Damian Lillard rocked the NBA landscape with his trade from the Blazers to the Bucks. The fallout was immediate — Portland is rebuilding and has another asset in Jrue Holiday they’re looking to flip. The Bucks vault to No. 1 contender status in the East. The Phoenix Suns have ditched Deandre Ayton and added depth. What will all the other contenders do in response?
As the entire NBA landscape seems to shift, the Detroit Pistons are sitting here fresh off a league-worst 17-win season and returning eight of the team’s top 11 players in total minutes. The Pistons have added zero players via free agency to its 15-man roster. It’s lineup will look nearly identical to the starting lineup to end the year last season save for the return of franchise cornerstone Cade Cunningham. The big free agency headline was opting out of the period altogether and instead swapping out veterans Cory Joseph and Hamidou Diallo (a combined 2000 minutes) with veterans Monte Morris and Joe Harris in a pair of trades.
So why am I not more worried about Detroit’s (in)action?
Even as everything seems fundamentally the same, this team does feel awfully different. While it’d be great to see Detroit take huge swings (as long as they worked) in the same way Houston did this offseason, we also must acknowledge two things. One, there is no guarantee Houston spending big money on Fred VanVleet and Dillon Brooks will work. Two, there is no better evidence to No. 1 than looking at Detroit’s previous attempts to jump-start a rebuild via free agency.
Status quo could be just what is needed considering Detroit finds themselves deep into a rebuild. It is perfectly appropriate for a team to stockpile, develop and support young players with playing time and defined roles. Others can quibble about the ultimate trajectories of various young 20-somethings on the roster, but Detroit is certainly awash in young talent.
There is the aforementioned Cunningham, who sort of feels like a player addition after being limited to just 400 minutes last season. All reports are that Cade is healthy and wowing onlookers in Vegas, Rico Runs and other hardwood gatherings.
Then there are the sophomore players who could take a jump — Jaden Ivey and Jalen Duren. Both played exceedingly well on the offensive end once they were able to get their NBA legs under them as rookies. Now we are waiting for continued maturation to their offensive games and, hopefully, huge leaps as potential NBA defenders.
The injury-marred Isaiah Livers has an opportunity to solidify himself as a rotation player and himself as a second-round steal. Isaiah Stewart will look to continue to grow into his perimeter-big position and prove the franchise savvy for investing big dollars into him.
Killian Hayes, if he remains on this team by opening night, will have much less offensive responsibility, and could continue being deployed as an effective defender looking to continue building some semblance of an offensive attack.
Then there is 22-year-old James Wiseman and 23-year-old Marvin Bagley. Both are high draft disappointments. Both have a chance to salvage their NBA careers or effectively wash out. This year is huge for both of them.
Guiding all of that is Monty Williams, another new face who isn’t playing between the lines but could fundamentally reshape the games, trajectories and effectiveness of everyone else. The head coach formerly of the Phoenix Suns saw a quick turnaround in Arizona, and he will be looking to replicate that in Detroit.
Williams has rarely ever had a bad offense going all the way back to his New Orleans days. The Suns were coming off 28th and 29th offensive and defensive ratings, respectively, in 2019 when Williams came on board. In one year, they leapt to 12th and 17th in the NBA. In Year 2, they jumped again to 5th and 9th.
Then there is the reason I am most irrationally confident this season. At least in the comfort of this offseason before the crushing reality of actual games forces me to reconsider — the drafting of Ausar Thompson.
Thompson could be the wing defender the Pistons have been looking for since Tayshaun Prince began complaining about the organization’s buffoonery. If he can be one of those rare instant impact defenders as an NBA rookie, he could completely reshape Detroit’s defensive attack, and add elite athleticism and some off-ball playmaking for good measure.
He won’t score a ton of points, but he could lead the team in Winning Plays ™, and take some of the pressure off of Ivey, Cunningham, Duren and whoever is playing power forward at any given time.
It’s wise not to expect miracles this season for a Detroit Pistons team that is running it back this season. But I think the team’s patience might finally begin paying off this season. The players might be the same, but I think this team is going to look remarkably different on the floor this year.