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A Detroit roadmap: bringing the team back from the brink

Detroit is bad. Recent history suggests that they’ll stay bad for a while, but it doesn’t have to be that way. This is a thought experiment exploring just how they can claw their way back from the bottom.

The Detroit Pistons have come a long way from the unconvincing optimism of the Stan Van Gundy era. Gone are the days of chasing the eight-seed, both on the court and organisationally. The new Troy Weaver regime is trying to be as bad as possible, and they’re doing it well.

Detroit is the worst team in the East and has a roster that looks like a G-League and college select team. Rookies and second-draft guys abound, with Jerami Grant and Mason Plumlee the only truly established veteran players.

The past few years have seen Andre Drummond, Tobias Harris, Reggie Jackson, Luke Kennard and, most recently, Blake Griffin leave the Motor City. In their stead, the Pistons have a cadre of intriguing young players and hungry castoffs looking to reassert their place in the league.

The team is in classic asset-acquisition mode, stacking losses and gunning for as many bites at the draft apple as possible. Troy Weaver is a Sam Presti disciple who cut his teeth in Oklahoma City with their homegrown stars, which suggests he will try and grow sustainably through the draft in Detroit.

Weaver also has experience pushing the chips in and making a big move. OKC aggressively pursued Paul George, and, to a lesser extent, Carmelo Anthony, so he knows that the league runs through its stars.

How Weaver chooses to get those stars to Detroit is where the mystery lies; will he accumulate picks and go slowly, or will he push aside his young charges to go big fish hunting?

There’s plenty for Weaver to work with here from an asset standpoint.

Jerami Grant is probably not a top thirty player, but, having showcased his improved offensive arsenal, would surely be an enticing trade candidate for any team that thinks they’re one piece away from contention. Grant will most likely stay with Detroit through the trade deadline, but with the Celtics reportedly sniffing around, it’s clear that Grant will have value as a trade asset this season and beyond.

In Killian Hayes, Sekou Doumbouya, Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart, the Pistons have a quartet of first-round rookies and sophomores.

Hayes hasn’t played much this season due to an injury and has looked overwhelmed when he has been healthy, but still has promise as a future lead guard. Doumbouya has failed to build on the flashes he showed last season but hasn’t even played his 75th NBA game, so it’s too early to consider his future with the team.

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Bey and Stewart look the part of quality NBA role players, despite not oozing star potential. They both bring defined skills to the table; Bey is a knockdown shooter with prototypical size, and Stewart is a terror on the boards and on defence.

Detroit also has some less certain propositions on its roster, with second-draft guys Dennis Smith Jr. and Josh Jackson trying to carve out a role on the team. Hamidou Diallo, recently acquired from the Thunder, is heading to restricted free agency, but Detroit is clearly happy to pay him, having parted with Svi Mykhailiuk and a second-round pick to bring him in.

There are plenty of interesting pieces on this team, but there’s not even the faintest hint of a contending framework here. So what does Detroit need to do to put a championship plan in place?

It starts with the 2021 NBA Draft. Detroit currently sits at 12–31, the second-worst record in the league, so they have a good shot at a top-four draft pick. In last year’s draft, that might not have inspired optimism, but this year, there is a flotilla of franchise-changing prospects available.

Cade Cunningham, Jalen Green, Jonathan Kuminga, Jalen Suggs and Evan Mobley all boast star potential. Cunningham, Green and Suggs would all be interesting fits next to Hayes and could take pressure off him by implementing a two-ball handler system. Offensive creators are always in demand, and landing a young guard to pair with Hayes would go some way to energising Detroit’s anaemic offence.

With a blue-chip prospect on board, Detroit’s future starts to get a little clearer. Hopes are high for Bey and Diallo, and if either can develop into a dependable starting-level player, the makings of an interesting starting group are there. Detroit owes Houston a protected 2021 first, but the pick is so heavily protected that it will likely never convey, meaning Detroit owns all of its firsts for the next few years.

Given the trade rumours surrounding Grant in his first season as a Piston, it’s hard to imagine he isn’t traded to a contender looking to bolster its wing depth at some point in the next two seasons. Grant has been a revelation, and his expanded offensive game is legitimate, which means he’ll cost either multiple firsts or a pick and a young player, adding to the promising pool of Detroit assets.

For the sake of this thought experiment, I’ll assume that Grant is traded this offseason for a 2022 first-round pick and a young player. With Grant gone and the 2021 draft approaching, the Pistons’ game plan could look something like the following.

With Hayes installed at point guard, the Pistons nab G-League Ignite guard Jalen Green with their top-five pick. Green is an elite athlete and shot-maker but is probably better suited to playing off-guard in the NBA. Despite Hayes’ struggles, this duo in the backcourt offers immense promise. Both stand 6’5” and sport 6’8” wingspans, giving them formidable size and the ability to match up with a variety of players, score over defenders and play disruptive defence.

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Bey has flashed top-tier three-and-D potential in his rookie season, and this optimistic projection sees him take the reins as the starting three after Grant departs the team. The Pistons now have two guards with star potential and a young role-playing wing. The 2021–22 team will probably be worse than this year’s team, however, given Grant’s departure and the wholesale commitment to the youth movement. That means that Detroit will likely have a high first-round pick in the 2022 draft. That’s where it gets interesting.

Assuming a top-five draft pick, Detroit will have the option of adding another blue-chip prospect — preferably a big — or consolidating their assets into something more tangible.

Detroit could look to capitalise on any uncomfortable situations that arise with teams and their young stars. Two situations that might come to a head soon are John Collins in Atlanta and Michael Porter Jr. in Denver.

Collins is a restricted free agent, so he’ll likely have played one year of a near-max deal in the offseason leading into the 2022–23 season. Whether he lives up to his price tag is questionable, but he had undeniable talent, and our Detroit team is heavy on assets and light on contracts, so they’ll have the room to absorb Collins’ deal and slide him in alongside the existing young core.

Porter Jr. is a more interesting fit. He has one year left on his rookie deal, and will likely demand a salary north of $22 million per year once he becomes a restricted free agent. If he becomes the latest Denver wing to search elsewhere for a bigger offensive role, or the cap-squeezed Nuggets find it difficult to accommodate his salary demands, Detroit could be poised to strike with an offer built around a 2022 top-five pick, the pick they received in the hypothetical Grant trade and several quality role players.

MPJ would instantly become the team’s primary offensive threat, and combined with the slippery Hayes and the explosive Green, Detroit would have a young core worth watching.

The roster could be augmented with a role-playing five along with Stewart and some shrewd bench signings. The East remains underwhelming, and if the Pistons can get their picks right and consolidate a few assets into a bigger fish, they could be right back in the thick of things in just a few seasons.

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