The Detroit Pistons are down bad, matching a franchise record with 14 consecutive losses and the calendar hasn’t even hit December yet. They are coming off of a players only meeting, got blown out by the previously two-win Washington Wizards, and they have no answers to how they can get out of the rut they find themselves in.
The issues abound. The chief issue is they have the least amount of talent in the NBA. Don’t get it twisted. They have talented young players. They have players any team would want to build around. But the pieces are much, much less than the whole. Because GM Troy Weaver might be able to identify talent, but he seems incapable of building a team.
A Pistons team that won 17 games a year ago made no meaningful investments in improving the product on the floor. Instead, the team expected impact through the development of its bevy of young and developing players.
As those players continued improving successes would build on themselves and 10-point losses would become four-point losses, and eventually 50-50 games, and then eventually wins. Behind a healthy Cade Cunningham, the thinking went, this team would have won a 27 games instead of 17. Add a couple veteran shooters and role players and suddenly you have 30-plus wins and a competitive spirit from October through April.
Smash cut to Nov. 27 and Detroit’s embarrassing 126-107 loss to the Wizards. The players seemed frustrated, the head coach seemed angry, and the fans were starting to boo the product on the floor.
That’s what happens when those veteran pieces are out injured, your supposed young shooters can’t consistently hit perimeter shots, the players who can score are among your team’s worst defenders, and your team’s best defenders can’t seem to hit a jump shot.
The truth is, this Pistons team was set up for failure. The margin for error on this youth-filled team is nil, and now the Pistons are dealing with injuries, ineffectiveness, doubt, and frustration.
That’s how you get to a franchise-tying losing streak. That’s how you get a team that seems both utterly hopeless and utterly defeated before they even step on the floor.
It’s a shame, too, because there are plenty of players that SEEM like they are worth investing in. Ausar Thompson is among this season’s most impressive rookies. He is a defensive unicorn and makes winning plays consistently. Jalen Duren is an ultra-efficient walking double-double. Jaden Ivey is playing like the team’s best two-way player. Cade Cunningham has terrific vision and can hurt the opponent in a number of ways.
If all those players all hit their respective ceilings, you’d have four-fifths of an incredibly dangerous team. The problem is those are players, not a team. Today, they don’t fit together. Today, they compound each other’s shortcomings and magnify flaws instead of enhance strengths.
Cade needs shooters and Ausar is air-balling corner threes. Duren has poor defensive instincts, and nobody behind him is any better at defense than he is so he is often left out to dry. Ivey is most effective with the ball in his hands and is routinely invisible for long stretches while they run the offense through Cade. Cade Cunningham may be able to hurt opponents, but he can also hurt his team in a number of ways — awful decision-making, inefficient shooting, poor finishing, poor defense.
Going into this season, the prime question was, “How is this all going to work?” The answer is that it won’t work. Not anytime soon, anyway. And what the Pistons are going to do about that remains a mystery.
The root cause of this problem is poor asset management and execution by general manager Troy Weaver. He’s spent four seasons accumulating young pieces, but whiffed too often (the three-pick NBA Draft haul of 2020 looks like a semi-disaster), and not putting any particular players in a position to succeed.
He didn’t want to hamstring his rebuilding effort by prematurely making a big move before the team was ready. One of his guiding mantras was that there are no short cuts in rebuilding. It’s true. But there has been a certain degree of nihilism to Weaver’s approach.
It seems like because the Pistons aren’t ready for their big move then none of the moves really matter so long as they don’t impact the long-term future of the team. Signing players who have a track record of failure in the NBA on the notion there is a 5% chance they figure it all out and you call it a “reclamation project.” None of those 5% swings worked out. James Wiseman, I regret to inform you, has not worked out.
Working around the edges of filling in not just gaps but chasms in the teams skillset by relying on veteran journeymen and asking them to not simply contribute but solve the problem completely. “What do you mean this team has a bunch of players who can’t shoot, I brought in Bojan, Monte and Joe!”
But while the Pistons have been at the bottom of the standings the past couple years, they’ve been near the top of the league in available cap space. The Pistons have more “financial flexibility” than they could possibly use, few players to spend it on in free agency, few reasons any player would want to play hear outside of a massive overpay, and no defined targets on the trade market.
Weaver seems to be waiting to pounce on the perfect deal to come along and make it all make sense. But he’s still waiting, and the team is still losing. And it’s getting worse.
It’s ironic that Troy defined his early tenure by identifying and targeting Jerami Grant as a perfect young veteran to invest in as the team rebuilt. He flipped Grant for Duren before Jerami was expected to receive a huge payday. It all makes sense. Except for the fact that Weaver never found another Grant. It’s not 34-year-old Bojan Bogdanovic, who is still waiting to make his season debut. It’s not 28-year-old Monte Morris, also waiting to make his debut and expected to be absent for two more months at least. It’s not 32-year-old Alec Burks and it wasn’t 32-year-old Kelly Olynyk, who was flipped for Bojan in the first place.
They have nobody to take the ball out of Cade’s hands and make winning plays. They have nobody who has the experience to put people in the right spots, make the right reads, and make the right plays when the pressure ratchets up a few notches.
They just have young, intriguing players who don’t fit well together, aren’t growing fast enough, aren’t put in positions to succeed, and absolutely no depth or players who you can reliably turn to when the young guys struggle.
They just have a bunch of players who are sick of losing, don’t know how to win, and, unfortunately, might not have the talent to win. That’s a recipe for the Pistons to once again be among the two or three worst teams in the NBA. Don’t worry, though, they have $80 million in cap space next summer.
Will Troy Weaver have an opportunity to use it? We’ll see.