Detroit — There are shortcuts to building a winner in the NBA.
But you’re lucky if you find them.
That’s the message Troy Weaver keeps reiterating, even after two years on the job as the Pistons’ general manager. And not coincidentally, it’s the same one his close friend and mentor, Sam Presti, the longtime GM in Oklahoma City, delivered recently, with an eye on Tuesday night’s NBA Draft lottery.
When Weaver talks about the need to “stay true to your core values” while trying to piece together a championship-caliber roster, he is well aware that what works for some may not for others, especially when it comes to luring marquee stars in free agency.
“Building a team here in Detroit,” Weaver said, “is different than building a team in L.A.”
Same goes for Oklahoma City, where Weaver spent more than a dozen years as an assistant GM working with Presti, widely viewed as one of the NBA’s best personnel executives. Despite small-market limitations, the Thunder enjoyed an extended run of success over the last decade, thanks to some good scouting, savvy trades and, as Presti is quick to note, a bit of lottery luck.
“The whole league is shaped, in my opinion, on a couple of nights,” Presti says.
One of those is the first night of free agency, which feels more like a holiday for GMs in Los Angeles and Miami or New York and Chicago than it does for those in cities like Detroit or Oklahoma City.
The other is Tuesday night, when the NBA holds its annual draft lottery (8 p.m., ESPN) and “the fortunes of a lot of teams change,” Presti said, adding, “For us, it’s a much bigger night than maybe for other teams that have different avenues to their team building,”
Sound familiar? The Pistons, at least for now, are living in the same neighborhood, and we all saw last summer how quickly fortunes can change. Detroit landed the No. 1 overall pick for the first time since 1970, and by all appearances, they’ve found the new face of their franchise in Cade Cunningham.
Ben Wallace was Detroit’s good-luck charm at last year’s draft lottery, and this time it’ll be — Yessir! — Rip Hamilton representing the Pistons, one of three teams with the best odds (14%) of landing the No. 1 pick. By virtue of their 23-59 finish last season — third-worst in the league — the Pistons have a 40% chance of securing a top-three pick and a 52.1% chance of staying in the top four in June’s draft. They’re guaranteed not to fall any lower than seventh, which is higher than they ever drafted from 2011 until 2020.
And while Weaver said last month he doesn’t see the same “dropoff” after the top three in this 2022 draft class that many analysts do, there’s certainly a benefit to having your pick of the lot.
That lot includes some intriguing frontcourt options in Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren, Auburn’s Jabari Smith and Duke’s Paolo Banchero. All three seem to be good fits with the young talent Weaver has assembled in Detroit, though I’d bet Smith and Holmgren are the top two, in some order, on the Pistons’ draft board. If the Pistons don’t move up in the lottery, Purdue’s Jaden Ivey or Arizona’s Bennedict Mathurin also makes sense as an athletic guard to pair with Cunningham. Detroit could use another big wing, like Iowa’s Keegan Murray, too.
“I like the draft,” Weaver said. “I liked it last year, I like it this year. We’re going to vet them all out. … The whole key to the draft is adding a good player. We don’t care where we pick them at.”
That’s all a GM should say before the ping-pong balls are settled.
“The best way to look at the lottery, in my opinion, is to see it exactly for what it is,” Presti said. “Which is just … it’s a game of chance. You have absolutely no control over it.”
And yet what happens Tuesday will certainly play a critical role in what happens next for teams across the league, including Detroit.
For instance, if Weaver lands a top-three pick and opts to use it on a power forward, that could make a trade involving Jerami Grant more likely. Weaver’s first big free-agent splash in Detroit is due for a contract extension — likely a four-year, $112 million deal — this summer. But after fielding inquiries for the 28-year-old Grant prior to the trade deadline in February — “People had their feelers out, but nothing that blew us away,” Weaver said — the Pistons GM said last month he’ll continue to listen to offers: “Maybe something comes down the pipe. We’ll see.”
We’ll see how this draft might affect the Pistons’ plans in free agency, too, as Detroit is one of a handful of teams that can easily create max-salary cap space this summer. Would Weaver consider spending it on a player like the Mavericks’ Jalen Brunson or with an offer sheet for the Suns’ Deandre Ayton? I’m not sure that jibes with Weaver’s “sustainable model,” but maybe he does.
What is certain, though, is that the lottery results can be “seismic,” to use Presti’s words.
One look at this year’s playoffs — and the new wave of young NBA stars grabbing the spotlight — should tell you that. Take Memphis, the smallest NBA market, which moved up six spots and landed Ja Morant in the 2019 draft lottery, jump-starting the Grizzlies’ rise in the West. Or Boston, the East’s iconic franchise, which drafted its current star tandem of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown with top-three lottery picks acquired in a blockbuster trade with Brooklyn years earlier.
“All the teams that are in the postseason, they’re all the beneficiary of some kind of luck,” Presti said. “And in the Thunder’s 10-12 year run that we had, there’s a lot of luck in there. Now, some of it was bad, (but) a lot of it was good. And what we’ve tried to do is make that last as long as possible, when you get something good that happens.”
That’s what Weaver is trying to do here with his “restoration” effort in Detroit, too.
“I don’t want to be a flash in the pan,” he said. “No Milli Vanilli here. When we get there, we want to stay there. We want to be built to last.”
And if they’re lucky, they’ll get some help along the way.