Detroit Pistons have been lost for too long. Time for franchise to take a swing.

Detroit Free Press

It’s easy to look at the playoffs, find a successful team and say: here’s what (insert team) should do. And we aren’t gonna do that with the New York Knicks, promise.

We brought up the team in New York for a reason, though. Not because their coach — Tom Thibodeau — or their star — Jalen Brunson, yes Brunson is turning into a star — is the exact blueprint for the Detroit Pistons. In fact, the teams aren’t much alike in goal or structure.

No, the comparison is worthwhile because the Knicks were (mostly) bad for a long time and finished eight games under .500 just last season and now find themselves in the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.

Because they took a swing in the offseason.

TO-DO LIST: Pistons offseason plan: 3 needs they should prioritize and potential targets

If they manage to beat the Miami Heat, the Knicks will be four games from the Finals. Unfathomable last summer, if you ask an honest New Yorker.

This isn’t to say the Pistons could be battling the Celtics or the Bucks next season in the conference finals. It is to say that while the NBA doesn’t produce quick turnarounds like the NFL does, teams can still go from out of the playoffs to a nice story.

So far this spring, the Knicks are a nice story.

It’s time for the Pistons to be a nice story again, too. Lottery luck would help, surely. So would health luck. Like keeping Cade Cunningham on the floor.

If the second-year point guard had played most of the schedule, how many more games would the Pistons have won?

Six? Eight? Ten? Fifteen?

That’s hard to say. It’s not so hard to say that the Pistons missed more than his points and assists.

They missed his voice, his vibe, his swag, his fourth-quarter playmaking and shot making, his communication skill: Troy Weaver called Cunningham a multiplier the night he drafted him; meaning, his presence is exponential.

So was his absence. Which is to say that if he’d been healthy, and the rest of the team had been (reasonably) healthy, we wouldn’t be thinking of them as a 17-win team. But rather a 27-win team or even a 32-win team.

That’s still a lottery team. Orlando won 34 games, for example. But getting to play-in position from a high 20s or low 30s win total looks far different than getting there from 17 the year before.

And now, back to the Knicks, who won 37 games last season, were stuck in late lottery prison, and relied on a hard-charging but inconsistent power forward fond of 3-pointers as its foundation.

Julius Randle is a good player. R.J. Barrett may be — in time — a good player, too. And if he would’ve eventually hit, the Knicks could’ve rolled out a rugged 1-2 punch likely good enough to lock down a playoff spot most seasons.

Where would that end, though?

Certainly not with a title, and probably not past the first round. So, when Knicks management had some salary cap room to play with and Jalen Brunson became a free agent last summer, they pounced, signing Brunson to a four-year, $104 million contract.

That contract looks like the savviest move of the offseason. Brunson played like an All-Star this season and jolted the Knicks from mediocrity.

Now, are they a title team? Of course not. Yet they are far closer than they were a year ago. Even if they don’t get there, they still got to relevancy, to meaningful basketball in the spring, whether they beat the Miami Heat in the second round or not.

That’s worth something, too.

And while the Knicks roster is nothing like the Pistons, they are reminding us that, like with the Sacramento Kings, a leap isn’t impossible with a few good signings (or trades) — New York also retained Mitchell Robinson and signed Isaiah Hartenstein, a power forward and center that didn’t cause much of a ripple 10 months ago.

Both players have been helpful in the Knicks’ run. In the way that Bojan Bogdanovic and Alec Burks would be helpful for a Pistons’ playoff push if the team were healthy … and added another proper veteran this summer.

No, Weaver doesn’t need the next Jalen Brunson, not in style, anyway. He doesn’t even have to spend $100 million — $80 million might do it and because the salary cap will rise, $80 million won’t look like a home run swing if he whiffs.

He just needs another multiplier. Or rather, a connector, preferably a wing. Cam Johnson if he becomes available, say. Maybe even Khris Middleton if he doesn’t pick up his player option with the Bucks.

Middleton would be a risk, of course. The former Pistons second-round pick tore his knee in 2021 and hasn’t looked like quite the same player, at least consistently. But he can still get buckets and he knows how to win and if he does find his old game again, he can defend.

More importantly, he can talk, which means he’d help organize. It’s a gamble. One Weaver doesn’t have to take with Middleton specifically.

Yet one he’ll need to take with someone this offseason to jump-start this rebuild, whether it’s betting on a young player getting to their potential (Johnson) or a veteran who can extend the end of their prime.

Weaver doesn’t need to take a big swing, necessarily. Overpay for the wrong player and you’re the Charlotte Hornets … or the Pistons with Blake Griffin or Ben Gordon.

Still, this is Year 3 of the full rebuild for Weaver, though it feels a lot longer than that. Mostly because the team hasn’t been truly interesting in almost 15 years.

Griffin was box-office for a moment, and his effort to drag the franchise to the eighth seed in 2019 was admirable. That moment never turned into moments.

Few things in team sports rival the recognition of a young team finding itself. Injuries stole that opportunity from the Pistons this season.

They’ll have another chance to show something could be brewing this fall. The odds go up if Weaver nails the offseason. That’ll require a degree of risk.

It’s simply a matter of how much.

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

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