Detroit Pistons mailbag: Breaking down the most likely option with the No. 1 pick

Detroit Free Press

We’re less than two weeks away from the Detroit Pistons making one of the pivotal decisions in franchise history. They own the No. 1 pick in the 2021 NBA draft, with a prime opportunity to add a franchise player with the pick. After amore than a decade of rebuilds and false starts, brighter days appear ahead.

Most of the attention has been focused on Oklahoma State star Cade Cunningham, widely considered the best option for the Pistons. The rumor mill is in full swing: The Pistons like other players. Other teams like Cunningham. Detroit might keep the pick. Detroit might trade it. New reports come out seemingly every other day. It’s a dizzying time, and perhaps a worrying time, for those who fear the Pistons will make the wrong decision.

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It’s a good year to have the No. 1 pick, because it’s a tough draft to mess up at the top. Cunningham is both a safe prospect and a high-upside one. His game is built for the modern NBA, and he’s only 19. The next three top prospects are also seen as potential stars. The Pistons need only select Cunningham to have a great draft night, but they’re positioned to extract as much value as possible if they decide to trade down.

Still, we’re far enough from the draft for fans to sweat the choice. Much of this mailbag is draft-related, as we count the minutes to its start on July 29th. Let’s dive in.

If the Pistons stay put, drafting Cunningham is the most likely outcome. I’ve reported that since they won the lottery, and my feelings haven’t changed since. As good as Evan Mobley and Jalen Green are, Cunningham is the best overall prospect. He’s at the top of Detroit’s list, as Weaver acknowledged on lottery night. It would be surprising to see them go in a different direction.

But the Pistons will do their homework, and they will weigh outside offers. They would be foolish not to, given their leverage. Mobley, Green and Jalen Suggs each likely would’ve gone No. 1 in 2020. Detroit can move down and still end up with a franchise player. If there’s a player you think will be as good as Cunningham down the line, and you can get additional assets to go with that player, it’s worth considering.

For example, the Houston Rockets could theoretically offer a package with the No. 2 pick, Nos. 23 and 24, the protected 2022 first-rounder the Pistons owe them, plus future picks and young players. The Rockets reportedly are aggressively pursuing the No. 1 pick to take Cunningham. The NBA’s pick-trading rules won’t let Detroit trade a future first-round pick until they’ve delivered the protected pick they traded to Houston last fall. (In short, thanks to Ted Stepien, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ owner in the early 1980s, and his habit of dealing future picks for veteran players, teams aren’t allowed to trade back-to-back first-rounders.) Reaquiring the 2022 pick would free the Pistons from that rule. By trading with the Rockets, the Pistons could gain assets and future flexibility, meaning Houston could make a strong pitch, if it wants to.

If the Pistons are certain Cunningham will be far and away the best player in the draft, there likely isn’t a trade that equals his value. If the gap between Cunningham and their next-best prospect is slim, though, there could be a deal to move down that makes sense. But I think they’ll stay put and take Cunningham, because he’s pretty close to a sure thing.

On some level, I think teams and their fans are always reminded of players they missed on. If you talk to Pistons fans about the draft and they don’t complain within three minutes about passing on Carmelo Anthony (for Darko Milicic in 2003), Devin Booker (for Stanley Johnson in 2015) or Donovan Mitchell (for Luke Kennard in 2017), there might be something lacking in their fandom. Yes, there’s a chance Green ends up being better than Cunningham, and Pistons fans would hear about it constantly. That’s just how it goes.

With that said, I think the chances of Cunningham being a bust are extremely low, and that should lessen any fear of post-draft criticism. It’s well-known that Green has an super-high ceiling and could eventually emerge as the best player in the draft years from now. It’s also well-known that Cunningham is the better overall prospect now. As long as Cunningham plays at an All-Star level, I believe fans would still be largely satisfied with the pick.

I like the odds of them using their three second-round picks (Nos. 37, 42 and 52) to package for a late first-round pick. When I went through potential trade scenarios this week, the Brooklyn Nets (No. 26), Phoenix Suns (No. 29) and Jazz (No. 30) popped up as teams who could benefit from moving down.

Very slim. The Pistons signed Grant expecting him to be on the roster when they contend for a playoff spot. He’s viewed as a core piece whose best basketball is still ahead. Grant’s trust in Weaver is so strong that he left a contending Denver Nuggets team to bet on himself and join a rebuilding team.

The Pistons aren’t eager to trade a player who wants to be in Detroit, is coming off a breakout season and is close to their GM. They want to compete, and it’s tough to envision a Grant trade that would get them closer to the 2022 playoffs.

There haven’t been any significant updates on Killian Hayes, but there is a plan. The coaching staff has tasked Hayes with improving his shooting and continuing his adjustment to to the NBA’s speed and pace.

The No. 7 overall pick in 2020 had an uneven rookie season, appearing in 26 of 72 games because of a hip injury. He averaged 6.8 points, 5.3 assists, 2.7 rebounds and a steal in 25.8 minutes per game while shooting 35.3% overall, 27.8% from 3 and 82.4% at the line. He showed some skill as a passer and defender, but he struggled to score during most of his games. The development of his outside shot, and an increased willingness to get all the way to the rim on drives, could make the game easier for him.

“His work on his shooting, his balance on his shot, I think that’s one area,” coach Dwane Casey said during his end-of-season availability. “The other area is, now he’s felt the speed and the length and the physicality of the defense, so to make sure he does everything at a high speed, whether it’s his shooting drills, his workout drills, whatever it is, he has to do those at game speed to get used to the speed of the NBA game. And that’s going to help his shooting, his release on his shooting.”

We’re a few weeks away from summer-league plans being concrete, but I would bet Sekou Doumbouya will be on that roster. His rookie season’s summer league appearance, in 2019, was cut short by a hamstring injury before he could play a game. (Last year’s summer league was canceled because of the pandemic.) Given that he was on the fringe of the rotation for most of last season and that he won’t turn 21 until December, he could gain a lot from making the trip to Las Vegas in August.

I also think all of last year’s rookies (Hayes, Isaiah Stewart, Saddiq Bey, Saben Lee and Deividas Sirvydis) will be on the team. Casey has preached the importance of a normal offseason, which includes summer league appearances, so it would be surprising to see them not make the trip. Tyler Cook is included in that group, too, assuming the Pistons keep him on the roster until Aug. 11, when his contract will be guaranteed for next season.

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

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