Tuesday’s home game against the Minnesota Timberwolves won’t impact the playoff race. Few NBA fans outside of Detroit or Minneapolis will watch it.
And outside of the fact Dwane Casey coached the Timberwolves from 2005-07, and former Detroit Pistons assistant general manager Sachin Gupta is now a member of their front office, there are few notable connections between the two teams.
Yet, it might be the final game of the season that many Pistons fans have circled on the calendar. The Pistons (20-49) own the NBA’s second-worst record, and the Timberwolves are tied for the fourth-worst record.
A loss for the Pistons would help secure the second-best odds in the 2021 NBA draft lottery June 22 — and a strong chance at drafting likely top pick Cade Cunningham — as would losses against their two playoff-bound opponents this weekend (Denver and Miami). A Pistons win Tuesday would give them, at best, a multiway tie> for the second-best odds, with the chance to slide lower.
From a player development standpoint, it has been a successful season for the Pistons. But some fans have already set their sights on the offseason, and the prospect of the team adding a top-4 pick. Evan Mobley, Jalen Green and Jalen Suggs are also considered to have star potential, and would make the Pistons one of the most talented young teams in the NBA.
Tuesday’s game could have a significant impact on the lottery, and on the Pistons’ future success. But the game will also illustrate that though lottery luck is important, it won’t turn around a rebuild by itself.
Poor lottery luck has hurt the Pistons. The franchise has never moved up from its lottery projection with its own pick, and never picked higher than seventh during its playoff win drought dating back to 2008. Detroit had six consecutive lottery appearances from 2010-15 and picked between seventh and ninth each year. It’s not a mystery why fans are closely watching the standings this season.
Even so, better lottery luck — coupled with having higher odds than the Pistons most seasons — didn’t meaningfully move the needle forward for the Timberwolves this past decade. Since 2010, Minnesota has had four top-5 picks, and two No. 1 picks. It also traded for another No. 1 pick, Andrew Wiggins, before his rookie season began in 2014.
Wesley Johnson and Derrick Williams, who were selected fourth and second overall in 2010 and 2011, were busts. Wiggins, who has become a solid NBA player, never lived up to the hype and was traded to the Golden State Warriors in 2020 for D’Angelo Russell, a former No. 2 overall pick.
Karl-Anthony Towns, picked first in 2015, is a two-time All-Star. Anthony Edwards, the top pick in 2020, has had a strong rookie season and could eventually become a star.
Despite having 10 lottery picks since 2010, the Timberwolves only have one playoff berth, and one playoff win, since 2004. They haven’t solely relied on the draft to rebuild, as they traded for Jimmy Butler in 2017. Butler helped them earn that playoff win, but demanded a trade the following season.
Pistons general manager Troy Weaver has shown he can create his own luck, and find good talent deep in the draft. Sunday’s game against the Chicago Bulls highlighted how good Detroit’s rookie class has been this season.
Killian Hayes, the seventh pick last year, scored a career-high 21 points, dished eight assists and grabbed seven rebounds. Isaiah Stewart, the 16th pick, scored 19 points, blocked two shots and hit a career-high three 3-pointers. Saddiq Bey, the 19th pick, scored 20 points and knocked down five 3s. Even Saben Lee, Detroit’s lone second-round pick last November, contributed 13 points and seven assists off the bench.
The Pistons have preached the importance of competing each night and building a winning culture this season, even as losses pile up. That will still be the goal Tuesday, despite the theoretical “benefits” of a loss. Regardless of the result, the fate of the rebuild will be decided by the front office’s continued success with scouting, rather than where the Pistons pick each year.
As any Pistons fan could point out, they often didn’t maximize the lottery picks they did have from 2010-15, regardless of how high or low they were. If Weaver can break that streak — and the early signs are positive — the result of Tuesday’s game could soon be a distant memory for fans.
“We’ve got a great future,” Hayes said Sunday. “We’re a fun team, we love playing with each other, we love sharing the ball, we love seeing each other succeed. It’s a fun team. I love my teammates. We have a bright future.”