Detroit — Tanking time is over. For the Pistons, it didn’t really work, unless former No. 1 pick Cade Cunningham blossoms into a superstar. This year’s reward — the fifth pick in a draft with only three notable prizes — is for sale, by most accounts.
After tanking time comes tinkering time. And then finally, relatively soon, it will be risk-taking time.
Pistons owner Tom Gores unintentionally (or intentionally?) ramped up expectations by signing a proven winner, Monty Williams, to the largest coaching contract in NBA history. Not much ambiguity there. After 15 years without a playoff victory, the Pistons crave credibility, and Gores purchased a chunk. GM Troy Weaver is never afraid to make moves, and with an apparent boost of urgency, he’ll try to weave some deal-making magic.
The NBA has a bubbling pot of risky possibilities. The draft is Thursday night and if the Pistons stay at No. 5, they’ll feign excitement. After the top three expected selections — Victor Wembanyama, Scoot Henderson, Brandon Miller — the drop-off is considered precipitous. Not necessarily by Weaver but by many, which is why a lot of teams reportedly are shopping their first-round picks.
Sifting through rumors, speculation and fake trade scenarios, I have a three-point plan for Weaver and Williams, and I offer it free of charge:
▶ 1. Don’t waste your time wading into the Zion Williamson murky rumor waters. I’ll explain more in a minute.
▶ 2. If you must, pick a Cam.
▶ 3. If you can, sign a Cam.
If the Pistons stick at No. 5, Villanova’s Cam Whitmore would be a fine choice, a sweet-shooting small forward who can play defense. He’d be more appealing if the Pistons didn’t have half-a-dozen players at similar stages of development. Whitmore turns 19 in July, and the Pistons’ top six young players would all be 22 and under.
Which is where the other Cam comes in. Nets 6-8 small forward Cameron Johnson is a restricted free agent, and at 27, has reached the cusp of stardom. He averaged 16.6 points for the Nets and is a career 39.3% shooter from 3-point range. The Nets already have said he’s a major priority, and they could keep him by matching any offer. I’m guessing the Pistons will make a strong one.
And that’s where Williams comes in. He coached Johnson for four seasons before the Suns sent Johnson, Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder and four first-round picks to Brooklyn for Kevin Durant in a midseason blockbuster. Sapped of their depth and defensive disposition, the Suns were ousted by the Nuggets in the conference finals.
Williams a ‘selling point’
When you sign a coach to a six-year, $78.5 million contract, you’re giving him more than money. You’re giving him power. You’re leaning on his expertise and player relationships. Chris Paul and Devin Booker speak glowingly about Williams and his steady leadership. Williams is so close with Johnson and Bridges, he said he cried when the Suns dealt them. Bridges, 26, has three years left on his contract and already hit stardom so he’s probably out of reach, although he and Johnson are tight and have played their entire careers together.
Williams is a relationship-based coach, and the Pistons hope to use that strength in the open market.
“It’s going to be a selling point for sure,” Weaver said. “Whenever you have this caliber of coach, guys will look at you a little different and we expect that to happen. And we’ll make sure that coach is positioned the right way to help us when it comes to free agency.”
The Pistons have tons of salary-cap space, upward of $30 million, but as we’ve learned in Detroit, it’s not always easy to lure pricey pieces. That’s why one option is to stay on the patient path, get a healthy Cunningham back playing with Jaden Ivey, Jalen Duren, Isaiah Stewart and James Wiseman, and see what develops. The Pistons do have two capable veterans — Bojan Bogdanovic and Alec Burks — who supply shooting and trade flexibility.
Pass on Williamson
If Weaver is charged with remaking the roster, there’s a range of avenues available, although many are unrealistic. Case in point: Zion. The Pelicans’ erstwhile wunderkind is a mass of contradictions. At 6-6, 284 pounds (allegedly), he can do it all, play big or small. Or too often, not at all. In four seasons since being the No. 1 overall pick out of Duke, Williamson has missed 64% of games with various ailments. He sat the final 44 last season with a hamstring injury as his team was fighting to make the playoffs. Some reports suggest his Pelicans teammates are sick of him, and he’s sick of New Orleans.
When healthy, he’s marvelously gifted, and the Pistons usually only attract marvelously gifted players if they’re considered flawed. For historical reference, Rasheed Wallace, Chauncey Billups, etc.
The Fantasy Rumor of the Week had the Pistons in a three-way trade with the Pelicans and Hornets, sending away Bogdanovic, Stewart and the No. 5 pick for Williamson. The deal seems too good to be true, because it is. New Orleans would demand much more than its take in the proposed swap — Bogdanovic, Stewart and Charlotte’s No. 2 overall pick. And if it did only take that much, you’d wonder why the Pelicans were so desperate to get rid of him.
After four years at the very bottom of the league, I do think the Pistons need a shakeup. You could argue Williams counts as the shakeup, and I wouldn’t fight you. But the roster is so lopsided with youth, it’ll take a while to be competitive. It doesn’t help when you see other teams executing bold moves, although not necessarily smart moves. Since Mat Ishbia bought the Suns, he traded for Durant, is trading for Bradley Beal, and fired Williams. Gores and Weaver can’t mimic that level of crazy upheaval, and it’s not clear it’ll even work in Phoenix.
There’s also a chance Weaver will try to move up in the draft, trading for Charlotte’s No. 2 pick to get Alabama’s Miller, the prototypical 3-and-D wing player. If they stick at five and Whitmore is gone, Jarace Walker or Ausar Thompson would be viable candidates.
Other big names have been loosely linked to the Pistons — Boston’s Jaylen Brown, Atlanta’s John Collins, Chicago’s Zach LaVine. Collins, 25, is always an intriguing Pistons target. Two former Spartans, Draymond Green and Miles Bridges, could be available. Controversial Grizzlies wing Dillon Brooks would require a leap of faith. A reunion with Jerami Grant is a possibility, but the free-agent forward seems inclined to stay in Portland.
From taking time to tinkering to taking risks, the Pistons have options. As always, Weaver said he’ll explore all of them. With Williams’ arrival, the urgency seems heightened. To be clear, a bold move doesn’t require the biggest names, and can be disguised as a wise move. If the Pistons can’t trade the No. 5 pick, the Double-Cam move would be an excellent option.