If Pistons lose chance to get Victor Wembanyama, it’s not the end of the world. Here’s why

Detroit Free Press

Tuesday’s NBA draft lottery will be one of the most important in league history, thanks to the player projected to go first overall.

He’s 7-foot-5, moves and handles the ball like a small forward, grazes the sky with his 3-pointers and speaks French. You might’ve heard of him. 

Victor Wembanyama is one of the greatest basketball prospects we’ve ever seen. The 19-year-old Frenchman is in the midst of a dominant season with French league team Metropolitans 92, averaging 21.6 points, 10.5 rebounds and 3.1 blocks. His game — like his frame — defies easy description. His rim protection has drawn comparisons to Rudy Gobert. His shooting touch and skinny build recalls Kevin Durant. 

His hype level? LeBron James and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. 

So it’s safe to say the stakes will be high for the Detroit Pistons, who have secured the best odds to land Wembanyama after finishing with an NBA-worst 17 wins last season. After 15 years of various stages of rebuilding, they could add a player that many around the league feel could be an all-time great. 

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But the Pistons can’t allow Tuesday to be a make-or-break moment for their trajectory. Even though the Pistons are tied with two other teams with the best odds to win the lottery, it’s only a 14% chance. 

Troy Weaver can’t allow those slim odds to define the job he’s done as general manager. This season’s poor record undersells the progress the team has made since the new regime took over in 2020. They’ve added six first-round picks in that span, five of whom were selected in the lottery, and have supported them with veteran talent. They’ll add another top-five pick in June and have around $30 million in cap space this summer, which could be used to facilitate a trade for another key player. 

The Pistons already won one lottery two years ago, and selected the bona fide top prospect at the time in Cade Cunningham. Other franchises have made deep playoff runs — even won championships — with poorer lottery luck. Moving down the draft order on Tuesday would be a disappointment, but it can’t be used as an excuse. 

Due to the NBA tweaking the lottery format in 2019 to discourage tanking, it’s essentially only a coin flip for the Pistons to remain in the top four, with a 47.9% chance to fall to fifth. They share their 14% odds with the Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs. The Charlotte Hornets and Portland Trail Blazers aren’t far behind with 12.5% and 10.5% odds, respectively. 

Five Tankathon spins reveal how unpredictable Tuesday could be. The Orlando Magic (sixth-best odds and a 9% chance for the first pick) won the first, followed by the Spurs, Magic again, Spurs again, and then the Chicago Bulls, who moved up 10 spots despite just a 1.8% chance. The Pistons didn’t pick higher than third in each scenario, and were also leapfrogged by the Oklahoma City Thunder (12th-best odds, 8% chance of drafting top-four) during the final spin. 

Brutal, right? Maybe it was a particularly unlucky day on Tankathon, but it took 29 additional spins for the Pistons to win the lottery in this exercise, illustrating how small their one-in-seven chance actually is. Since 2019, the team with the worst record has yet to win the lottery. 

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The draft lottery four years ago is a great example of the crazy results the new odds can produce. The 17-win New York Knicks were leapfrogged by both the New Orleans Pelicans and Memphis Grizzlies, who each won 33 games and were seventh and eighth in the lottery order. They went on to select Zion Williamson — one of the most-hyped prospects in recent memory — and Ja Morant. The 19-win Cleveland Cavaliers, who had the second-worst record, were leapfrogged by the 37-win Los Angeles Lakers, who jumped from 11th to fourth. 

The reality, and maybe a stress reliever for anxious fans, is that winning the lottery doesn’t guarantee success regardless of how generational the prospect at the top is. We can look at the last true generational prospect, LeBron James, as proof. 

After selecting him first overall in 2003, the Cleveland Cavaliers made just one Finals and two conference finals in his first seven seasons before James took his talents to Miami in 2010, where he made four consecutive Finals appearances and won his first two rings. As great as James is, he learned an important lesson in Cleveland — deep playoff runs require deep, talented teams. In Miami, he joined two future Hall of Famers in Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

When James returned to Cleveland in 2014, he was supported by Kyrie Irving — the first overall pick in 2011 — and Kevin Love, whom Cleveland acquired from the Minnesota Timberwolves by trading 2014 first overall pick Andrew Wiggins. The Cavaliers went on to make four straight Finals and won their first championship in 2016.

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They eventually managed to relay great lottery luck (three No. 1 picks in four years, including Anthony Bennett in 2013) into a title. The Pistons could do the same, if they win their second lottery in three years on Tuesday. But the Minnesota Timberwolves show that not even acquiring several first overall picks is a reliable path to success. 

In 2015, the Timberwolves drafted Karl-Anthony Towns a year after trading for Wiggins. In 2020, they hit big again and drafted Anthony Edwards first overall. They’ve made just three playoff appearances since Towns’ arrival, and have only made it out of the first round once since their inaugural season in 1989-90.  

Of the 15 players named to the All-NBA team this year, James is the only former No. 1 overall pick. Winning the lottery is a path toward acquiring superstar talent, but not the only path. It’s likely that a non-Wembanyama prospect this year will eventually get to that level.

Players win games, but front offices win championships. Tuesday’s lottery result will be another tool in the chest for Detroit. Wembanyama and Cunningham would give them the brightest young core in the NBA, but only on paper. 

With or without Wembanyama, the Pistons will have to nail the broader aspects of the rebuild — hitting their draft picks and properly developing their players, hiring the right coach and spending their money wisely — if they want to advance out of the first round for the first time since 2008.

Listen to “The Pistons Pulse” every Tuesday morning and on demand on freep.com or wherever you listen to podcasts. Catch all of our podcasts and daily voice briefing at freep.com/podcasts.

Contact Omari Sankofa II at osankofa@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa.

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