Detroit – Do injuries and youthfulness explain a lot? Sure. Are they valid excuses? For now. Of the 10 Pistons that logged the most minutes this season, seven were 24 or younger and only two played in 70-plus games.
Is everyone tired of hearing about it? Absolutely.
After a near-franchise-worst 17-65 record, which followed a 23-59 season, which followed a 20-52 season, the Pistons don’t look any better, statistically. It cost Dwane Casey his job, although he’ll remain in the organization, a fair admission by owner Tom Gores and GM Troy Weaver that coaching wasn’t the main problem. And frankly, the next coach won’t be an immediate solution.
The obvious quick solution is the return to full health of Cade Cunningham, who played in only 12 games before undergoing shin surgery. He’ll be back and playing alongside promising guard Jaden Ivey, who developed nicely with added responsibilities in Cunningham’s absence.
Another semi-immediate solution is to win the draft lottery and select the latest generational talent, 7-4 Victor Wembanyama from France. With the worst record in the league, the Pistons are tied with the Rockets and Spurs for the best lottery odds at 14%. Weaver said he’s not begging for luck, and the May 16 lottery won’t impact his coaching search or talent hunt. He’s more interested in betting on himself than 14% odds, as he should. It’s all so fickle anyhow. The Pistons won the lottery just two years ago and landed Cunningham, then lost him for a year.
“People look at me like I’m crazy, but from day one, I’ve never depended on the lottery,” Weaver said Tuesday. “I think we have enough in this building to continue to move forward and compete.”
This offseason looms huge, and it’s on the GM now more than ever, and not just with the coaching search. It’s a weird paradox. Weaver has done a stellar job drafting, upgrading the team’s talent across the board. Yet the younger they get, the worse they get, which generally is how the league works. Ivey and Jalen Duren were two of the NBA’s most-productive rookies, just as Cunningham, Isaiah Stewart and Saddiq Bey were the year before. When Weaver needed more pieces to fill the roster, he plucked more young high picks unwanted by their original teams – James Wiseman and Marvin Bagley III, former No. 2 overall selections.
Worthwhile attempts, and they might work out. But after three years in charge, Weaver can’t endlessly run the NBA version of a day-care center. He acknowledged the need to add experienced players via free-agency or trade, especially a wing who can defend and preferably shoot. He’d already acknowledged it by keeping Bojan Bogdanovic, 33, and Alec Burks, 31, at the trade deadline, although they missed most of the following games with injuries.
“We need to get healthy, and we’re not averse to adding more veteran players,” Weaver said. “What this team needs is simple — discipline, development and defense. I always look at the glass half full, I’m always an optimistic person. Ivey and Duren definitely elevated our talent base.”
Painfully long rebuild
Having good young talent is a blessing – it stirs hope and excitement among fans, and the Pistons’ attendance actually was higher than middle of the pack. It’s also a curse – it takes painfully long to develop, and usually is immune to playing defense. The Pistons ranked 29th allowing 118.5 ppg.
Casey was hired to direct a veteran team led by Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond, but when that collapsed — somewhat predictably thanks to a multitude of personnel gaffes by Stan Van Gundy — the plan veered. Casey acknowledged the difficulty in taking on a new direction, even though it was necessary. The next coach will know exactly what he’s stepping into — a rebuild/restore that so far is stuck in concept form.
Weaver said he’s wide open on candidates’ qualities and isn’t emphasizing any particular traits. The Pistons job should be attractive in many ways – young stars to build around, ample salary-cap flexibility and a possible top-three pick.
Former Celtics coach Ime Udoka probably is the most tantalizing candidate. He led Boston to the NBA Finals in 2022, then was suspended the following season for violating team rules after a relationship with a female member of the organization. Udoka would easily be the best option if not for the indiscretion. He also probably wouldn’t be available if not for the indiscretion.
Charles Lee, 38, is the top assistant to Mike Budenhozer in Milwaukee and is considered primed for a head-coaching job. His age perhaps would help him connect with a youthful roster, but his lack of experience could be problematic. Same with Jerry Stackhouse, the former Piston who has done a fine job at Vanderbilt. Others from winning organizations that warrant consideration: Heat assistant Chris Quinn, Raptors assistant Adrian Griffin, Nets assistant Brian Keefe. (Sorry, I’m not gonna pretend I know who would be the best fit).
Young coaching candidate
Weaver likely doesn’t know yet either. He said he isn’t looking for someone opposite of Casey’s style or age, although my guess is, the Pistons will look for a young candidate who brings tons of patience. Casey didn’t get impatient, and in fact handled a difficult job admirably, gracious to the end. He thanked Weaver and Gores, who offered him a yet-to-be-defined position in the organization.
“I appreciate they didn’t throw me out with the bath water,” Casey said with a smile. “I’m a big boy, whatever way they wanted to go. … (Winning) is going to happen quicker than we probably think, with the natural additions and development of people we have here. Can’t put a timetable on it, but it’s not that far away.”
The Pistons didn’t have a strategic incentive to win, which is why (I assume), they let Bogdanovic and others stay idled. In that regard, the 17-victory total is a bit deflated, and the Pistons indeed might not be as far away as many assume. To be in contention for a play-in game, they’d need a leap of 20-plus victories (the Bulls were the last team in with 40), and while Cunningham will supply some of that, they’ll need much more.
Bogdanovich finished as the team’s leading scorer at 21.6 ppg, and Weaver’s reluctance to trade him was the first clue next season can’t just be another cursory nurturing situation. There are more than enough extenuating circumstances to keep Weaver far from the heat, but critical work awaits.
“I’d talk with coach during the season,” Weaver said. “And I’d say, in the morning we drink a cup of urgency, and at night we drink a cup of patience. It’s still the same, being patient, staying through the process. It’s not all linear.”
When it starts going up for the Pistons, it won’t necessarily follow an up-up-up path. It’s on Weaver, Cunningham, Ivey, the next coach and others to prove the opposite is true too, that it definitely can’t keep following a down-down-down path.