NBA Finals show a trend Detroit Pistons could copy — and may be on their way to doing so

Detroit Free Press

The NFL is a copycat league. So, the mantra goes, anyway:

A team makes a run to the Super Bowl, or a couple of runs, and league executives get busy trying to replicate their success.

Sometimes that means copying a system, other times copying philosophy, like when the Washington Commanders won trophies on the backs of the “Hogs,” and suddenly everyone wanted an offensive line stacked with 300-pounders. Or a defense studded with position-less players who could ad-lib under pressure, creating the kind symphony only Bill Belichick could hear.

That didn’t work out so well here in Detroit, when a Belichick protégé tried to re-create the success he had been a part of in New England. Turns out Belichick was the system. Not that we need another deconstruction of Matt Patricia’s tenure with the Detroit Lions.

Still, the best teams in pro football often inspire imitators. Which begs the question: why not in the NBA?

Oh, there are revolutionary figures, players and coaches that inspire mimicry, but basketball’s most influential practitioners are almost without exception unique.

Steph Curry may have changed the game in that more players and teams shoot more 3-pointers, but there is only one Steph Curry. Thirteen years into his career and no player combines his hand-eye coordination with his handle and quick release.

You can say the same of Giannis Antetokounmpo, who led Milwaukee to the title last year. Or LeBron James, who, at his peak, played like a cross between Magic Johnson and Julius Irving, only with a better jump shot.

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You can even say the same of Michael Jordan and Larry Bird and Dirk Nowitzki and Shaquille O’Neal and Hakeem Olajuwon and Kevin Durant and any other number of players who’ve won titles using a package of skill and talent that is unlike any before or since.

In other words, Detroit Pistons general manager Troy Weaver can’t look at last year’s champs and say, ‘‘I’m going to find one of those!’’

No, there isn’t another Giannis.

Nor another Curry, or even Draymond Green if you’re thinking about the Golden State Warriors, which means doing what they do is impossible.

A general manager and coach may borrow aspects of how the Warriors play and what they emphasize: one of more underrated talents of the early Warriors title teams, for example, is how they switched on defense, a hugely influential approach.

But there is no re-creating Curry and Green.

There is a team in the NBA Finals at the moment, however, that Weaver can heavily borrow from, a team that isn’t built around a paradigm-shifting talent. This isn’t to diminish Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown. Both are excellent players; Tatum is arguably one of the best five offensive players in the league.

Yet he and Brown aren’t unicorns. They are long, athletic, skilled two-way players who can create their own shot. In other words, they are modern wings.

Weaver has one on his team already, only his wing can play point guard and control the pace of the game.

When Cade Cunningham came into the league last fall, the comparisons were all over the map. Weaver himself said Bird. Others said Luka Doncic. A few said Tatum. A few more said Grant Hill. Then Cunningham took the court and looked like … Cade Cunningham (OK, with a touch of Doncic).

Cunningham has the chance to be a new kind of player: a 6-foot-7-inch point guard who can control the pace of the game, pull up from anywhere and play both individual and team defense. He may not be quite the passer or rebounder Doncic is — or the scorer (yet) — but he already is a better defender.

[ NBA draft observations: Pistons will have their pick of solid wing options ]

Which means that Weaver can look at Dallas and try to emulate the five-out system the Mavericks run with Doncic as its sun. Better yet, he can look at the Celtics, because of Cunningham’s defense, and try to find his own pair of two-way wings and center everything else around them.

If Boston wins the title, it will be the first NBA champion in a while that won without a player no one else can find. Again, Tatum is a stellar talent, but there are a few others like him in the league, including one who missed this season with a knee injury.

Kawhi Leonard, when healthy, is the best version of the modern wing. And, he played on a title team in Toronto that shared similarities with the Celtics.

Almost every team in the league is looking for two-way wings these days. The Raptors — and now the Celtics — are showing you can win big by pairing a couple of them together.

The Finals are showing, once again, that the NBA will always have unicorn stars who play like no one else. They are also showing a team that could be the blueprint for some copying.

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

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