Detroit − No golden ticket, no game-changer, no franchise-maker. No surprise.
The Pistons landed the worst-case scenario, even though it was the most likely scenario. With the worst record in the NBA, they dropped to fifth in the draft lottery Tuesday night, and if it feels like a shafting, well, it sort of is. Except that the Pistons won the lottery just two years ago.
They got Cade Cunningham then, a nice player with tough injury issues. This time, they missed out on 7-5 French phenom Victor Wenbanyama, breathlessly described by some as the greatest prospect in the history of American team sports, perhaps greater than LeBron James, a 19-year-old that could change a franchise, a city, heck, maybe a sport.
So, yeah, this is a blow that likely will spark more “Detroit Vs Everybody” T-shirt sales. Yes, it stinks that San Antonio, with the same 14% chance as the Pistons, landed another generational talent, having won lotteries in the past for David Robinson and Tim Duncan that spawned two decades of winning. Yes, it stinks for Pistons fans that the endless rebuild didn’t get dramatically accelerated.
In another nasty blow, this draft class basically has three tiers. Wembanyama is one all by himself. The G League’s Scoot Henderson and Alabama’s Brandon Miller are considered next. And from four down, there’s a bunch of potentially good players, none likely to make a huge immediate impact.
Possibilities for the Pistons include Villanova small forward Cam Whitmore, Overtime Elite guard Ausar Thompson, Arkansas wing Anthony Black and Houston forward Jarace Walker. That’s why GM Troy Weaver admitted trading the pick is “absolutely” an option. There’s no crying in basketball, or in lotteries, because you know the odds going in. The No. 5 pick was technically the most likely outcome for the Pistons (47.9% chance). Landing one of the top four had a 52.1% chance, but none higher than 14%.
“I have a philosophy that my grandfather said – ‘The man who expects nothing can’t be disappointed,’” Weaver said. “So I’m not disappointed. I wasn’t going in expecting the No. 1 pick. I don’t believe in luck and chance. If we landed there, yeah, we would’ve been excited, but we’re prepared to move forward. We never viewed it as 1 or bust.”
The Pistons’ lottery letdown came a couple weeks after the Red Wings missed out on one of hockey’s transcendent prospects in Connor Bedard. The Wings stayed at No. 9 in the NHL lottery.
Fans are griping, but Weaver and Steve Yzerman aren’t. Or can’t. Weaver rightly said it’d be “hypocritical” of him to rip the system when the Pistons won it two years ago. But the fact remains, the Spurs and Blackhawks got incredible boosts for no reason other than luck.
If Detroit teams are sick of getting “shafted” in lotteries, here’s my advice: Stop getting in the lotteries. I know, I know. It’s a vicious cycle because it’s hard to get out without landing a superstar you only find in lotteries. A seven-year itch for the playoffs can be reduced to one or two seasons with the right fortune at the right time. The Pistons got their big break with Cunningham, and it became a bad break when he missed most of last season after shin surgery.
So now they’re back to doing it the hard way. Weaver has to find a coach first, and reports of three leading candidates – Bucks assistant Charles Lee, Pelicans assistant Jarron Collins, former Connecticut coach Kevin Ollie – are underwhelming. Of course, players, not coaches, win games in the NBA, but at least you get to pick your own coach.
The Suns’ Monty Williams, dumped after they were eliminated by the Nuggets, certainly should be a prime candidate. He took over in Phoenix after the Suns went 19-63 in 2019, and he led them to the NBA Finals in 2021 and a 194-115 overall record in four seasons.
Two tantalizing talents
No one should be naïve here. A coach won’t instantly transform a Pistons team that finished 17-65. Once again, it’s on Weaver to draft and deal, and on owner Tom Gores to set an aggressive one. The Pistons added two tantalizing talents last year – Jaden Ivey taken at No. 5 and Jalen Duren at No. 13.
But how many raw young players can the Pistons collect before the urgency to win is overwhelming? Trading the No. 5 pick (and more) for a star-in-waiting, or a star in need of a new home, is on the table.
“Yeah absolutely, we’re gonna turn over every rock, vet it out,” Weaver said. “Yes, if it’s gonna continue to help us move forward, any of those things (are possible). We’re excited about this draft pool. I think you can get a very good player at 5.”
Weaver said the talent level between the third and eighth picks was comparable. Maybe it is. Maybe Whitmore or Thompson is the type of versatile wing the Pistons desperately need.
The Pistons will be plucking from the “maybe” bin again, despite having as good a chance as anybody to land the 7-5 Guarantee. Twenty years ago, the Pistons had great lottery fortune and moved up to No. 2 with a pick from the Grizzlies, a spot they didn’t really deserve. They famously settled for Darko Milicic after the Cavs grabbed James.
Wembanyama is the most-touted prospect since James, and he’s headed to a Spurs team that hasn’t been through nearly as much pain. Two decades apart, the Pistons have visited both ends of the spectrum, and know the reality well.
In lotteries, it’s not who paid the most penance, or deserves the biggest prize. It’s a shot in the dark, a chance to get out of the dark. Sorry, but the Pistons will have to find their own way out.