Detroit Pistons general manager Troy Weaver has said: “It’s not a rebuild, it’s a restoring.”
That’s all good and well for a team that’s won three NBA titles, but how about the organization’s new G League team, the Motor City Cruise?
If the Pistons are a Shelby Mustang GT 500 waiting for a buffer and new coat of paint, the Cruise early on have modeled themselves after a sort of multi-terrain military vehicle.
“There’s a lot of moving parts, especially in a short amount of time,” said point guard Saben Lee, who in his Cruise debut Saturday — a 140-117 win over the Cleveland Charge — collected 42 points on 14-of-24 shooting, eight rebounds, eight assists and four steals.
Lee is one of many exciting Pistons prospects who have appeared to turn the Cruise from an interesting experiment to an entertaining and worthwhile watch. They make their debut at Wayne State Fieldhouse on Thursday against the Wisconsin Herd at 7 p.m.
Lee, along with Jamorko Pickett, Deividas Sirvydis, Jaylen Johnson, fan-favorite Luka Garza, and Michigan product Derrick Walton Jr. all scored in double figures during the Cruise’s opener. They’re the lead horses of this new machine that’s aimed at optimizing the Pistons’ org from top to bottom.
“We have a great group of guys that can move the ball around,” Garza said. “The pace we played at allowed it to be that high-scoring game, and that’s good for us, because we like to play at that kind of pace.”
Garza, a 6-foot-10 rookie center from Iowa, put up 24 points and eight rebounds of his own in the Cruise’s debut in Cleveland. Garza and Lee are champing at the bit for regular minutes on the Pistons. But playing for the only G League team to share a facility with its NBA counterpart has softened the wait for their turn.
“We’ve had days where we practice with the Cruise, and then we’re up with the Pistons for the home game, or whatever the case may be, and I think that’s very valuable,” Garza said.
“When I’m with the Pistons, I’m watching guys like Kelly (Olynyk) and Isaiah (Stewart), and seeing the things they’re doing, and getting in for a couple reps. But now I can take the things I’m seeing, go out there and directly apply it in practice (with the Cruise).”
Everything fresh, everything new. That’s the way the Cruise are rolling this season.
It’s not just the roster that’s been overhauled: Former Pistons assistant DJ Bakker is now in his first year as head coach. Rob Murphy is in his first year as general manager after serving as the Pistons’ senior director of player personnel.
“We work collectively as a staff, work closely with Rob,” Bakker said. “But if it comes to a practice plan, or minutes, or a game or whatever it might be. … I make the final call.
“Just getting used to being in that type of decision-making position is definitely different.”
One could argue the Pistons are better off for it.
When you’re in a new place with a new role, you can relate to others who are doing the same — like Lee, who said that Bakker does a nice job of hosting a “loose environment” for the young players. But he also “knows when it’s time to lock in and get things done.”
Lee averaged 5.6 points and 3.6 assists over 48 games with the Pistons last season. He probably was hoping to avoid the G League altogether after a solid start to his pro career. But the Pistons’ point guard situation has taken that option away. Still, he’s enjoying his experience with Bakker.
“DJ talks about adaptability, just being able to perform in different settings,” Lee said. “Just being down here with the Cruise, being ready, whatever’s asked of me, and then also, being ready in whatever’s asked of me with the Pistons.
“He knows [what] to do and put people in places to be successful. I feel like that’s one of his strong suits.”
That is the overarching objective of this Cruise mission. Step one was putting the team physically in Detroit. Step two is using those benefits to create the most complete development system possible. no easy task.
“I think we’re very lucky with who runs the organization,” Garza said. “They came and drove down to see us in Cleveland. I feel like you don’t see that a lot. I think it speaks to the character, and how much the Cruise means to the organization.”
Both Garza and Lee mentioned that it’s nice to be at Cruise practice, look up, and see Weaver or Pistons coach Dwane Casey observing. The reason that means a lot, as Garza pointed out, is because they don’t have to do those things.
But why wouldn’t they? Why wouldn’t the Pistons take every possible route to improving the confidence of their prospects, provide meaningful feedback and be involved in every stage of development?
It seems like an obvious approach, but it’s not the norm. It’s not even logistically feasible for some teams, like it wasn’t for the Pistons when their G League team played in Grand Rapids and Fort Wayne.
Detroit now has the ability to run quality control on every step of the process. Each individual part is better off for it, and in the end, so will the vehicle that’s expected to take the Pistons’ basketball operation to roads it hasn’t driven on in years.
In the meantime, fans showing up to Wayne State Fieldhouse can expect to see Lee and Garza serving as tank commanders for an army of 15 that’s got everything to prove.
Nolan Bianchi is a freelance writer.