Is the Detroit Pistons’ ‘restoration’ about to accelerate?

Detroit Bad Boys

Other than taking Cade Cunningham with the No. 1 overall pick, the Detroit Pistons worked on draft night in a quiet or maybe even quietly disappointing fashion. Yes, they drafted a franchise player with their No. 1 overall pick, but then not only did the Pistons not aggressively trade up in the draft, as they did in 2020, but they seemingly took a step backward by trading down to free themselves of useful veteran big man Mason Plumlee and waded in low second-round waters with three additional players. So instead of adding other exciting prospects to their pool (it took only a reserve and SRP to get Isaiah Jackson; the pick attached to Plumlee was used to grab JT Thor) the team lost a functional piece coming off a good year and were left with lowered pool of second round prospects. But in the grand scheme of things this little step back might prove to be a part of a big leap forward.

Finally, we’ve got a franchise changing draftee!!!

When Motown finally won the lottery by moving up, they did it in a stuck draft led by a long not seen prospect. We’ve discussed extensively how perfect Cunningham is for today’s game, even if we pointed to some shortcomings he needs to overcome. But now that we have had a closer look at him as he makes the interview rounds and talks about Detroit, we can see another thing about him.

This 19-year-old kid looks to be an incredibly smart man. I happen to have a PhD in the field encompassing, among others, the question of communicative rationality. This means that I needed to read, listen, write and speak a lot of what it takes to be wise in social interactions. The way Cade builds his statements, the way he disassembles every question and touches every level of it to position himself for the best possible and exhaustive answer … it looks to be special. If he can apply this deft communication skill to basketball – and there’s a lot of evidence that he’s already doing it as a leader and a playmaker – he’ll just smash everything opposing defenses throw at him.

Grant Hill came to the NBA as a great communicator and played smart, hence successful, basketball. But Hill came to the NBA after four years of studies and, despite this, the teenaged Cade still often sounds like tenured professor in comparison.

And Troy is apparently wanting this to come sooner rather than later. At least the following would suggest it.

Thank you very much, Mason, but we needed to part ways

A very useful big on a reasonable contract coming off one of the best seasons in his basketball life unable to fetch any value? At first glance, Mason’s trade seems to be suspicious. However, if we look deeper, we can see that acquisition of a player of Cade’s caliber can provide a trustful justification for it.

Mason came to Motor City to give a structure to rebuilding, young team, both on offense and defense. His ability to finish around the rim, to pass, to screen assist and to create something down low from the center spot was in line with Dwane Casey’s offensive philosophy, as was his length for coach Casey’s defensive schemes. But now, with the addition of Cunningham, the Pistons’ restoration should accelerate as Detroit will have a real playmaker with the ability to give a structure to a young up and coming team. Even if he’ll be struggling a little bit at the onset, he’ll have a skilled passer, Killian Hayes, and seasoned forward, Jerami Grant (all this seasoning happened with the significant help of Mason, so once again: kudos to him!) to help him.

And this changes what the team requires from the five spot. Now Detroit will need an executor on that spot more than a playmaker. Mason finished the season in mere 47th percentile as a roller and he wasn’t a threat from distance. In both these regards, he was bypassed by his apprentice, rookie Isaiah Stewart. Beef Stew finished solidly in the 70th percentile as roller and shot a very encouraging 33.3% on threes. He also learned some things from Plumlee’s repertoire as he started to show some passing skills and playmaking in the high post. Thus he supposedly can be trusted to provide this stuff when necessary but not as extensively as the departing vet.

A look at the free agent class of big men shows there are people who excel in these areas. Detroit is reportedly interested in two players with exactly this type of abilities. Nerlens Noel is a capable P&R scorer. Noel is a known player to Troy Weaver as he played two seasons for the Oklahoma City Thunder. Therefore, his eventual signing with the Pistons might carry an X-factor of some untapped potential that no one but Troy knows, as was the case of Jerami Grant. Then there is Kelly Olynyk who is a quality pick and pop sniper. I’d add to the bunch one more player, Richaun Holmes, who was elite last year as a P&R scorer. Like Noel, and unlike Olynyk, he’s a good defender and might also carry some untapped potential (e.g. he showed some encouraging signs as a three-point shooter a few seasons ago and in college). Like I-Stew, Holmes can provide some facilitation (8.1 career AST%) when needed, too.

I think this might explain why Troy decided to part ways with Plumlee so fast that he even was willing to attach an asset to make it happen. I don’t believe that Mason contract didn’t have a value. It’s rather that after the expected acceleration of the ‘restoration’ process that come with drafting Cade, Troy valued more an open roster spot and salary cap relief than anything else he could get for Mason’s deal. And by trading that contract to another team with cap space and a need for a center, he undermined one of Pistons rivals in the race for the aforementioned free agents bigs.

Giving high definition to the depth chart

On the draft night and couple of days later, Troy also made another moves to add firepower to his restoring clip that gained momentum with Cade’s drafting. That is, he didn’t guarantee Cory Joseph’s contract and cut ties with Tyler Cook and Deividas Sirvydis (who’ll stick around at least for Summer League). The decision on Joseph was pretty much expected. Dave and Tyler were long-term, not yet fully defined prospects. Although both the latter and the former showed potential, the Pistons now are in need of something more substantial. Thus, they are replaced by more plug-and-play draft picks in Michigander Isaiah Livers as well as Luka Garza. Balsa Koprovica is more on the developmental side. All three were selected with that low second-round draft capital.

Isaiah is looking like a second-round version of Saddiq Bey. It’s not just his shot chart and the distribution of assisted and unassisted buckets, but also the way he uses his body to punish smaller defenders and defends. The similarities are very visible. And Saddiq has proven that all this what they share is a very useful NBA skillset. So as his predecessor, Isaiah should serve well for the team. Livers likely won’t have the same impact as Bey, but if you put him on the floor, he’ll find a way to be useful.

As Duke pointed out, two things from Luka’s game that should translate immediately on the next level are bruising screens and a long gun. Now let’s put those skills around two slashers, say Josh Jackson and Hamidou Diallo, and two scorers that like to use ball screens, say Frank Jackson and Saben Lee (yes, Saben didn’t have the opportunity to show this yet as a Piston, but coming out of NCAA he was first and foremost a big time scorer), and we have a perfect fit. Garza ability to stretch the floor will be very helpful for the slashers, and his screens will be very useful for scorers.

Also when we put Sekou Doumboyua in such a lineup for someone, Luka’s screens and ability to enhance the space will serve well for Sekou’s cuts. And some mixtures of Sekou and aforementioned slashers and scorers will very probably be at heart of Pistons second unit that will be expected to give Cade’s unit some rest.

Balsa is more of a prospect. But, even as such, he has two well defined skills that Cade Pistons will have in high demand: he’s a potent lob threat and rim protector.

So maybe Troy draft night moves, other than drafting Cade, seem to be meh. But it’s very probable that it’s because he’s preparing the ground for moves that will be seemly with the great significance of Cunningham’s acquisition.

Now the question arises whether it’s not too early to expect Pistons starting to win with Cade from the onset. Well, I gladly watch the youngsters led by MotorCade (and Jerami) playing through and learning from their mistakes, even if it will cost us another for high lotto pick next year.

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