I remember as a kid first getting into basketball and I heard about the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons and of course the Pistons became swift contenders with Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton, Ben and Rasheed Wallace, Tayshaun Prince and Lindsey Hunter as the core. They defeated a supposed Lakers “superteam” that really resembled the late 90’s Rockets of old out of prime stars in conflict. Detroit was led by former player Joe Dumars, who headed the front office into utter disaster with poor FA signings like Charlie Villanueva, Ben Gordon, and Josh Smith. Despite building a steady contender, all they had to show for it was that lone title and getting handed playoff losses by Lebron’s rise and the Celtics Big 3 forming in 2007.
In the last decade, outside of poor FA signings, underwhelming draft choices, and countless moves in personnel that showed a dark age like the pre-Lebron Cavs, Post Jordan Bulls, Pitino Celtics etc. The Pistons have only drafted three All-Stars out of the 46 draft picks in the new millennium, those three All Stars are Mehmet Okur, who was an All-Star in Utah and was a key role player in the 2004 NBA Championship team, was drafted in 2001, Khris Middleton, a 2012 2nd round draft choice who is a co-star for 2019-20 NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo at Milwaukee, a division rival, who are playing in the NBA Finals this season against the Phoenix Suns, and former 2012 lottery pick Andre Drummond. Drummond is the only one to star for the team and play with a second contract. The Pistons have also drafted Nets G Spencer Dinwiddie, former 20ppg scorer Aaron Afflalo, and other role players like Jonas Jrebko, Brandon Knight, Jason Maxiell, and Amir Johnson. Prince was never an All-Star but clearly the best player they’ve drafted in this century, that’s poor, especially for the criticism Ainge got in his latter years with the Celtics.
Given their porous history with signing FAs as well, it’s not hard to see why they have been keeping the seat warm on lottery knight for the better part of 12 years now, considering 2008 was their last deep playoff run. I haven’t even mentioned Blake Griffin yet either… Reggie Jackson… letting Christian Wood go for nothing… this team is disaster. But there does seem to be light at the end of the tunnel for the Motor City Squad. They won the 2021 Draft Lottery, and they’ll pick first. This draft has four clear-cut top-level picks, Cade Cunningham of Oklahoma State, Evan Mobley of USC, Jalen Green from G-League Ignite, and Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs.
The Youth, The Draft and Dwayne Casey
The Pistons recorded just 20 wins this season, the same total as the COVID bubble season in 19-20. The Pistons let go of veterans like Griffin, Derrick Rose, and Reggie Jackson as the team are looking to open cap space and reshape the team somehow. Rose and Griffin went to proven teams competing in the playoffs, and Jackson put on a spectacular performance for the Clippers in Kawhi Leonard’s absence. As disheartening as that must be for the Pistons organization, they are closer to being cap compliant and they have a good crop of promising talent to complement their incoming draft pick.
At the Guards you have Killian Hayes, who’s still a teenager, fellow rookie Saddiq Bey, and former Raptor Cory Joseph. Of course, if they decide to go with Cade Cunningham, it could become a 3-guard set up with Cunningham and Hayes handling the point and Bey playing as the off-guard. Forward Sekou Doumbouya was also a rookie last season for the Pistons and I’m sure they’ll want to see him take the next step, even with Jerami Grant there as the PF and Isaiah Stewart can continue to play the C position.
Of course, like every team, the Pistons have pending cap holds/RFA/UFA such as Hamadou Diallo and Dennis Smith Jr. Smith Jr will likely depart, as he’s never got on in the NBA, and Diallo they should try to keep, but considering they have intentions of Cunningham, minutes could be an issue for young Diallo, who was at OKC before.
The coach at the helm is Dwayne Casey, who was with the Toronto Raptors during their rise with Demar Derozan, Kyle Lowry, and Jonas Valanciunas, but his lack of playoff success, especially against Lebron James prompting a coaching change. We know the history from there, Dwayne Casey, a former Coach of the Year, has a tough task ahead, even with a successful top draft pick. Seeing as they likely won’t draw FAs, they’ll need sign and trades are some real maneuvering in order to bring in cap money. Seeing as it is a down FA class, 37yo Chris Paul being the biggest asset perhaps, it’s not the worst time to be in the situation they’re in.
Jerami Grant, who joined in a sign and trade last offseason on a three year deal is a nice building block to serve as the transition player that a David Lee served at GS. In 54 games, Grant avg 22ppg but with high usage, including an average of 17 shots a game. Any of the top 4 picks will be a big boost for Grant in terms of efficiency, like his lone season with the Denver Nuggets and their WCF run during the bubble season.
In theory, the starting five could very well be Hayes, Bey, Green/Suggs/Cunningham, Grant, and Stewart, the bench could still include Diallo, Joseph/Galloway (both vets who could be moved) and Doumbouya as a reserve F. If they were to select Evan Mobley, I’d expect a different direction, but with this group I do believe Cunningham can be the catalyst they need and desire to catapult them back into the playoffs and into the conversation with Atlanta and New York notably as they hope to become perennial playoff contenders once again. Cunningham faced top notch competition in the Big 12, easily the best NCAAB conference, beating NCAA Champions Baylor, Big 12 Powerhouse Kansas, and West Virginia. Cunningham averaged 20ppg over the 27 games he started, and despite being the only true scorer, it was a well-balanced Oklahoma St side who scored 76ppg. Cunningham also led the Cowboys in rebounds, assists, and steals, 2nd in blocks. His 94 assists to 109 Turnovers speak to his usage in the Cowboys game plan. Think Ben Simmons with a steady jumper, shooting 40% from 3 in the NCAA level.
Jalen Green would be the only other option I’d consider here if I were picking for the Pistons because of his bonafide talent to score the basketball. Had he played collegiately this past season as opposed to the G-League route he went down, he would likely be hyped as the surefire #1 pick, especially with the success of offensively diverse Gs in recent years like James Harden, Bradley Beal, Donovan Mitchell and the perimeter-centric game the NBA game has become. Green could be a 25ppg scorer down the line and alongside Killian Hayes and Saddiq Bey, you’d have an uber talented trio of guards, like you would with Cunningham, Cade’s size is what will set him apart.
I don’t think Detroit chooses to trade down, but the Boston Celtics moved down in 2017 from #1 to #3 in what became the Tatum/Fultz swap, one of Ainge’s master trades. Ironically, they could trade with either Houston, Cleveland or Toronto and still land a blue-chip draft choice, but I don’t believe Detroit would want or need Suggs. If they’re torn between Green or Cunningham, they could swap and add a role player/starter piece along with the 2nd or third pick to still land either of them. This is very contingent on what the Houston Rockets decide to do. The Rockets could draft USC F Evan Mobley, and historically they’ve always built around size but with Kevin Porter Jr, they could look to pair him with another guard. With Cleveland at 3, they’d have their best offer, but Cleveland is a bitter division rival, and Toronto is also in the East and Siakam isn’t gonna move the needle to move to the 4th spot, in my eyes. Cunningham makes the most sense if they were to stand pat.
The Detroit Pistons GM Troy Weaver will be remembered for whatever happens from this offseason going forward, with the top draft pick in a good class to have it is huge, and this is what builds championship teams and contenders if you’re not the Lakers or other warm weather markets that can lure FAs and horde one year contracts before major FA seasons, Detroit doesn’t have that luxury. But they do have some promise in a core of young players that can develop.
Weaver should look to the post Big 3 Celtics as a precursor to rebuild slowly, now they won’t have the luxury of another team’s top picks, but they already have some role players and a top draft pick. If Killian Hayes, Saddiq Bey, Isaiah Stewart, and Jerami Grant were to play alongside a prominent player, they could see a quick surge into the playoffs the way Atlanta did. Keep in mind, Atlanta had fired Lloyd Pierce midseason and went with former Pacers Head Coach Nate Mcmillan en route to a surprise Eastern Conference Finals appearance this season.
Having Dwayne Casey as HC, could help pave the way for the Pistons young core, but is he someone who can get them over the hump? That remains to be seen.