Ranking NBA rebuilds: How Detroit Pistons future stacks up among loaded competitors

Detroit Free Press

We know the Detroit Pistons are one of several NBA teams in a rebuild.

They’re in the third year of the Troy Weaver-led regime and on the way to a fourth straight season finishing bottom five in a 30-team league.

Where do the Pistons stack up against rebuilding competitors?

Let’s get into all of it. But first, how did they get here?

Why are Pistons rebuilding?

After years stuck in NBA quicksand — the dreaded middle aka purgatory — over the previous decade, “too good” to gobble up premium draft picks, but toothless against the the better teams, twenty-nine to 40 wins became the Pistons’ sweet spot. Fans were apathetic as a once-proud franchise made many poor decisions and sank to irrelevance, with one winning season from 2009-20 and zero playoff game wins.

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The Pistons refused to accept reality after the end of the Goin’ to Work era, under new ownership of Tom Gores beginning in 2011, and remained too impatient and creative enough to find success.

Finally, after the disintegration of the latest ensemble at the end of the decade, Gores was left with little choice and relented to the reality beating at his door.

He green-lit a tear down.

In came a first-time general manager, Weaver, who has made six first-round picks in three drafts, maintained cap flexibility, and executed nearly 20 trades in the first steps to restore the franchise to greatness.

Weaver has talked a big game, but the on-court product has expectedly suffered and 2022-23 has been a disappointment.

But this process takes time. We know this. There is no shortcut in the NBA except elite talent; patience is required. And the Pistons’ best way to acquire that is at the top of the draft.

Other teams are using the strategy too.

Here’s our ranking of the eight teams identified through their recent actions as rebuilders. We’ve taken into account future outlook, incorporating the current roster and value of players moving forward, draft capital and cap flexibility.

Essentially, which teams currently have the brightest futures for the rest of the decade, knowing a lot will change at the May 16 NBA draft lottery.

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Ranking the rebuilds

8. Charlotte Hornets

Most valued players: LaMelo Ball, Terry Rozier, Mark Williams.

Best future asset: Their own 2023 first-round pick.

Draft equity: Net-zero on future first-round picks; get Denver’s first this year, owe first to San Antonio (protected 1-14 from 2024-25); plus-three on second-rounders.

The case: The argument can be made Charlotte is one of the two or three worst franchises in the NBA under the ownership of one Michael Jordan. It has a budding lead guard in Ball, but the 21-year-old will be eligible this offseason for a rookie extension up to 25% of the cap, though no player in his position has ever turned down a max offer. They also have decisions to make on forwards Kelly Oubre Jr. (unrestricted) and P.J. Washington (restricted) this summer. Beyond Ball, the Hornets have little to work with outside of potential cap space in 2024 once Gordon Hayward’s contract expires. Being left with absolutely nothing in the Miles Bridges spot for now — just a year ago, he was part of the core on a fun 43-39 Hornets team and about to get paid before a domestic violence incident — set Charlotte’s future back, but that can change if it hits in the draft as one of the league’s four-worst teams.

7. Houston Rockets

Most valued players: Jalen Green, Jabari Smith Jr., Alperen Sengun, Kevin Porter Jr.

Best future asset: Their own 2023 first-round pick.

Draft equity: Plus-one first, plus some swaps, control Brooklyn’s drafts from 2024-27; owe their 2024 and ’26 firsts, protected 1-4, to OKC.

The case: They might be the worst team in the NBA this season, but employ a bunch of athletic forwards and back-to-back top-three picks in Green and Smith, both of who have shown skill. The Rockets arguably have more current talent than a few teams ahead of them on this list, but more than any of the rest, are in need of an on-court leader. They own the Nets’ drafts coming up thanks to the initial James Harden trade, but Brooklyn’s future isn’t that grim with its infusion of young wings and picks. Houston owes two future firsts to the Thunder from the ill-fated Chris Paul (out) for Russell Westbrook (in) swap. The Rockets will likely enter the lottery with as good a chance as any other team to land a top pick, and will have the most cap space in the NBA this summer at more than $55 million.

6. Detroit Pistons

Most valued players: Cade Cunningham, Jaden Ivey, Jalen Duren, Bojan Bogdanovic.

Best future asset: Their own 2023 first-round pick.

Draft equity: Down one first, owed to New York (protected 1-18 in 2024, 1-13 in 2025, 1-11 in 2026 and 1-9 in 2027); plus-two in future seconds, though they don’t have their own from 2024-26.

The case: Unable to trade a first until 2029 for now, and with no extras incoming, they’re at a gigantic detriment on the trade market compared to the rest of the rebuilders, and the league as a whole. What they do have is a trio of young talent collected over the past two drafts. Cunningham’s season ending after 12 uninspiring games was a blow, but the Pistons are fine long term as long as he regains health and becomes the alpha they need him to be, beginning this fall. They’re desperate, like many teams, for a high-caliber 3-and-D wing, and while landing the No. 1 (center Victor Wembanyama) or No. 2 pick (point guard Scoot Henderson) at the lottery would be franchise altering, it would also bring more intriguing roster questions for Weaver since the Pistons have invested in talent at each spot. The lack of draft capital drops them well behind the rebuild leaders, but that all would change if the ping pong balls go their way. It’s still all in front of them, with a projected $30 million or so in cap space this summer — accounting for team options being picked up on Alec Burks ($10.5 million) and Isaiah Livers ($1.8 million), and the cap hold for one of the top 2023 draft picks — and plenty to work with after next season. Every action and reporting tells us the Pistons are desperate to improve next season, but balancing the present and the future is critical. Let’s see if Weaver stays the course or feels the pressure and gets itchy to throw big money at a role player.

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5. San Antonio Spurs

Most valued players: Keldon Johnson, Devin Vassell, Jeremy Sochan, Malaki Branham.

Best future asset: Their own 2023 first-round pick.

Draft equity: Plus-five first-rounders, plus some extra swaps, and have their own firsts; control Atlanta’s drafts unprotected from 2025-27; plus-11 on second-rounders.

The case: After winning in the mid-30s for three straight years and losing twice in the play-in game, the Spurs finally have sunk to the bottom. That’s largely due to trading their best player each of the past two offseasons (DeMar DeRozan in 2021 and Dejounte Murray in 2022), a conscious effort to reboot the franchise after two decades of excellence. They have two budding two-way wings in Johnson and Vassell, and already have the former locked into a team-friendly second contract beginning next season. They have a gigantic haul of juicy picks over the next five years, timed nicely with their rebuild trajectory, and have always been one of the best draft and develop organizations in the league. Now they’re poised for a top pick and their best chance at No. 1 since landing Tim Duncan in 1997.

4. Indiana Pacers

Most valued players: Tyrese Haliburton, Bennedict Mathurin, Myles Turner, Buddy Hield.

Best future asset: Their own 2023 first-round pick.

Draft equity: Plus-two firsts, both coming this year from Boston and Cleveland.

The case: The Pacers, who lost five straight times in the first round from 2016-20, have never torn it all the way down under this ownership group, instead choosing to build without committing to tanking, and being somewhat successful due to shrewd trades. The latest brought them a rising point guard in Haliburton, a first-time All-Star this season who gives them what many of these rebuilding teams are searching for — a primary offensive initiator. Mathurin, 20, has shown big-time scoring chops as a rookie, and Turner is a rare legitimate 3-and-D center who just signed a new deal that will count for a reasonable $41 million over the next two years. Indiana is set up for around $25 million in cap space this summer, and is a big two-way wing away from being formidable.

3. Utah Jazz

Most valued players: Lauri Markkanen, Walker Kessler, Jordan Clarkson, Collin Sexton.

Best future asset: Their own 2023 first-round pick.

Draft equity: Plus-eight on first-rounders — not including swap rights — with multiple unprotected picks and swaps from Minnesota and Cleveland; owe one protected first to OKC (2024; 1-10); minus-five on second-rounders.

The case: If you decide to rebuild, it helps to jumpstart it by putting two All-Stars (Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell) on the market. The Jazz, with Danny Ainge atop the front office, looked like they’d swindled Minnesota at the time the shocking Gobert deal became public last summer, and Utah’s position has only improved with Kessler looking like a facsimile of Gobert, only nine years younger and a few hundred million cheaper. Utah also has already made out well in the Mitchell trade with Cleveland, thanks to the resurgence of Markkanen, so much so it was in the top eight in the Western Conference for most of this season, before further depleting the roster of veterans at the deadline. The Jazz are on the hunt for a lead guard and wing, but have a nice frontcourt foundation, and will have around $50 million in space to play with this offseason and more future flexibility.

2. Orlando Magic

Most valued players: Paolo Banchero, Franz Wagner, Markelle Fultz, Wendell Carter Jr.

Best future asset: Their own 2023 first-round pick.

Draft equity: Plus-two on first-rounders from Chicago (2023; protected 1-4) and Denver (2025; protected 1-5); control all their own firsts; plus-six in second-round picks.

The case: The Magic are 19-15 since starting the season 5-20, including three wins over Boston. This team is young, long and rangy, with three building blocks in the frontcourt all 6-10 in Banchero, Wagner and Carter, and two athletic guards in Fultz and Jalen Suggs. They have more giants off the bench in Jonathan Isaac and Bol Bol. Orlando is set up with a chance of two more top-10 picks this summer, which it could use on the trade market as well. No need to rush the timeline, but the Magic should target shooting at two-guard to help spread the floor, and will have more than $30 million in space this summer and more maneuverability in 2024.

1. Oklahoma City Thunder

Most valued players: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Josh Giddey, Chet Holmgren, Jalen Williams.

Best future asset: Houston’s 2024 first-round pick (protected 1-4).

Draft equity: Plus-eight on first-rounders — not including swap rights — and own all their future firsts; control the drafts of the LA Clippers (unprotected, swaps) and Houston (some protections); plus-11 on seconds.

The case: OKC is on the verge of becoming a monster, and already ahead of its timeline. It has one of the game’s best guards in Gilgeous-Alexander, a promising all-around guard in Giddey and wing in Williams, a new-age big man in Holmgren, and a hard-nosed guard in Luguentz Dort. All five are under 25 years old — SGA is the eldest at 24 — and could fit beautifully together. The Thunder have far exceeded expectations at 28-29, up to 10th in the West, all without Holmgren, the 2022 No. 2 overall pick who injured his foot in the summer. They have as much valuable draft capital as anyone, and one of the game’s best GMs in Sam Presti, armed with around $30 million in space.

Catch our podcast “The Pistons Pulse” every Tuesday morning at 5 and on demand on freep.com or wherever you listen to podcasts. This week’s episode is embedded near the top of this article. See all of our podcasts and daily voice briefings at freep.com/podcasts.

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