Detroit — A year ago at this time, the Pistons were marinating after a 20-52 season and ruminating on their lottery chances. Today, the Pistons are marinating after a 23-59 season and ruminating on their lottery chances.
The unsightly numbers don’t lie. But neither do the eyes. The Pistons are in better position in almost every way, with a rising star in Cade Cunningham, a blossoming all-around player in Saddiq Bey, another high draft pick, intriguing trade possibilities and ample money to spend on free-agents, if they find one they really, really like.
Dwane Casey did his job during the season, no matter what the record says. Owner Tom Gores already gave an enthusiastic endorsement. But the trajectory of this franchise rests now with GM Troy Weaver, who has drafted very well, collecting productive pieces in his two seasons. The next step is the difficult one, and how quickly the Pistons rise could depend on how aggressively Weaver wants to push it.
He speaks carefully, offering no grand promises. But don’t be fooled. Weaver enjoys the build but hates the losing. He has a penchant for surprise trades and shrewd signings, and where others might see a big gap, Weaver might see a big chance. The last play-in spot for the playoffs went to the 42-win Clippers. Somewhere, the Pistons have to find 19 more victories to get close to contention.
“It’s not easy,” Weaver said Tuesday. “But I’ve seen it happen, I’ve been part of it happening. That gives me confidence and comfort.”
He worked in Oklahoma City’s front office from 2008-2020 when the Thunder drafted Russell Westbrook and James Harden to add with Kevin Durant. The Thunder finished 23-59 in 2009 and rocketed to 50-32 the following season. That stretch of talent acquisition probably can’t be replicated. But it can provide a blueprint, one the Pistons continue to sketch out.
On Feb. 14, they were 12-45. They went 11-14 the rest of the way. Cunningham was injured early, then struggled, then grew into the type of dynamic leader you build a franchise around. Bey became more than just a lethal deep-range shooter. Killian Hayes made progress as a facilitator and defender but needs to shoot better. Isaiah Stewart improved markedly, and even flashed the makings of 3-point range. Jerami Grant struggled with injuries but ended up as the leading scorer (19.2) and a dependable 3-point shooter (35.8%).
Being bad is only palatable if you’re also young. The five youngest teams in the NBA are Oklahoma City (22.9), Memphis (23.7), Orlando (23.8), Houston (23.9) and the Pistons (23.9). The Grizzlies are an anomaly, one of the top teams in the West. The others have the four worst records, with Detroit, Orlando and Houston holding the same chance – 14% — of winning the lottery May 17.
Whoever gets the lottery break doesn’t necessarily get a franchise-altering break. The top projected picks are half-tantalizing and half-terrorizing. Many will slot Gonzaga’s 7-foot Chet Holmgren at the top, but in my humble opinion, he has way too many unknowns and way too little heft. The Pistons need shooting, which would make Auburn’s Jabari Smith the best option. They need scoring by any means, which makes Duke’s 6-10, 250-pound Paolo Banchero intriguing.
Then there are a few plums, such as Dallas guard Jalen Brunson or Phoenix center Deandre Ayton, in an otherwise mediocre free-agent class. There’s also the debate over Grant, 28, who could be a cornerstone but is entering his final season and might be better as a trade chip.
“You really have to stay true to your core values, and building a team here in Detroit is different than building a team in L.A.,” Weaver said. “There are times you want to speed up the process to get there a little faster, but is that sustainable? It’s taking a little longer in some people’s eyes, but not ours. … I don’t want us to be a flash in the pan. No Milli Vanilli here.”
In other words, lip-synching might be fashionable in glitzy Los Angeles, but whenever the Pistons have built a championship team over the years, it’s been sturdy and steady. Would fans love to see an accelerant? Well, sure. Depending how you calculate it, the Pistons have the most or second-most salary-cap space in the league, around $30 million. Do you throw it at one guy, use it to acquire expiring contracts and more picks from a team in win-now mode, or pluck a couple hidden gems?
Whatever Weaver opts to do, he doesn’t feel the urgency to do it all now. Eventually there will be demands for bigger external moves, maybe even as soon as next season.
“Free-agency doesn’t mean you’re skipping steps,” Weaver said. “We’ll continue to add talent in every shape and fashion, no rock unturned. Our defense really found its way the second half of the year but we need to add scoring. After the All-Star break, I thought we competed with everyone.”
The 6-10 Smith, who shot 42% from 3 at Auburn, could boost the scoring. So could the bruising Banchero. The draft is the preferred path, especially when the free-agent bin is heavy with over-priced relics – Russell Westbrook, Kyrie Irving, John Wall, James Harden. Brunson, 25, might be an ideal fit, averaging 16.3 ppg for the Mavericks.
“I like trades,” Weaver said. “Free-agency can be a little tricky, but I feel good about our process either way. We’ll be aggressive in both.”
As the team staggered to a 5-28 start, Weaver admitted he left Casey short-handed in front-court talent. That led to his trade for 6-11 Marvin Bagley III from Sacramento, and the former No. 2 overall pick could be a keeper. He’s only 23 and averaged 14.6 points and 6.8 rebounds for the Pistons.
Weaver likes to take flyers on talented guys who might be a bit raw, but they’re calculated flyers. They don’t all work, but Bagley could, so could Hamidou Diallo, so could Hayes, the No. overall 7 pick in 2020. The Pistons have mostly restocked through the draft, and Weaver has hit on all four of his first-rounders so far, depending on how you view Hayes’ gradual development.
Weaver’s biggest free-agent pickup was Grant, who signed for $60 million over three years. It seemed excessive then but a bargain now. Grant would prefer to stay with a long-term commitment but is a decent trade piece, as he was at the deadline this season.
“People had their feelers out (for Grant) but nothing that blew us away,” Weaver said. “Maybe the phone rings a little more now, I’m not sure. The landscape changes weekly in the NBA.”
On the Pistons’ landscape, at least you can see evidence of permanent structures. Cunningham, Bey and Stewart for sure, and others almost for sure. This isn’t anything like the roster of a year ago, which included Blake Griffin, Sekou Doumbouya, Josh Jackson, Jahlil Okafor, Wayne Ellington and Derrick Rose.
Last offseason was productive, as was the year before. Has it produced victories yet? Nope. Has it opened more avenues to get better – another top pick, trade pieces, cap space? Yep. It’s still a long way from 23 to 40ish wins, but not nearly as daunting as it was.