Detroit Pistons might be the NBA’s worst team, but wasn’t that kind of the plan?

Detroit Free Press

The Detroit Pistons were unlikely to make a leap this season.

That’s the main thing we should keep in mind as we perform an autopsy on a young team that currently owns the NBA’s worst record. The Pistons are very early in a full rebuild, and the rest of the league hasn’t been as deep as it currently is in a long time. It was tough to forecast a vast improvement from last year’s team that finished 20-52, good for the league’s second-worst record.

Before the season started, I predicted the Pistons would win 28 games and finish 14th in the Eastern Conference — well outside of the playoff or play-in race. That win prediction might’ve been a little high, but the team will almost certainly finish bottom two in the conference for the second year in a row, barring any unexpected trajectory changes.

From that standpoint, Detroit’s place in the standings isn’t surprising.

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With that said, yeesh. The Pistons lost a lot of games last year, but they played better than their record suggested. They were 25th (minus-4.5) in net rating and didn’t suffer many blowouts. This year’s team has its fair share of frustrating losses and is just as bad as the 4-21 overall record suggests.

This past week featured an 18-point blown lead against the Oklahoma City Thunder and a 15-point lead against the New Orleans Pelicans. Both teams are mired in their own respective rebuilds and are at the bottom of the Western Conference standings. They both punched Detroit in the mouth after slow starts, and Detroit was unable to respond.

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We’re 25 games into the season, and it’s a tad early to say the Pistons have regressed. Fortunes can change rapidly in the NBA. The Houston Rockets lost 15 straight games this season before winning seven straight.

Detroit has plenty of room for improvement.

There have been back-slides in several key categories. Detroit is shooting the ball poorly from outside. Isaiah Stewart and Saddiq Bey have yet to make sophomore leaps, and Bey is currently in a slump. If the Pistons’ current pace holds, they will finish with a worse winning percentage than they had last year.

These are all valid reasons for concern. But the front office has no reason to panic. Not yet.

This is the ugly side of full rebuilds — the side they did a good job of avoiding last year, and are now knee-deep in. The Pistons are losing by bigger margins this year, but in my view, it’s more of a credit to last year’s team — and last season’s unique circumstances —  than an indictment on this one.

The Pistons have valid excuses for being bad this year. There will be a day where that’s no longer the case. The reality is that this team hasn’t even been fully rebuilding for a full calendar year. And Troy Weaver has yet to be able to reap the fruits of one of his biggest moves as general manager — reaching a buyout with Blake Griffin.

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Pistons hurt by lack of depth, and the NBA’s abundance of it

It seemed clear that the East would be too good for the Pistons to make any significant playoff noise. The East has been even better than I expected. Just four games separate the fourth-ranked Miami Heat and 13th-ranked Indiana Pacers. The Western Conference is also deep, with a stronger upper class and slightly weaker middle class. The Pistons and Orlando Magic, 30th and 29th in the standings by a healthy margin, respectively, are facing better teams almost every single night.

Weaver’s ability to improve the roster this past offseason was severely limited by a significant portion of the team’s cap sheet being dead money, largely thanks to Griffin’s bought-out contract, but also by Weaver’s own doing. Detroit will have significant cap space next season, but during the summer, he had to operate with a fraction of the cap space that’s available to other teams.

According to cap guru Keith Smith, the Pistons have around $45 million in dead money on the books. That’s close to what Steph Curry is getting paid this season. That dead money is being reflected in the Pistons’ record. They have roster holes that won’t be easily filled until next summer, and Dwane Casey has had to improvise to help make up for those shortcomings.

The biggest hole is at center. The Pistons entered the season with two capable players at the five — Isaiah Stewart and Kelly Olynyk. An injury to one of them would force Casey to play his power forwards up a size, giving up a size advantage to most of their matchups.

That’s exactly what has happened after Olynyk sprained his knee three weeks ago. Trey Lyles, Jerami Grant and rookie Luka Garza have all filled in at center. Lyles has been the best of the three, but he isn’t a natural five.

The team also lacks experience, and Casey acknowledged that it makes a difference when a young team loses an abundance of capable veterans. The youth movement has been embraced completely. Bey, Stewart, Cade Cunningham, Frank Jackson, and Killian Hayes are all top six in total minutes played, joining Grant.

Last year, the team had a poise in tough moments that hasn’t been present this year. The lack of experience shows.

“You had Derrick Rose when things got dicey and tough,” Casey said. “He could come in. We had (Mason) Plumlee, who was a veteran. You had Wayne Ellington. More veterans were with our group. We look at Frank, Frank’s still a young kid. Hami(dou Diallo)’s a young kid. When things got tough last year, those older guys leveled the water a little bit. That would help us. We don’t have that now.”

It doesn’t absolve them for the inability to hang onto double-digit leads, but the moment-to-moment variance is indicative of a young team learning the nuances of the game and developing confidence in pivotal settings. Cunningham has been clutch for a rookie, but he’s still a rookie.

The Pistons are feeling the experience and depth gap between them and the rest of the league almost every game.

In the grand scheme of the “restoring,” Detroit needs an additional young star to pair next to Cunningham. They’re on pace to have an excellent chance of landing a 2022 top-five pick. That’s a strong incentive for the front office to simply stay the course and continue exercising patience. The Pistons have a chance to position themselves to make a notable step forward, as soon as next year.

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They could exit next offseason with an additional top talent and several key role player signings on the roster, and their young core of players more experienced and ready for the next step. That’s when expectations will rightfully raise.

For now, the Pistons just need to get through the ugly part.

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

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