When the Pistons started last season, they were hanging on to the last shreds of a roster that they thought could maybe make the playoffs. That group had a slew of question marks about what could go right to help them work their way into the postseason and end their streak of playoff losses.
Could Blake Griffin get back to his All-NBA form of 2019? Would Jerami Grant become a complementary piece to their frontcourt and be a good long-term piece? What were they getting in their three first-round selections, including No. 7 overall pick Killian Hayes?
As the Pistons start gearing up for the start of this season, they have more definitive answers to all of those questions — but more importantly, they have a direction. Last season’s dismal 20-52 record yielded the No. 1 overall pick, Cade Cunningham, but the Pistons still likely won’t make the playoffs.
If they somehow make the postseason this year, it will be a huge surprise — meaning they’re further along in general manager Troy Weaver’s franchise restoration than they thought. A chance at the playoffs would entail jumping from last in the Eastern Conference to somewhere near the middle. Even with Cunningham, the Pistons still have a new set of questions heading into training camp in a couple of weeks, queries focused squarely on internal development and lessons learned from last year.
A lot of things would have to go right for the Pistons to be looking at even getting to the play-in tournament, which would be ninth or 10th place.
It could happen, but don’t put all the eggs in the postseason basket yet — or any of the eggs, really.
The Pistons aren’t constructed to make a deep playoff run. There’s no All-NBA player on the roster like Griffin. They’ll depend heavily on second-year players and Cunningham will play a major role, which could be a roller-coaster ride in his rookie season.
Grant is coming off an important stint with Team USA in the Olympics, a run that was capped with winning the gold medal. That experience will be critical for his own personal development, as well as imparting some of that wisdom and knowledge to the younger players.
Like last season, Grant still will be the focal point of the offense — this year, though, he’ll have some help. Cunningham showed in the NBA Summer League that he’s capable of carrying the scoring load at times. The nature of Cunningham’s game allows him to be a facilitator, and though he didn’t get to show very much of that skill set in Las Vegas, everyone knows that it’s there.
Since the draft, there has been so much wondering aloud about whether Hayes and Cunningham will fit together on the offensive end that it’s become a topic of discussion that really doesn’t warrant all the worry. It’s reasonable to question whether Hayes’ past perimeter shooting and wonder whether he can be the off-ball scorer to play alongside Cunningham. There’s no question whether Cunningham can be the shooter and scorer.
That’s the fallacy of that thought process — because Hayes doesn’t need to be a volume scorer; that’s where the likes of Frank Jackson, Hamidou Diallo and others come in. The sample size that was shown in Summer League didn’t include the full complement of starter-level talent that will surround the guards when the season starts. When those passes start going to Grant, Isaiah Stewart and Kelly Olynyk, the results will look a lot different.
Of course, the regular-season opponents will be a higher caliber than the Pistons faced in Summer League, but it’s easy to see how Cunningham’s skill set will translate to the NBA and make the Pistons better from the first possession of the regular season.
Stick to a plan
Weaver’s vision of what the rebuild looks like seems more realistic to where the Pistons are situated in the Eastern Conference. They notably didn’t add a big-name free agent this summer, and even their trade for DeAndre Jordan led to a buyout and sending their 2019 first-round pick, Sekou Doumbouya, packing.
The Pistons appear to be focused on creating playing time for their core and being fiscally responsible — even if it means having a ton of dead money for Griffin and others who were waived or bought out — on the books. The path forward is going to be methodical, without skipping steps, to try to eventually make the playoffs and ascending, not just getting in as the No. 8 seed.
The gambles will be on players such as second-round pick Luka Garza, who is on a two-way contract — for now, at least — and Isaiah Livers, both of whom have shown their value in their college careers. Doumbouya needed more time to develop, but the Pistons needed roster spots to help their next group of prospects see the court, too.
The Pistons’ record this season might turn out to be a bit deceptive. They have a rugged first set of games, and if things don’t go well early, they could be in for another long season, on track to be in the draft lottery again.
What they’ll be looking for mainly are signs of growth, and that the right ingredients are there. It’ll need time to marinate and work together.
And that’s OK.