Memphis Grizzlies are a ‘model’ for what Detroit Pistons are building

Detroit Free Press

The Detroit Pistons‘ and Memphis Grizzlies’ rosters are roughly the same age — they entered Thursday as the third- and fourth-youngest teams, respectively, in the NBA. But there’s a significant gap between the two teams’ team-building timelines.

The Grizzlies hit the reset button three years ago, moving Marc Gasol ahead of the 2019 trade deadline and Mike Conley just ahead of the draft the following June. They selected Ja Morant at No. 2 and Brandon Clarke at No. 21 in the 2019 draft, adding to a young core of forward Jaren Jackson Jr. — the No. 4 overall pick in 2018 out of Michigan State — and wing Dillon Brooks.

Less than three seasons later, the Grizzlies have established themselves as one of the NBA’s best. After their 132-107 blowout of the Pistons on Thursday, they improved to 39-18 third-best in the NBA. Their winning percentage tops that of every team in the East. Morant is a superstar, Jackson is a Defensive Player of the Year candidate and they’re been flanked by a deep, versatile roster. It’s one of the league’s most successful recent rebuilds.

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And it provides a model for the Pistons, who essentially had to start over last season after trading Derrick Rose for what amounts to a second-round pick and buying out Blake Griffin. Detroit has its own young core of talent, but its record this season is bleak: 12-43, worst in the league.  But Memphis is a reminder that there’s light at the end of the tunnel.

“They were in the same situation as we were in when they first came in as far as building, rebuilding,” Pistons coach Dwane Casey said Thursday night. “They’ve added a lot of good pieces around those guys. I think Steven Adams is a huge piece for them. Their IQ has really, really grown over the years… their model is where we should be looking with shooting, interior size, and basketball IQ, and that’s something we’re trying to build here.”

Although the Grizzlies have made few mistakes during their rebuild, they also started with an advantage. Conley and Gasol, still highly effective at the time of their respective trades, returned great hauls. For Gasol, it was Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright, C.J. Miles and a 2024 second-rounder, while Conley brought back Grayson Allen, Kyle Korver, Jae Crowder, Utah’s 2019 first-round pick (flipped to Houston for Clarke in a draft-day deal), and a protected 2020 first-round pick that has yet to convey. The Grizzlies then capitalized on the horde of players they received, keeping some and trading the others for even more assets.

Much of Memphis’ current core — including Adams, Tyus Jones, De’Anthony Melton and Ziaire Williams — arrived because of the capital gained in the Conley and Gasol deals. But the Grizzlies have also done a great job identifying talent. Desmond Bane, a Most Improved Player contender this season, was the No. 30 overall pick in 2020 and acquired through a trade of future second-round picks. Xavier Tillman was a 2020 second-rounder (No. 35). Kyle Anderson was a mid-level exception signing.

The Pistons haven’t had a similar start. The cap space from Griffin’s buyout won’t be accessible until this offseason, while his dead money on the cap sheet has limited Detroit’s depth this season. But in broad strokes, the Pistons’ route to contention follows the Grizzlies’ path.

Cade Cunningham has looked the part of a lead guard with star power, and Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart have shown enough for the Pistons to feel comfortable about building around them. Hamidou Diallo has carved out a role as an energetic wing who can pressure the rim. Killian Hayes, too, has stood out as a defender and playmaker. Jerami Grant, of course, has outplayed his $20 million average salary.

Another top-five pick this summer, along with significant cap space, could help Detroit further close the gap. There’s no guarantee that the Pistons will get to the Grizzlies’ level, but Memphis’ success suggests the right way to build.

“We’re not playing for a championship this year, but we’ve got to make sure that we’re laying the foundation for the future days to come,” Casey said.

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

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