Wojo: About time! Pistons win lottery, get long-awaited stroke of luck

Detroit News

It wasn’t an actual high-stakes sporting event, but it sure felt like one. It was the most suspenseful moment in recent Pistons history — in recent Detroit sports history — and finally, finally, something for fans to celebrate.

Much-needed and long-awaited, the Pistons struck lottery luck Tuesday night, landing the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft. One of Detroit’s teams was due for a rebuilding boost and the Pistons got a huge one. When the final card was revealed, after Houston landed at No. 2, Pistons representative Ben Wallace clapped and grinned, and shouts of joy could be heard behind him.

The likely prize is Oklahoma State guard Cade Cunningham, who could be the immediate-impact star the team has craved. Moments like this — after years of rotten lottery luck — perhaps can lead to traditional thrills on the court. For the Pistons or any team, you need strokes of genius, and GM Troy Weaver already has shown a few. You also need strokes of luck, and he certainly appreciated this one.

“I’m ecstatic,” Weaver said. “As far as getting the pick right, that’s what I was hired for. Gotta do the work and be ready. We’ll vet it out. A lot of talented guys at the top.”

There’s a consensus of five elite prospects, and Weaver said they’d look at all of them. As for his thoughts on Cunningham?

“Obviously a talented young man,” Weaver said. “And he’s for sure at the top of the list.”

There’s no easy way to accelerate a rebuild (ahem, a restoration as Weaver prefers) but this certainly will help, the first time the Pistons ever have moved up in the lottery with their own pick. In the absence of local playoff teams, this was billed as one of the most-crucial nights in Detroit sports, and that’s not entirely hyperbole. Cunningham, a versatile 6-foot-8 swingman, may not be a once-in-a-decade prize, but he could be a franchise-altering prize among the top five, including Evan Mobley, Jalen Suggs, Jalen Green and Jonathan Kuminga.

We’ve been waiting quite a while for a stroke of luck around here, and frankly, the Pistons earned this one, staying relatively competitive while posting the second-worst record (20-52) in the league. The franchise never had risen in 13 previous lottery appearances. (In 2003 with Memphis’ pick, they landed at No. 2 and promptly wasted it on Darko Milicic). The Red Wings have dropped in four straight lotteries, so yeah, pardon Detroit fans for feeling just a tad giddy.

Cunningham reportedly has said he’ll only work out for the team with the No. 1 pick, but you can bet Weaver and his staff will explore everything. He’s never been shy about dealing, or pulling a surprise.

“I don’t feel any pressure in getting it right,” he said. “The pressure I feel is in moving the Pistons franchise forward. I don’t listen to rhetoric outside, right or wrong picks. Just stay true to our process. We’ll look at everything, all five guys, uncover every stone and exhaust all options.”

Every rebuild needs an unexpected boost, and right now in the NBA, with reigning stars and champions stepping aside and prodigies rising, the timing is ripe. That’s why the Pistons, more than the Tigers, Red Wings and Lions, are equipped to rebound the quickest, with a healthy mix of luck and genius.

Weaver already has remade the roster, with only one player (Sekou Doumbouya) remaining from the team he inherited. He drafted two players — Isaiah Stewart and Saddiq Bey — in the mid-first round and both made the all-rookie team. Weaver has shown an acumen and aggressiveness that has shaped the Pistons into a rarity — a 20-win team that’s actually interesting, and not necessarily buried for years.

The Pistons entered the lottery tied with Houston and Orlando for the best shot at No. 1 — 14%. They also had a 47.9% chance of falling to five or six, and a 52.1% chance of landing in the top four.

It’s not only about where you pick, although that helps. It’s how and who you pick, and these NBA playoffs provide graphic examples. The final four participants — Phoenix, L.A. Clippers, Atlanta, Milwaukee — are long-time valets who finally crashed the party, and their stars weren’t drafted No. 1. Or No. 2. Or even No. 3.

The only No. 1 overall pick still alive in the playoffs with his original team is Deandre Ayton, and he’s not even the Suns’ best player. That would be Devin Booker, drafted 13th in 2015, after the Pistons took Stanley Johnson eighth. Speaking of 13, that’s where Utah traded up and found its superstar, Donovan Mitchell, one spot after the Pistons plucked Luke Kennard in 2017. (Sorry if this recap pains you, but there’s a point to it).

The Bucks posted exactly one winning season from 2004-17, then drafted Giannis Antetokounmpo at No. 15 in 2013. Lucky to get the Greek Freak so low? I’d lean toward the genius angle, myself. Especially after Milwaukee acquired another key, Khris Middleton, from the Pistons in the Brandon Jennings trade. A second-round pick in 2012, Middleton was stuck in Middletown with the Pistons, who went 29-53 in his one season and didn’t realize what they had.

With so many superstars — LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Anthony Davis, Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook — dogged by injury and age, there are voids to be filled. The Hawks went 41-31 after posting consecutive records of 20-47, 29-53 and 24-58, and here they are in the Eastern Conference Finals. It didn’t even take a top-three star to get them there.

Trae Young was No. 5 overall in 2018 and sharp-shooter Kevin Huerter went 19th that year. John Collins was 19th overall the previous season. If hope isn’t a strategy, neither is luck, and Weaver can attest strongly to that.

He was named Oklahoma City’s assistant GM in 2008 and promptly pushed to draft Westbrook at No. 4. The Thunder went 23-59, then finished 50-32 the very next season and lost to the Lakers in the playoffs.

“(Rebuild) timetables absolutely can be accelerated,” Weaver said recently. “We didn’t expect to be a playoff team that following year in OKC, but that team really came together. It’s how they buy in, how things fall.”

In the absence of a James-like generational talent, a savvy plan supersedes all. The Pistons’ environment includes a young core and a respected coach in Dwane Casey. It includes rising players in Jerami Grant and the untapped potential of Killian Hayes. It also includes first-round picks and Weaver’s penchant for making big deals.

It takes all sorts of different strokes — of luck and genius. If you miss out on one, you better have a ton of the other. On a tense and exuberant night, headed into an important offseason, the Pistons now have doses of both.


Twitter: bobwojnowski

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