No, the NBA draft lottery is not rigged.
Yes, Tuesday night’s results stink.
No, it’s not the end of the Detroit Pistons. They don’t need to move to Seattle or Kansas City or Austin after dropping to fifth in the latest NBA draft lottery.
Yes, they’ll be better next season, as long as they’re healthy — a big if considering the last two years. But then that’s true of most franchises most years. Heck, health is often the singular factor in who wins the NBA title.
Pistons fans of a certain age know this. The team’s first title came when the Lakers lost their starting backcourt, including Magic Johnson, in the Finals. No, that doesn’t cheapen the trophy; the same can be said of many title runs.
What the Pistons need now is a healthy Cade Cunningham, to see what kind of player he actually is and can become. After that, they need Jaden Ivey to build on the play he showed the last two months of last season. The kind of play that forced Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra to double Ivey in the second half during an early April game.
Ivey had 30 that night. And when asked why he doubled the rookie in the fourth quarter, Spoelstra said:
“Did you see what he was doing to us before we started blitzing him?”
Before adding: “He’s a special young talent.”
Remember those words. Because he is. Will he build on that promise next season? And the season after? And the season after?
That’s up to him, and to whomever Troy Weaver hires to coach him. If he does, and if Cunningham follows a similar arc, this franchise will have one of the best young backcourts in the league. Throw in the obvious potential of big man Jalen Duren, and the Pistons are cooking with gas.
This happening isn’t a prayer. It’s an actual possibility. Which is to say the Pistons didn’t need to win the lottery Tuesday night to secure a future. They already have one.
Sure, Victor Wembanyama might’ve changed the franchise like Tim Duncan changed the Spurs, and maybe it’s not fair that the Spurs get the chance to be relevant again for another generation because they landed the latest can’t-miss talent; the hands of fate and luck bestow history on NBA franchises like no other team sport.
I know, I know. We missed on the chance to watch a transcendent figure, perhaps the next cultural icon in sports, standing under confetti before the world’s sporting eyes hoisting trophies in downtown Detroit. And that would’ve been fun.
But also, fascist.
This isn’t how things are done here. We build teams. We win organically, democratically (small d, of course). We take the guy after the guy and keep adding the right guys, and then we hold onto those teams for life.
We don’t win with Wayne Gretzky. We win with Steve Yzerman and Sergei Federov and Niklas Lidstrom. We don’t win with Michael Jordan. We win with Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars and Dennis Rodman.
We don’t win with Tim Duncan or Shaquille O’Neal or Kobe Bryant. We win with Chauncey Billups and Ben Wallace and when the right guy comes along at the trade deadline, like Rasheed Wallace, we win some more.
Consider the last Pistons title, and their “gentleman’s sweep” of Shaq and Kobe’s Lakers, and how radical that felt because your guys-who-weren’t-guys beat their guys. Remember how stunned the rest of the basketball world was, and how satisfying that felt?
It felt like Detroit, where Kenny Rogers and Magglio Ordoñez can beat Derek Jeter, and Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk can beat Sidney Crosby. Stars beating superstars, this is how it’s done here.
The city’s sports teams are just in a rough patch, except for the Lions, who are on the come-up with guys and will open the season in September against the guy in Kansas City. Let’s see how it goes.
But the winning wasn’t that long ago for the Pistons, Tigers and Wings. It just feels like it because they won for a while, and everyone got used to winning, and now the losing feels exaggerated, and the poor lottery luck exacerbates the misery, especially for the Wings — the Pistons just won the lottery two years ago.
When it pops, though, and one of our teams rises? It’s rarely a flash of lightning. It’s a season-long storm.
The Wings won four Stanley Cups and made the playoffs for 25 consecutive seasons. The Pistons won two titles during their first championship run, made the Finals three years in a row and the conference finals five years in a row. Their last title, in 2004, was bookended by another Finals appearance and six straight Eastern Conference finals showings.
The Tigers didn’t win the World Series, but they got there twice and were a playoff contender for a decade. The Lions? Who knows what’ll happen. Their history says optimism is foolish. Yet even they aren’t trying to build a one-off.
They may not have Patrick Mahomes, but they’ve got a promising group of young talent. And though it may not seem like it right now, so do the Pistons.
So, let’s see how it plays out, what Cunningham can become, how Ivey can operate next to him, who Duren evolves into. Yeah, they’ll need more pieces, the right veterans (they have at least one in Bojan Bogdanovic), and two-way wings, which brings us back to the lottery, and this year’s draft, where a handful of wings, all with varied skills, await the Pistons at No. 5.
The luck they really need is to land the right one, whether it’s Cam Whitmore, Amen Thompson or Anthony Black — or even Jarace Walker, who isn’t quite a wing and isn’t quite a big but offers some toughness and edge.
One of these players will hit. Weaver has to figure out the right one. It won’t be easy. Drafts never are. But as the Pistons’ general manager said Tuesday night:
“It doesn’t matter where you land, you’ve got to hit the ball where you bat in the order.”
That’s the luck the Pistons need now, not lottery luck, but draft luck.
If Weaver hits, the Pistons will have a chance to be competitive and, dare I say, fun, like young promising teams are fun. It’s up to him to show that his 17-win team this season wasn’t quite what it looked like, that his team was missing not only its best player, but its leader and soul, its connector.
Yeah, Wembanyama would’ve been nice — more than nice, maybe revolutionary — but as Weaver noted during his teleconference Tuesday, the Los Angeles Lakers and Denver Nuggets were playing as he spoke, and, “I’m watching LeBron James (a former No. 1 pick), but he’s playing against (Nikola) Jokic, who was (pick No.) 41, who won back-to-back MVPs. We never view it as (No. 1) or bust.”
Not that the next Jokic is waiting at No. 5 for the Pistons. But the point stands: Good teams come from all places. Which means Detroit can have nice things, and has had nice things, and, at some point, will have nice things again.
Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.