The 2019 NBA draft had a singular prize. The standings reflected that.
Three teams — the New York Knicks, Cleveland Cavaliers and Phoenix Suns — won fewer than 20 games to maximize their odds of drafting Duke’s Zion Williamson, who was not only clearly the best overall prospect , but one of the NBA’s best prospects in recent memory. The Knicks did a particularly masterful tank job down the stretch, going 1-13 in March and 3-3 in April to clinch the NBA’s worst record at 17-65.
But it was all for naught, thanks to the NBA’s revamped lottery odds. The New Orleans Pelicans and Memphis Grizzlies moved up six spots and ended up with the first and second overall picks. The Los Angeles Lakers, who won 37 games, moved up seven spots and drafted fourth.
The Pelicans and Grizzlies won nearly twice as many games apiece as the Knicks, then ended up with the draft’s to two players in Williamson and Ja Morant.
It’s a lesson for the Detroit Pistons today, as they face a conundrum with 15 games remaining on their schedule. More than a year into its rebuild, Detroit appears to be turning a corner. The team has won six of 10 games since Feb. 14 and is playing competent basketball. Its young players are growing up, and the Pistons appear much closer to competing for a playoff spot next season than in December, when they were mired in a 14-game losing streak.
THE KIDS ARE OK: Pistons’ G League players get ‘baptism by fire’ against Celtics
TANK YOU VERY MUCH? Horrific fourth quarter dooms Pistons against Celtics, 114-103
The Pistons have something that has eluded them for years — momentum. But their momentum burst comes as several lottery teams begin to prioritize their place in the standings. There’s no Williamson in the 2022 draft, and there may not be a Morant, either. But there are some talented — and perhaps franchise-altering — players, any of whom would certainly aid Detroit’s rebuild.
The lottery allows teams to continue to develop late in a season without completely missing out on a top prospect. Yes, in 2020, the Pistons shut down their veterans, lost 16 of their final 20 and finished No. 2 going into the draft lottery, with a 14% shot at the top pick. It paid off, as they ended up moving up one spot, where they drafted Cade Cunningham, who looks every bit like a franchise player.
That shouldn’t be the playbook this year, though. With Cunningham on the roster, the Pistons have already accomplished the hardest task of any rebuild — landing a genuine superstar. There’s a point in every rebuild where a team should begin building to win now. The Pistons may be at that point. With the new lottery odds making the it tougher for the five worst teams to hang onto top picks, they have every incentive to let their young core continue to gel.
It would be a shame to see the Pistons sabotage the most exciting run of basketball the organization has seen in years, only to miss out on a franchise talent in the draft anyway. They can’t control where they land in the lottery, but they can prioritize setting the right tone for next season.
After practice on Saturday, Saddiq Bey mentioned the 2019-20 Suns when talking about the Pistons’ apparent upward trajectory. Phoenix missed the playoffs, but only after winning eight games in a row in the NBA’s regular-season finish in the “bubble” in Orlando, Florida. It was a sign of things to come, as they traded for Chris Paul that offseason and made the Finals in 2021.
“I look at how Phoenix played in the bubble when they went 8-0, and they still didn’t make the playoffs,” Bey said.” And then next year they were one of the best teams. We have our own path, but I think I try to take things like that as motivation, saying if we make the play-in or not, make the playoffs or not this year, how can we lead that into next year? That’s what our mentality is now. We’re building for something in the future.”
Momentum matters in the NBA — especially for young players trying to prove they belong. And Detroit’s young players are rising to the occasion. Cunningham is averaging 23.3 points (on 44/36.1/88.9% shooting splits), eight rebounds and 5.8 assists per game in March. Bey is exceeding expectations as the 19th pick of the 2020 draft, emerging as an all-around offensive weapon. Killian Hayes and Isaiah Stewart are excelling in their roles. The list goes on, but there has been a lot to like about the Pistons in recent weeks.
Landing a top-four pick in 2022 would give the Pistons another potential young star to pair with Cunningham. Auburn forward Jabari Smith Jr. and Gonzaga big man Chet Holmgren appear to be the most likely options with the first pick, but Purdue guard Jaden Ivey and Duke’s Paolo Banchero possess star potential as well.
However, there’s little the Pistons can do to secure a top-four pick. After Friday’s loss, they owned the NBA’s third-worst record at 18-49. It gives them the same chance as the two worse teams — the Houston Rockets and Orlando Magic — of staying in the top four. But they could also fall as low as seventh. Even if Detroit out-tanked the competition down the stretch, they would still have a 47.9% chance of drafting fifth.
In 2019, the Knicks fell to third overall and drafted RJ Barrett. The Cavaliers fell to fifth and took Darius Garland. The Suns fell all the way to sixth and ended up trading their pick — Jarrett Culver — to the Minnesota Timberwolves in exchange for Cameron Johnson, who was the 11th overall pick, and Dario Saric. While none of those players are quite as good as Williamson or Morant, Cleveland found a stud in Garland, who made his first All-Star appearance this season. And the Suns ended up winning the trade, as Johnson and Saric are productive role players and Culver is trying to revive his NBA career in Memphis.
There are no guarantees in the draft or the lottery. The Pistons got lucky last year to get Cunningham. To pair him with another young star, they’ll need luck again, regardless of where they fall in the standings. A franchise that hasn’t won a playoff game since 2008 should no longer look for upside in losing games. Cunningham and his young teammates want to win. That should be the priority. If the team closes this season with confidence, everything else will fall into place.