It was the most suspenseful moment in recent Pistons history, and finally, finally, something to celebrate. One of Detroit’s teams was due for a building boost and the Pistons got a huge one, landing the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft lottery.
When the final card was revealed Tuesday night, Pistons representative Ben Wallace unleashed a wide smile 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.
There’s no easy way to accelerate a rebuild 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 actual playoff games, this was billed as one of the biggest nights in recent Detroit sports, and I guarantee it stirred the excitement. Cunningham, a versatile 6-foot-8 swingman, may not be a once-in-a-decade prize, but he could be a franchise-altering prize in a consensus group of five elite prospects.
We’ve been waiting quite a while for a stroke of luck around here. Not coincidentally, the local teams could use a few more strokes of genius. The Pistons could have both.
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Every rebuild needs a 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.
General manager Troy Weaver already has completely 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 20-52 team that’s actually interesting, and not necessarily buried for years.
If you sit around waiting for lottery luck, you’re usually sitting a while. Especially here. I don’t need to revisit why draft lotteries are dumb, devised to discourage teams from tanking for a higher pick, and yet tanking remains the prevailing dirty word in the NBA and NHL.
The Pistons entered the lottery with the second-worst record in the league, and tied with Houston and Orlando for the best shot at No. 1 — 14%. The Pistons also had a 47.9% chance of falling to five or six, and a 52.1% chance of landing in the top four.
We can lament the luck all we want, and the numbers don’t lie. The Pistons have never risen in their 13 previous lottery appearances. In 2003, with Memphis’ pick, they did land at No. 2 and promptly wasted it on Darko Milicic.
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 and 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. (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 all over the place. 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 the No. 5 overall pick 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. “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.”
I recently asked Weaver if he saw a potential superstar at the top of this draft, where five players — Cunningham, Evan Mobley, Jalen Suggs, Jalen Green, Jonathan Kuminga— generally are considered the elite. In the absence of a James-like generational talent, luck gets trumped by savvy.
“You never know,” Weaver said. “It’s a very strong draft class at the top, and some of those young men have a chance to be special players. When I used to be a college assistant, if we’re all recruiting the same players, my philosophy was, what do you do when you get them? The environment you put them in, the coaching and teaching, is as important as anything else.”
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.
To rebuild (ahem, restore), 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, the Pistons saw signs of both.