It may appear not much has changed for the Detroit Pistons since Troy Weaver was hired as general manager in 2020 − if you judge just by wins.
The franchise finished 20-46 in 2019-20 prior to Weaver joining, then 20-52 during the COVID-shortened 2020-21 season, and 23-59 last season.
Rebuilds aren’t easy and often aren’t quick, and win totals are an imperfect tool to measure progress. Much has changed underneath the surface. The roster has been completely refreshed over the past few seasons. The 2022-23 team features 10 players on the 15-man roster younger than 24 years old, thanks to several seasons of savvy trading, with six first-round picks and four lottery picks. Cade Cunningham has looked the part of a blossoming franchise player. The Pistons are inching toward respectability.
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During media day Monday at Little Caesars Arena, Weaver said the Pistons are now at “ground zero.” The young core, for now, is set. Detroit added two more lottery picks this summer in Jaden Ivey and Jalen Duren, and last week’s trade for Bojan Bogdanovic gave the team the efficient, floor-spacing veteran forward it previously lacked and sorely needed. The team is optimistic Cunningham, Killian Hayes, Saddiq Bey, Isaiah Stewart and others are ready to take a step forward. The Pistons will have significant cap space available next summer to continue to improve the team.
The Pistons appear, as they should, to be in much better shape than they were at the start of the rebuild. Now, they’re looking forward to doing something they’ve been unable to do for several seasons — competing every night.
“When I first got here, Ed (Stefanski) and his group had finally started to get the books in order, and we had to reshape the roster,” Weaver said. “I thought we were getting out of the red. I think now we’re at ground zero. I think we have a full complement of players to compete every night. We’re in the competing stage right now. We have to be able to compete before you contend.”
Weaver and the coaching staff have been careful not to set expectations too high during the rebuilding process, but it was clear Monday the team wants to see measurable growth. Cunningham was good last season, but needs to be better — more efficient, better-conditioned, more active and engaged as a leader. The rest of the 2020 draft class needs to step up as well. Hayes and Stewart are expected to have career-best seasons as shooters, and Bey should grow more comfortable as a go-to scorer.
But the Pistons are deep in young talent, and we could see several players embrace bigger roles. Isaiah Livers had a healthy offseason after spending most of his rookie campaign rehabbing a foot injury. Marvin Bagley III had a full offseason with the Pistons after a handful of up-and-down seasons with the Sacramento Kings. Hamidou Diallo, too, is hoping to build off of last year’s momentum.
Ivey and Duren will have the luxury of easing into their new roles, since they play positions where the Pistons have depth.
“It’s the most talent we’ve had since I’ve been here,” fifth-year coach Dwane Casey said. “Also the youngest talent that we’ve had. We added two young, very talented players. My first year here we had the veteran guys who had been around the league for a while, made the playoffs. That was a different type of team. But this team is more about the talent than those teams were.
“We’re still in growth mode,” Casey added. “We still have the young guys, it was a great move and Tom (Gores) allowed us to bring in Bojan Bogdanovic, who gives us a veteran scorer with that young, talented group. We’re still in growth mode but we’re ready to compete at a higher level than we did last year. We feel better with that. We’re still growing. Cade is in his second year, Saddiq third. We’re still going this way. But we’re definitely going in the right direction with that group.”
We’ve seen several young teams make unexpected leaps in recent seasons. The Cleveland Cavaliers were last year’s surprise team in the East, winning 44 games after tallying 22, 19 and 19-win seasons the previous three years. The Memphis Grizzlies made a bigger leap, improving to 56 wins after four consecutive years with winning records. The Phoenix Suns beat all expectations in 2020-21, jumping to 51 wins after six-straight seasons under-.500.
The Pistons prioritized adding talented veterans this offseason. Bogdanovic, Alec Burks and Nerlens Noel should raise Detroit’s floor and ease some of the depth issues that have plagued the roster in recent years. But internal growth will dictate Detroit’s ceiling next year.
They’ll have a difficult path to the playoffs, or play-in tournament. Ten teams in the Eastern Conference — the Boston Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers, Miami Heat, Toronto Raptors, Chicago Bulls, Brooklyn Nets, Atlanta Hawks, Charlotte Hornets and Cavaliers — finished with winning records last year. All except the Hornets appear to be at least as good, or better, this upcoming season.
But there are always surprises. Few expected the Cavaliers to make a 22-game improvement last season, and there are always teams hit with the injury bug. It’ll be an uphill climb, but the Pistons are looking to the league’s other successful rebuilds as examples of what they can accomplish next year.
It starts with Cunningham, who’ll have to play at an All-Star level for the Pistons to have a chance. The front office and coaching staff understands that for Detroit to make a leap, they’ll have to be led by their young talent.
“A lot of times, people want to look for all of the answers outside the building,” Weaver said. “Internal growth is huge for us. You wonder why teams can take these jumps, you look at the players that they had on their teams who took jumps. We’re hoping our players in-house can continue to grow and develop at a pace that allows us to push and grow and compete and then contend the way we want.”