Detroit Pistons GM Troy Weaver isn’t trying to recreate Bad Boys, just a team that defends

Detroit Free Press

There seems to be some misunderstanding about what Detroit Pistons general manager Troy Weaver means when he says he wants to build a team that looks familiar to the fanbase. Or when he said, Thursday, that defense is the hill he’ll die on.

He didn’t literally say the last part, of course. It’s safe to assume he wants to live a long time, and that the success of his rebuild in Detroit won’t determine the success of his life.

Yes, defense is important to his vision of the Pistons. It darn well should be, because they haven’t played any. And no matter how easy it is to get lost in the tidal wave of offensive skill that dominates the league, the teams that win — and win big — get stops.

That’s never not been true. Doesn’t matter the era.

The Denver Nuggets led the these last playoffs in defensive efficiency. The Golden State Warriors won the title last season on the strength of the league’s second-best defense.

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Yeah, Steph Curry, too. But he didn’t make the playoffs until Mark Jackson took over years ago and instilled a defensive philosophy.

The Milwaukee Bucks’ title team played defense and swung the 2021 Finals in Game 5 — on the road — when Jrue Holiday, one of the prime perimeter defenders in the game, stole the ball from Devon Booker in the paint with less than 20 seconds to secure the win.

The Spurs won five titles by checking, the first four in the grit-and-grind era in the 2000s, the last in 2014, and while that team is remembered for its gorgeous pass-and-cut offense that culminated in a five-game thrashing of LeBron James’ Miami Heat, they don’t get their parade without the league’s third-best defense.

They shut the Heat down.

Wanna go back further?

Jordan’s Bulls were a menace on that end. Same with the Boston Celtics, who led the league in defensive rating in 1986, arguably that decade’s best team.

The Showtime Lakers?

They were thrilling offensively, sure. Magic Johnson was unparalleled on that end. But they checked, too, at a top-10 level.

Johnson’s Lakers wouldn’t have won without Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s rim protection, James Worthy’s rebounding (a form of defense) or Michael Cooper’s on-ball hawkishness. Cooper wasn’t a great shooter, at least relative to the day’s best shooters.

A.C. Green, a devout Christian and an A-plus defender, couldn’t shoot at all. So much that Charles Barkley once said to him: “A.C., if God’s so great, how come he didn’t give you a better jump shot?”

Yet he won three titles anyway.

Those Lakers were also often the best offensive teams in the league, and that was their identity, but Pat Riley, who is still molding championship-level teams, used to talk about getting stops 40 years ago, too. His current team, the Heat, just made the Finals despite middling offense during the regular season.

Because they check. And grind. And are connected … on both ends of the floor.

That organization credits their success to “Heat culture.” Balk all you want, but it’s true, and as hard as it is to measure sometimes, it’s not hard to spot.

This is what Weaver means when he speaks of finding “Pistons.” He doesn’t mean he wants a team of stone-handed bruisers clogging the paint or guards that milk the clock for 22 seconds before hoisting ill-fated knuckleballs.

He isn’t looking for Rick Mahorn or even Ben Wallace, he’s looking for players with the skill — shooting or otherwise — to thrive in today’s game but with the spirit of those who have thrived wearing the uniform for this franchise.

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Is it part of a narrative? Absolutely, but then sports are about stories, aren’t they?

It’ll only be lip-service if his plan, and vision, don’t work. And it may not. It’s hard to win a title in this league, where multi-time champs are the norm; the Nuggets are only the 11th team to win a championship in the last 24 years.

It’s harder, still, to win without All-NBA talent, which means essentially a top-10 to top-15 player. It’s best to have two of them.

These are the players that can make contested shots at the end of the game, players who can go get the ball and get a bucket or create a relatively easy one for others. If a team doesn’t have at least one, preferably two, then a title isn’t happening, the 2004 Pistons notwithstanding, though that squad did have a solid, late-game maestro in Chauncey Billups.

Weaver isn’t banking on Ausar Thompson becoming one of those guys. He’s betting, and hoping, they’re already on the roster. And if Cade Cunningham and Jaden Ivey hit? Then he can tweak the roster around them.

For now, it’s time to see what he’s got with these two, and with Jalen Duren to a lesser degree. These three are the engines of the offense. Yes, they’ll need some floor spacing, and Marcus Sasser was drafted to help with that.

A free agent or two could help with that as well, but not to the detriment of the youngster’s development. This is a tricky line for Weaver. He wants to win. Needs to win, or at least start winning, but he also needs to see what he’s got.

The Pistons didn’t have their best player last season, who also doubles as their point guard, which makes the offense harder to judge. And while Cunningham brings solid defensive skill, too, that side of the floor was almost completely bereft.

Defending, even at a solid level, improves the margin for error. It’s why four teams among the 10 best offenses missed the playoffs, and why only one team among the 10 best defensive teams did, and that team, the New Orleans Pelicans, lost their best player to injury.

This is where Weaver hopes to operate. It’s understood that basketball is, by design, an offensive game. Points very often happen every handful of seconds. Winning teams interrupt that flow.

In his first three drafts, Weaver used his first pick for an offensive-leaning player. The first, Killian Hayes, hasn’t worked. We’ll see about the next two, Cunningham and Ivey.

In his fourth draft, he leaned into defense, and this ratio makes him out of touch? Of course, it doesn’t. If his best two young talents develop, he’ll succeed. If not, he won’t.

But the best chance for Cunningham and Ivey to become winners — aside from their own part in their development — is for them to play with a few more stoppers. It’s the balance, and the story, that’s as old as the game itself.

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

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