Why the Motor City Cruise’s inaugural season is a success for the Detroit Pistons

Detroit Free Press

When Rob Murphy was hired as the president and general manager of the Motor City Cruise in March of 2021, he had a lot of work to do to get the Detroit Pistons‘ new G League team off of the ground.

In some ways, literally.

The team’s new arena, Wayne State Fieldhouse — shared with the Division II school’s men’s and women’s basketball teams — was still under construction at the corner of Warren and Trumbull, roughly two miles northwest of Little Caesars Arena.

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He also had to assemble a staff and acclimate  a new role. Murphy, a Detroit native and Mumford alumnus, was the head coach of Eastern Michigan men’s basketball the previous 10 years. There’s some overlap between running a Division I  program and a G League team, but only a little.

Murphy’s first day in the office was April 1, 2021. A year and a day later, the Cruise completed their inaugural regular season with a 118-106 win over the Canton Charge. With a 22-10 overall record, the Cruise clinched the second-best winning percentage in the Eastern Conference and have earned a first-round bye in the G League playoffs. They will host either the Delaware Blue Coats or the Long Island Nets on Friday.

The Cruise’s first season has been a success for both the G League franchise and its parent organization, the Detroit Pistons, who officially parted ways with the Grand Rapids Drive last year to have their own in-house developmental franchise. Beyond the playoff bid, the Cruise have also given a measurable boost to the Pistons’ player development program.

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“Seeing that building when I was hired, it was a shell,” Murphy told the Free Press. “It wasn’t even complete. We didn’t have a staff. To see the building come to completion, to have a staff of 22 in place on the business and basketball side, it’s nothing short of incredible. A lot of support from the front office, Troy Weaver in particular, allowing our assignment guys to come down and get better, understanding what do we need as far as exhibit-10s and things of that nature. And then coach (Dwane) Casey’s support has been great as well.

“To see it come together from April 1 last year to April this year, is nothing short of amazing. And it’s something we all should be proud of.”

At EMU, Murphy went 166-155 overall and became the second-winningest coach in school history. He did so while recruiting high school, grad transfer and junior college players to withstand the roster turnover that plagues many mid-major programs. The G League, in its own unique way, shares that unpredictability. Players can be called-up to the NBA at any time, and players on two-way contracts split their time between their G League and NBA teams. The starting lineup can change multiple times a week, so depth is vital for team success.

While the talent evaluation aspect of the job is similar, Murphy has received a crash course in business management this season. But a year in, he has a handle on that as well.

“It was a different challenge, especially on the business side, getting to know partners and sponsors and understanding the importance of ticket sales and overseeing game operations and things of that nature,” Murphy said. “It’s been different from that aspect. And just being able to float at 50,000 feet and see the team that you put together perform, the challenge has always become what guys are playing each and every night, are we going to have our assignment guys, our two way guys or just roster guys.

“Through it all, because we put a good roster together, in particular, just the G League guys, is a big reason we’ve had success on top of the coaching has been really good as well.”

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The Cruise are a deep team. Saben Lee and Luka Garza, who have both logged significant time with the Pistons this season, are G League stars. Lee averaged 24 points and 6.8 assists per game, and Garza averaged 20.6 points and 9.6 rebounds. Other players, such as former Michigan point guard Derrick Walton Jr. and two-way forward Jamorko Pickett, have also thrived.

That depth is regularly tested, though. Lee and Garza have played 35 and 31 games for the Pistons, respectively, this season. Pickett has appeared in 11 games. And when the NBA-wide COVID-19 outbreak hit the Pistons in the winter, they  had to lean on the Cruise more than it might have anticipated entering the season. Cruise forward Cassius Stanley played nine games for the Pistons when they were short on active players. Walton, Cheick Diallo and  Deividas Sirvydis each played three. Cruise head coach DJ Bakker even sat on Detroit’s bench for a handful of games as an assistant, when the Pistons had several assistant coaches out due to COVID.

Coaching a G League team is a season-long juggling act, and it’s one that Cruise personnel has learned how to handle in real time. Bakker said Lee had a stretch this season where he played three games in a row between the Pistons and Cruise. Making sure players aren’t overworked is a constant conversation Bakker has with his staff.

“We’re very conscious of how we treat their bodies on off days and practice days of making sure we have a great medical team, a great performance staff, and making sure those guys stay ready and make sure their bodies feel good as much as they can,” Bakker said.

Last Friday, Lee played for the Pistons in Oklahoma City and then returned to Detroit to start a 2 p.m. Saturday game for the Cruise. That’s life as a G League player looking to break through in the NBA, and Lee appreciates the opportunity he’s been given.

“It’s nice,” Lee said. “Definitely being able to go out here and actually play, get a good amount of minutes and be able to showcase what I can do and leading to team to win games and showing my value. I’m extremely grateful to be down here with the Cruise and just being able to play my game.”

The Pistons and Cruise call the same plays and utilize the same terminology. Cruise players have been seamlessly called up to the Pistons and have delivered big performances. From a rehab standpoint, Pistons rookies Cade Cunningham and Isaiah Livers ramped up with the Cruise before joining the parent club permanently. And the Cruise’s inaugural season will end with a playoff bid. So far, so good.

Murphy said he doesn’t want to take his foot off of the gas. Ideally the team will enjoy a deep playoff run, and then he’ll continue evaluating and figuring out how the team will look next season.

“We’re extremely fortunate that we all took a good start, so how do you maintain?” Murphy said. “You keep your foot on the gas and you keep doing the things you did to get here in order to remain successful. So I’m excited about the process and how I’ll continue to grow and how the Pistons and Motor City Cruise will continue to grow as well.”

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

Next up: Mavericks

Matchup: Pistons (23-56) vs. Dallas (49-30).

Tipoff: 7 p.m. Wednesday; Little Caesars Arena, Detroit.

TV/radio: Bally Sports Detroit; WWJ-AM (950).

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