last season, but shot just 38.7% overall and 24.6% from 3. He could become a leading scorer and versatile two-way forward, and boasts a strong handle and long frame at 6-feet-8. But it would take time for the 18-year-old to get there.
Half of the spins resulted in the Pistons picking between No. 2 and 4, which would still be a desirable outcome. Evan Mobley is the best big man in the draft, and I would bet general manager Troy Weaver is strongly considering the USC standout. Mobley averaged nearly three blocks a game last season, is 7-feet tall with a 7-4 wingspan and possesses strong ball-handling for a center. He can also capably pass, and has upside as a shooter. Imagine Christian Wood with Defensive Player of the Year potential, and that’s Mobley’s upside.
The two Jalens, Green and Suggs, would also be strong picks. Green had a strong season playing alongside Kuminga with the G League Ignite, averaging 17.9 points while shooting 46.1% overall and 36.5% from 3. He’s an athletic, versatile wing who could emerge as one of the NBA’s best scorers.
Suggs had a memorable NCAA tournament run, and has drawn comparisons to Pistons great Chauncey Billups. Like Cunningham, he could play alongside Hayes and give Detroit a strong, versatile back court.
At least the Pistons didn’t fall to sixth in this exercise, which the second-best odds would still give them a 20% chance of falling to. The order of the top 5 in this draft varies from analyst to analyst, but the same five players are largely set. If the Pistons pick outside of fifth, they will still get a player Weaver believes strongly in. It’s clear he can create his own luck with trades. But certainly, it’s a less-desirable outcome.
10 spins with fifth-best odds
Results: 2nd, 6th, 7th, 2nd, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 2nd, 2nd, 7th.
The Pistons still did very well in this drawing, landing a top-four pick 4 six times. They also fell to sixth or seventh four times. With the fifth-best odds, they would have a better chance of picking sixth through ninth (55.65%) than they would of placing within the top five.
After the top 5, Florida State forward Scottie Barnes, Arkansas wing Moses Moody and Baylor standout Davion Mitchell, among others, could all go on to have strong careers. But given the Pistons aren’t interested in a multi-year rebuild and want to compete as soon as possible, the downgrade here is obvious. They could draft a ready made prospect who can contribute next season or swing for the fences and take a project who could break out years down the line.
Of course, they already have a strong core of young players who could make the Pistons a better team next season. Killian Hayes, Isaiah Stewart, Saddiq Bey and Saben Lee all shined against the Chicago Bulls on Sunday, with Hayes playing the best game of his career. Jerami Grant is a contender for the Most Improved Player award, and they’ve gotten strong contributions from Mason Plumlee, Josh Jackson, Frank Jackson, Hamidou Diallo and others this season. Regardless of what happens in the lottery, it won’t derail the progress the organization has made this season.
A home-run pick could accelerate the rebuild, though, and the top of this draft could be historically good. The best outcome for the Pistons this season is to hold on to their current lottery odds. We’ll see what happens through Sunday.