Troy Weaver made do without lottery luck in 2020. Detroit Pistons need it in 2021, though

Detroit Free Press

The Detroit Pistons were unlucky entering last year’s NBA draft, technically speaking. They fell two spots in the 2020 lottery — their worst slide in franchise history — and ended up with the No. 7 overall pick after having the fifth-best odds.

It felt like a gut punch at the time. After more than a decade without a playoff win, it wasn’t a promising start to new general manager Troy Weaver’s tenure. The Pistons’ last draft pick higher than seventh came in 2003, and fans don’t need to be reminded how that pick was used.

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Turns out, Weaver didn’t need luck to find talent in the 2020 draft. Last week, Isaiah Stewart and Saddiq Bey became the first duo to earn All-Rookie honors for the Pistons since Andre Drummond and Kyle Singler accomplished the feat in 2013. Bey is the first Piston to make the All-Rookie first team since Brandon Knight in 2012.

Stewart was the 16th pick of the draft, and Bey was the 19th. They both arrived via draft-night trades. Lottery luck isn’t as important when you can mine talent with later selections.

The Pistons were the only team in the NBA to have two players on the list, meaning that Weaver came close to acing his first draft. Stewart and Bey had better rookie seasons than teammate Killian Hayes, though it’s not completely Hayes’ fault. He played just 26 games because of a hip injury, but Hayes showed plenty of promise after returning in April. Add in Saben Lee, who outplayed his draft position (No. 38), and the Pistons’ 2020 draft class is already one of the best the franchise has ever had (at least after one season).

Ten months later, the Pistons are arguably facing an even more precarious lottery situation. They have the second-best overall odds — tied for the best in franchise history — in the 2021 lottery, which takes place Tuesday. The last time they had the second-best odds was in 1994. They fell one spot and selected Grant Hill, who was selected to  the  Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2018.

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Even if the Pistons fall two spots for the second year in the row, they could come out of the draft with a Hill-caliber player. Or the Pistons could suffer an even bigger slide. The latter wouldn’t be a death knell for their “restoring,” as the front office has players it likes outside of the top four. Like most drafts, there’s a good chance the best player outside of the top four will be better than the worst player within it.

But in a draft that has four prospects with immediate star potential, this would be a great year for the franchise to snap its unlucky lottery streak. In 14 lottery appearances, the Pistons have never received a higher pick than projected. And if Weaver wants to make good on his plan to win as soon as possible, he better go all-in on his good luck charms next week.

Oklahoma State forward Cade Cunningham, USC big man Evan Mobley, G League Ignite guard Jalen Green and Gonzaga guard Jalen Suggs are All-Star-caliber talents. While other players in the draft — namely G League Ignite forward Jonathan Kuminga — could later become that, draft pundits don’t see the clear upside the aforementioned four players have.

Cunningham, in particular, would give the franchise the type of centerpiece it hasn’t had since it drafted Hill 27 years ago. Detroit has a 14% chance at selecting him, tied for the best odds along with the Houston Rockets and Orlando Magic.

Unfortunately, the Pistons also have a 47.9% chance of picking fifth or sixth. They’re guaranteed to have their best lottery pick in nearly two decades, and it still could be a disappointment. There’s a substantial gap in talent between the fourth and fifth pick. For a franchise that lacks a true alpha dog, they can’t afford worse luck than they had last year.

Detroit has a strong foundation to return to playoff contention, but the NBA’s title contenders are built around multiple stars. Maybe Jerami Grant, who received All-Star attention during a breakout season last year and was a finalist for Most Improved Player, can make another leap. Perhaps Hayes or Bey or Stewart or someone else will become that person down the road. But the goal is to compete now, and they’ll need an injection of talent to do so.

Weaver’s already downplayed this draft somewhat.

“I don’t see any Shaqs or LeBrons in the draft but there are some pretty talented players that will be hopefully someone that we add to the group and continue to push us forward, and we’ll be excited to make the choice wherever we land,” Weaver said during his end-of-season comments. “ I’m not looking for somebody to walk in the draft and change the franchise.”

James is the second-best NBA player ever;  some might claim he’s the best. O’Neal is comfortably within the top 15 players ever. The Pistons have three championships without a James- or O’Neal-level player. But the franchise recently celebrated its 17th anniversary since its last ring. A little lottery luck would go a long way toward helping them get the next one.

Contact Omari Sankofa II at Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa. Read more on the Detroit Pistons and sign up for our Pistons newsletter.

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