Cleveland Cavaliers mapping out path to NBA success for Detroit Pistons

Detroit Free Press

It’s so often the move that leads to the move that changes the direction of an NBA franchise. Sometimes it’s hard to see it when it happens.

The Cleveland Cavaliers will take the court at Little Caesars Arena tonight as legitimate Eastern Conference contenders. Just two seasons ago, they won 22 games and wound up with the No. 3 pick in the 2021 NBA draft — two spots behind the Detroit Pistons.

And while the offseason addition of Donovan Mitchell catapulted the Cavaliers from the play-in game last spring to contender status this fall, their trade for Jarrett Allen in early 2021 set the table.

Mitchell is the established star. Guard Darius Garland is ascending. Big man Evan Mobley (taken with that 2021 pick) is next. But Allen is the connector.

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General manager Koby Altman sent a first-round pick (previously acquired from Milwaukee) to Brooklyn for Allen. It was a risky move for a lottery-level team, giving up a first rounder for a defensive-minded big.

Cleveland arrives in Detroit at 6-1, second in the East behind Milwaukee. The Cavaliers have beaten Boston twice, including in overtime Wednesday night.

That they won just two more games than the Pistons two years ago shows how quickly teams can retool. It’s also a reminder that the Pistons could make a similar leap.

They, too, may have made the move that sets up the move that proceeds a playoff push. They’re just a bit behind the Cavaliers’ timeline.

Jalen Duren has the chance to be Allen, but with a touch more offensive upside. It’s probably nothing more than coincidence that the Pistons also sent a future first-round pick of Milwaukee’s — which they got in trading Jerami Grant to Portland — to the Knicks for the rights to what they hope is their defensive anchor.

Duren is 18 going on 30 in build and demeanor and already has made such a difference rebounding that his absence was glaring when the Pistons got worked on the glass in Milwaukee earlier this week.

His presence balances the floor with the rest of the promising youngsters on the team, especially Cade Cunningham and Jaden Ivey. Just as Allen balances the floor for Mitchell and Garland and even Mobley.

Because he was in place along with the rest of the up-and-comers on Cleveland’s roster, it made sense for Altman to take a big swing when Utah decided to sell off its veterans.

Luck was certainly part of the deal; it’s hard to predict when top-20 players will be available. But preparation is the bigger part of the deal.

Altman was ready.

He didn’t just have several pieces of a talented young core; he had tradeable assets in place. And when Danny Ainge decided to blow up the Jazz, Altman was there, able to send Collin Sexton, Lauri Markkanen, 2022 draft pick Ochai Agbaji and other picks in return for Mitchell.

Pistons general manager Troy Weaver is building a similarly trade-friendly roster. He’s also amassing salary cap room, and while it’s a bit harder to convince high-level free agents to sign in Detroit, extending Bojan Bogdanovic shows that the perception of hooping here is changing.

Cunningham is central to that change, of course. And his play the last couple of weeks — notwithstanding his performance against the Bucks Wednesday — is showcasing these Pistons as a place that is looking up. Ivey is only adding to that.

The Pistons will have to show more as the season progresses; their 2-7 start looks particularly rough after an opening night victory. Yet they showed more competitive spirit the last several games, and when they took the Bucks to the buzzer Monday on the road, it turned a few heads.

Milwaukee flexed on them in the rematch Wednesday. Yet the Pistons hung around for the first half and never stopped playing with energy.

Getting Alec Burks and Marvin Bagley III on the floor will help this team compete more. Bagley gives Cunningham —and Ivey — a slick rim-running mate and Burks gives the second unit desperately needed scoring punch.

If the Pistons end up in the high lottery again and get a ball to bounce their way in the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes — or even the Scoot Henderson sweepstakes — they’ll take the generational talent or the potential all-star, obviously.

But if the team’s competitive effort and improved defense, along with the all-around game of Cunningham, keep going, the Pistons will win too much to have a realistic shot at the top of the lottery. That isn’t the end of the world.

Remember that the last time a player as highly regarded as Wembanyama entered the draft, he didn’t win a title with the team that drafted him. Well, that’s not exactly true. LeBron James did win with the Cavaliers, but only after he returned from a four-year hiatus in Miami, and he only returned because he grew up just down the road. Luck and circumstance matter, even with a talent like James or Wembanyama.

The more probable — and proactive path — is to do what the current Cavaliers have just done. Hit on the draft a few times. Find the right veterans. Collect draft capital. Develop. And then strike when the next Mitchell-level player becomes available.

Yes, timing is everything. Preparation is even more. Weaver has been prepping for a while.

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

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