Giving up on Jaden Ivey and Jalen Duren could be the biggest mistake of Detroit’s offseason

Detroit Bad Boys

The Detroit Pistons were an embarrassment of a franchise in 2023-24. A do-nothing offseason after winning just 17 games, an NBA-record losing streak, a record-setting coaching contract for someone already on the chopping block, a franchise-record for losses, and stalled development for young players.

This is the objective reality. And yet … and yet … I think people are going overboard in the kind of changes they are arguing the team needs to make this offseason.

Don’t get me wrong, Troy Weaver and 95% of the front office must go. Monty Williams, record contract be damned, should also go. The Pistons are hiring a president of basketball operations, and they will reportedly have full authority to clean house. And clean house they should.

They need to fumigate this franchise after years of losing an inept leadership. If you ask many fans and pundits, that fumigation stretches all the way to the players on the roster.

The Pistons are surely ripe for a makeover. Still, I’m puzzled why so many people are so convinced that the change necessitates them sacrificing just about every young asset not named Cade Cunningham to absolve the franchise of its past sins.

Bad choices beget bad choices, and there is so much anxiety around catching up after the failure of the past year that folks are trying to skip steps. That is a path that will only lead to trouble and disappointment.

I don’t want to sound like an incrementalist neo-lib writing for The Atlantic here, but I will make a not-so-bold proclamation. The Pistons are not required to trade Jaden Ivey, Jalen Duren, Marcus Sasser, Ausar Thompson, and a pending top-5 pick just so Cade can finally be surrounded by players with a pulse.

Look, the Pistons aren’t getting plus assets in trade without giving up a lot in return. The latest iteration of this move is outlined by James Edwards in The Athletic.

He suggests trading the first overall pick (assuming lottery luck), Jaden Ivey, and Jalen Duren for Mikal Bridges, Dorian Finney-Smith, and a 2025 first via the Suns (lottery protected). That’s two clear starting upgrades at the wings. In this scenario, the Pistons are also signing Nic Claxton to a free-agent deal. The cost is high. The return is … fine.

It could signal the end of embarrassing years of losing. But it might not lead to much winning. The question is whether it is a return required by this past season’s utter failure and the failure of the seasons preceding it.

I would argue trading lottery picks (three, in this scenario) should be reserved for making an OK team really good instead of making the worst team in the league the 2025 version of the already disappointing Brooklyn Nets.

This is the underappreciated aspect of the Houston Rockets‘ spending $200 million in the offseason last year. Sure, it only raised them to a .500 win ceiling, but they kept almost all of their young assets. Now, they are sprinkling in the high performers with the starting lineup and letting those with slower growth curves come off the bench.

If those bench players get better, they graduate to starters on a potentially great team. If they remain disappointments, they are easily expendable.

The Pistons should work from that model. Keep the assets in place if possible. Add players, even starters, through free agency when possible.

Instead, folks are trying to put Detroit’s rebuild into overdrive. It feels like fans are trying to take huge swings to overcome the embarrassment they feel when really they should be focused on smart moves that overcome the incompetence of this organization’s leadership.

As disappointed as I was with Jaden Ivey and Jalen Duren this season, they are 22 and 20, respectively, and their team controls their future for many years. As much as I need players better than Jaden Ivey and Jalen Duren on next year’s Pistons roster, it doesn’t mean I’m against the idea of both players returning. If the Pistons are able to add players who should start in front of Ivey and Duren then great. That just means two more quality players and players who could get better on the bench.

In five-man lineups last season, 13 charted with all of Cunningham, Ivey, and Duren on the floor. Seven of those lineups were negative in plus-minus and six were positive. Let’s look at who shared the floor in the worst-performing lineups:

  • Trio + Thompson, Stewart = -29 in 145 minutes
  • Trio + Bogdanovic, Livers = -14 in 101 minutes
  • Trio + Msucala, Thompson = -10 in 18 minutes
  • Trio + Bogdanovic, Thompson = -10 in 20 minutes
  • Trio + Umude, Evbuomwan = -8 in 26 minutes
  • Trio + Brown, Evbuomwan = -6 in 20 minutes
  • Trio + Burks, Bogdanovic = -5 in 39 minutes

Now, let’s do the same for the positive lineups:

  • Trio + Bogdanovic, Stewart = +24 in 40 minutes
  • Trio + Sasser, Thompson = +22 in 14 minutes
  • Trio + Stewart, Fontecchio = +16 in 90 minutes
  • Trio + Hayes, Stewart = +11 in 19 minutes
  • Trio + Fontecchio, Thompson = +7 in 113 minutes
  • Trio + Bogdanovic, Knox = +5 in 89 minutes

While the trio of Cunningham, Ivey, and Duren is far from perfect, it is not the biggest problem with the Pistons. The bigger problem, and the one that must be addressed this offseason, is all the players surrounding that core. The biggest problem, as well, is what happens when two of those players sit — aka addressing the NBA’s most heinous reserve unit.

The good thing about having $60 million is that you can spend it on an entirely new bench and maybe even one or two new starters who push your previous starters into reserve roles.

Throw a bag at Isaac Okoro and see if he can be the 23-year-old wing worth building around. Sign Buddy Hield or Malik Monk or Royce O’Neale in the meantime to have some competent shooting on the floor. Sign Kelly Oubre while you’re at it.

Spend a bunch of free agent money on Isaiah Hartenstein or Nic Claxton so that Duren is not your automatic starter, and tell him the path to 30 minutes a game is rim protection. Sign Kris Dunn to fill that Killian Hayes-sized hole in all our hearts.

This does not make the Detroit Pistons a playoff team. It likely gets them to the 27-37 win range. But, importantly, it replaces incompetence with competence up and down the roster.

I understand the reflex of wanting to undo everything that Troy Weaver managed to screw up in one offseason, but it’s not going to happen. There are still no skipping steps, even if the Pistons wasted one year running in place.

New front office, new head coach, new developmental staff, new priorities, new voices. All of these are needed in Detroit. Add those ingredients and a stable of competent NBA players up and down the lineup, and the Pistons will be in a better place to judge what their next move needs to be.

Does this mean an even bigger chance of losing a disgruntled Cade Cunningham? I don’t think so.

Nobody wants Cunningham to be the next Anthony Davis. A player that signs an extension and then forces himself to a rosier location. But it is important to remember that Davis made it three years into his extension before he asked out. And the Pelicans won 48 games the season before bottoming out to a 33-49 record in Davis’ final season.

It was not perpetual losing that forced Davis’ hand; it was the idea that the Pelicans had peaked already and still weren’t good enough to win the title.

Chris Bosh also made it seven seasons with the Raptors, who finished 40-42 in Bosh’s final season. The Bulls were 41-41 in Jimmy Butler’s final year before jetting for a brief stay in Minnesota. Paul George was 42-40 in Indiana. You get the idea.

Nothing kills a superstar’s ambition like mediocrity and no pathway out. Cunningham hates losing, I’m sure. The Pistons need to improve. But locking themselves into a 42-40 record for the next several years seems like a surefire way to ensure the scenario they are trying to avoid.

Cunningham forcing his way out of Detroit and into a better situation.

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