Draft Cade Cunningham or trade? Why Detroit Pistons won’t rule anything out with No. 1 pick

Detroit Free Press

The jubilant screams of joy summed up the night for the Detroit Pistons.

Dwane Casey jumped from his seat and pumped his fists as his kids rose from their seats, in an attempt to match his energy. Senior advisor Arn Tellem raised both hands. Rob Murphy, their new Motor City Cruise general manager, bumped shoulders with Tellem as he jogged out of the room.

There was a palpable sense of excitement and relief. After 14 lottery appearances without improving their pick, and 13 years without a playoff win, the reaction was more than warranted. It was earned.

The Pistons won the 2021 NBA draft lottery Tuesday night, and will have the first overall pick in July’s draft. Yes, it’s real. They will be in the driver’s seat, free to pick Oklahoma State standout Cade Cunningham or trade down for a bigger haul. For a team that’s been in various stages of rebuilding for more than a decade, the Pistons finally got lucky. They can draft a potential superstar — a centerpiece. A franchise face who can accelerate the “restoring” of the Pistons back to being a championship organization.

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Troy Weaver’s reaction might’ve been an even better summation of the night.

“Praise God,” the general manager said during his post-lottery Zoom conference.

It has been just over a year since Weaver was poached from the Oklahoma City Thunder to lead the Pistons, and the current roster is unrecognizable compared to how it looked when he took over. He signed Jerami Grant, Mason Plumlee and Josh Jackson; added Killian Hayes, Isaiah Stewart, Saddiq Bey and Saben Lee in last year’s draft; and traded for Hamidou Diallo midway through the season, while parting with Derrick Rose and Blake Griffin.

Only Sekou Doumbouya remains from the 2019-20 team. After a surprisingly competitive 20-52 season, the Pistons appeared to be a star player away from having a core that can compete in the Eastern Conference.

Cunningham could be that player. The consensus No. 1 pick, he’s the type of playmaking forward every team needs to compete in today’s NBA. He’s 6 feet 8  and can make every pass in the book, hit spot-up and off-the-dribble 3-pointers, get to the hole and handle the ball. He’s big and long enough to defend multiple positions. He should fit the Pistons like a glove, even though they spent a lottery pick on a point guard last year.

Hayes showed some off-ball chops after returning from his hip injury last season, and his fit next to Cunnignham should be seamless if he can knock down open 3s.

The Pistons have five weeks until the July 29 draft to make sure Cunningham is the player they want. As of now, all indications are that if the Pistons stay put at No. 1, Cunningham will be the pick. That doesn’t mean they won’t do their homework, though. Weaver doesn’t subscribe to groupthink, and Cunningham isn’t the only player in the draft he likes.

“We’ll look at everything,” Weaver said Tuesday. “We’ll look at five guys in the draft. We’ll look at every stone and exhaust it and put ourselves in position to make the right choice for the Pistons. Realistically, in this year’s draft we’ll look at five guys.”

[ Pistons 2021 offseason cheat sheet: How they can improve in Troy Weaver’s 2nd year ]

Beyond Cunningham, it appears that the Pistons are fans of two other players — USC big man Evan Mobley, and G League Ignite guard Jalen Green. Mobley is a rare prospect, a 7-foot center with the mobility to switch onto smaller players, the length to protect the rim, good-enough vision to punish double-teams with timely passes and the touch to extend his range to the 3-point line. He’s the best center prospect since Deandre Ayton in 2018, and some draft analysts like him more than Ayton.

Green is an uber-athletic wing who averaged nearly 18 points per game, on efficient shooting, against G League competition as a teenager. He has a quick first step and is developing as a ballhandler. He might end up being the best scorer in the draft.

Both Green and Mobley are Weaver’s type of -type players. Mobley has the size and mobility, while Green has the athleticism and aggression. It could be tough to justify taking either over Cunningham; there’s always the possibility that the Pistons trade down. The Houston Rockets own the No. 2 pick, and the Cleveland Cavaliers own the No. 3 pick.

“Absolutely,” Weaver said when asked if he’ll consider a trade. “We’ll continue to have an aggressive mindset. Might not yield as much as it did last year, maybe it will, but we’ll have an aggressive mindset in this restoration mindset, for sure. We won 20 games last year. We have to look at everything, we have to be aggressive and we have to have the mindset to improve the team by all means necessary.

“We’ll vet it out and come to a conclusion and pick where we see fit,” he continued. “There’s a lot of talented guys at the top. This is a draft that has a lot of talented guys, so we’ll vet them all out and be ready to go. Obviously (Cunningham is) a talented young man, and he’s for sure at the top of the list.”

Whether they stay put at No. 1 or trade down, there isn’t a bad outcome for the Pistons. For the first time since 1970 — more than five decades — they own a first-overall pick. They control their destiny. During Weaver’s first lottery last August, the Pistons moved down two spots from the fifth-best odds and ended up with the seventh pick. Weaver proceeded to create his own luck, finding two All-Rookie selections, in Stewart and Bey, outside of the lottery.

Weaver can still create his own luck this year. He has all of the leverage in the lottery, and three second-round picks that could be packaged to move out of the second round altogether. This time, he’s dealing from a position of strength. This offseason won’t be as busy as the last offseason, with most of the roster now in place. The Pistons have fewer needs to address and will do their diligence. In the end, the best move in the draft may end up being the more straightforward move. They have five weeks to work through it.

Contact Omari Sankofa II at osankofa@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa. The Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here’s how you can gain access to our most exclusive Pistons content. Read more on the Detroit Pistons and sign up for our Pistons newsletter.

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