A year ago the Pistons were in pieces, broken pieces, yet-to-be-broken-in pieces, old pieces, unproven pieces. And then they did what they’ve long talked about doing, what the franchise used to do with great success. They started all over.
Troy Weaver was hired as GM last June and came in unabashed and unafraid to deal. Now less than 12 months later, they have a collection of viable pieces that actually could fit in a puzzle. Precisely one player remains from the 2019-20 team — Sekou Doumbouya — and in the Pistons’ current culture, there’s no guarantee he stays.
Weaver calls it “competitive spirit,” the trait he seeks in every person he hires or acquires. It’s not yet evident in the record — the Pistons were 20-51 as they closed their season Sunday night — but it’s evident in other areas. I’ll even go this far — the Pistons might be the most interesting last-place team we’ve seen around here, and dare I say, the most promising?
I talked with Weaver last week and he spoke deliberately, calmly, trying not to overstate his enthusiasm. The losses hurt, but he believes a path has been carved and important steps taken. Stage One was tearing it down, moving on from veterans Blake Griffin, Derrick Rose and others. Stage Two basically was a roll call to audition every player available.
Stage Three starts now, with a terrific four-man rookie class, a high draft pick, some salary-cap breathing room and a savvy coach, Dwane Casey, who understands the plan because did it before in Toronto.
“Getting our first shovel in the ground, we feel we found some very good young men to move forward with,” Weaver said. “We’re excited about the group. We wanted to have competitive, selfless guys, and I think for the most part, we’ve been able to assemble that. We’re happy with the direction thus far.”
Barring another nasty twist by the draft lottery overlords, the Pistons should have a top-five pick, with a 52.1% chance of landing in the top four. That would give them a shot at one of the perceived prizes — Oklahoma State’s Cade Cunningham, USC’s Evan Mobley, Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs, Jalen Green. The franchise hasn’t had a top-five pick since taking, ahem, Darko Milicic at No. 2 in 2003.
Was draft-positioning (aka, tanking) part of the plan? Of course, and Weaver directed it masterfully, seemingly increasing fan interest even as the team lost. Casey handled it well, plugging in every young player Weaver handed him. It earned him a contract extension, and it’s justified.
At the moment, the Pistons are a team of the Overlooked, right down to their one expensive piece, Jerami Grant, who came here for a larger role and has filled it nicely. In that regard, Weaver is trying to do what few franchises attempt, and yet the Pistons somehow have pulled it off twice.
Weaver knows the history and touts it. In 1 979, Jack McCloskey took over a team that would lose 52, 66 and 61 games, and gutted it. He made 11 trades in his first three seasons, drafted Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars and Dennis Rodman, hired an experienced coach in Chuck Daly and won championships in 1989-90. He was Trader Jack, and he executed 31 trades in 13 seasons.
Dumars was next, a first-time GM who learned quickly, filling the roster with more of the Overlooked — Ben Wallace, Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton, Rasheed Wallace. In 14 seasons, Trader Joe frequently shuffled coaches before landing Larry Brown, who directed the “Goin’ To Work” Pistons to an improbable championship in 2004.
From Jack to Joe to Troy, there’s a new Trader in town with the same aggressive philosophy. Weaver already has made nine trades, and has three second-round picks this year. Generally, you can’t win in the NBA without a superstar or two, but the Pistons have defied it before. Rather than desperately try to lure one, they’ve created their own over the years, uncovering possibilities where few bother to look.
“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel,” Weaver said. “There’s been great success here, like a broken record, two iterations of great teams. We’re just trying to mirror what’s happened here in the past. That’s why we call it a restoration.”
Restoration, renovation or rebuild, it’ll be tougher to make it happen again. The league is full of “super teams,” weighted heavily toward the glamor markets. Finding a Bill Laimbeer or a Vinnie Johnson requires astute evaluation and a bit of luck.
Eye for talent
Weaver, 52, was hired from Oklahoma City for his talent evaluation. Owner Tom Gores finally conceded the front-office-by-committee didn’t work because it produced mixed messages, including plenty from former GM-coach Stan Van Gundy. Try to contend! Trade for Griffin! Keep Andre Drummond! Some of those messages were sent by ownership, and failure is a great learning tool.
Weaver maneuvered to draft Killian Hayes, Isaiah Stewart and Saddiq Bey in the first round last summer and added Saben Lee in the second. Hayes, No. 7 overall, has struggled with his shot but shown playmaking ability after missing 41 games with a hip injury. Bey has become one of the league’s premier marksmen, setting various rookie records for 3-pointers (38.4%). Stewart is Ben 2.0, a feisty 6-8 center who was a surprise pick at No. 16.
And then the castoffs, or more charitably, the Overlooked. Weaver and Casey plucked from the discount pile and now have options among Frank Jackson, Hamidou Diallo, Tyler Cook, Josh Jackson, Cory Joseph, Deividas Sirvydis, Mason Plumlee and others.
“We’ve given some young men opportunities that they haven’t had other places,” Weaver said. “We felt like they could buy in and flourish here and that’s happened. That’s happened in the past with Jack and Joe, and we have some similarities.”
It was the preferred method under late owner Bill Davidson, who opted for prudence and patience, but there’s nothing smooth about it. The Pistons will finish with the second-worst record, ahead of only Houston, and although they generally play hard, they’ve hatched their share of ugliness. And yet they’re more compelling than any of those teams from 2010-2020 that lost 50-plus games five times.
Weaver and Casey haven’t gotten many breaks, either. They inherited former first-rounder Doumbouya and he’s been slow to develop. They took a chance on Hayes and the injury set him back. But the struggles have created a laboratory for experimentation, and every week it seems one of the young players takes a turn at making a statement.
“It’s a great evaluation time, we’re seeing what we have and what we need,” Casey said. “The key now is, can they ramp it back and do it again, repeat it for 5-6 games? Is it a one-night wonder or is it a consistent performance? I’ve seen growth.”
Weaver said the Pistons will be active in free agency, but no, he won’t turn over 90% of the roster again. The draft is where fortunes change — and fortunes are made — and the prospects at the top are excellent. In other words, a great year to be in the top five.
Although he isn’t intimidated by the NBA’s superstar-soaked history, Weaver certainly wouldn’t mind one of those shiny baubles — 7-footer Mobley? He just can’t count on it.
“Absolutely you can build without a superstar,” he said. “That’s been the case here in the past. I mean, nobody thought Joe Dumars would become a Hall of Famer. Ben Wallace is a Half of Famer. Chauncey has a chance to be a Hall of Famer. I think when guys play the right way and buy into the team, they become stars.”
The Pistons and similar markets usually can’t buy stars. They can find buy-in guys with undervalued talent, although this isn’t just some plan to collect a bunch of edgy try-hard players. There’s much more to do, but Trader Troy has uncovered intriguing possibilities and charted a direction. If it works, Pistons fans certainly will recognize it when they see it.