Detroit Pistons get NBA playoff reminder of what what they truly need: Luck in the draft

Detroit Free Press

Sixteen teams made the NBA playoffs. Only two teams got there without the draft.

Oh, the Brooklyn Nets have a few players on their roster who were drafted by that franchise, but none who are consistent difference-makers. And the Chicago Bulls have drafted players, too, obviously — but, like Brooklyn, none rank among their top three players.

The Nets — who lost to the Boston Celtics Sunday afternoon in Game 1 of their first-round series — got to the postseason because Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant decided they wanted to team up in Brooklyn.

That’s it.

How many other teams have that option? To interest a couple of top-15 players as free agents?

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Both Los Angeles teams. The Miami Heat. And maybe the Golden State Warriors, though that franchise returned to the playoffs Saturday night on the strength of how they’ve drafted, too.

Which means this is how the Detroit Pistons are going to get back to the playoffs as well. They’ll need some luck to do it. You can’t watch the NBA postseason and think otherwise.

Sure, scouting and player development matter. Finding players that suit the style of hoop you want to play matters, too.

Yet the key is luck. To find players that outperform internal evaluations. The Warriors are a good example.

The Warriors beat the Denver Nuggets in Game 1 on their first-round series by playing a devastating small-ball lineup that included four players they drafted: Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Jordan Poole.

All four were taken seventh overall (and that was only Curry) or lower. Green was a second-rounder. Poole was selected at No. 28, even though many considered him a second-rounder, too.

Did the Warriors get lucky?

Absolutely. No one predicted Poole would look like a future All-Star. And while Curry showed transformative skill at Davidson College, I don’t remember many thinking he’d be a two-time MVP.

So, yeah, teams good enough to consider themselves title contenders need luck. Look at the playoff rosters.

The Milwaukee Bucks are looking to defend their title because they took a flier on Giannis Antetokounmpo with the 15th pick in 2013. He grew four inches and gained 40 pounds … and a jump shot.

The Phoenix Suns are looking for consecutive NBA Finals trips because they drafted Devin Booker at No. 13 in 2015, five spots after the Pistons took Stanley Johnson. Not fair? Hey, this isn’t a shot at the Pistons. Twelve other teams passed on Booker that year, too.

The Suns didn’t become title contenders, though, until they traded for point guard Chris Paul before the 2020-21 season. Paul was under contract for that season and had a player option for the following year; in other words, he had enough leverage to nix the deal if he hadn’t thought the Suns were ready to win big.

They were in that position because of how they drafted. You can quibble — OK, hotly disagree — with taking DeAndre Ayton, as the Suns did, at No. 1 in 2018 instead of Luka Doncic (who went at No. 3 to Atlanta and was then traded to Dallas).

At least Ayton fit the Suns’ vision. Consider the Finals run last year, and a possible Finals run this year and not selecting Doncic stings a little less. Besides, Ayton is a fine player and still improving.

Pistons general manager Troy Weaver didn’t make that kind of mistake last year. Like the Suns, the Pistons had the No. 1 pick in a year when a handful of players were worthy of No. 1.

And while few would have argued on draft night if Weaver had drafted Evan Mobley or Jalen Green, he got the right guy in Cade Cunningham.

Now he has to do it again, somewhere in the top seven, in a draft that might be even trickier.

If the Pistons win the lottery again, this year’s No. 1 selection will be tougher. Weaver will need a little luck. Like the Celtics got when they took Jaylen Brown at No. 3 in 2016.

Wait, aren’t No. 3 picks automatic All-Stars, as Brown has been? And isn’t a No. 3 pick supposed to be on the floor this time of year making plays, as Brown did Sunday in the Celtics’ win?

Perhaps. But the Celtics drafted Brown knowing he could defend, knowing he would compete and merely hoping he would learn to shoot.

He has. At an All-Star clip.

The next year, the Celtics had the No. 3 pick again and took another small forward: Jayson Tatum hit the winning shot Sunday.

Did the Celtics know he’d be this good?

Maybe. Or maybe they hoped. Either way, it worked, as the Celtics have made deep postseason runs and may make another.

This is how it is for almost every playoff team. Difference-makers come in the draft. The best teams have at least two, and usually three.

And while some of them augmented their drafted foundations through trades and free agency, only two teams were fortunate enough to skip the build-through-the-draft process: Brooklyn and Chicago.

Everyone else got there through a combination of guile and luck. The Pistons have had a bit of both recently. They still need a bit more, and not just with the lottery balls.

Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or swindsor@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.  

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