After a highly successful decade from 2000-2010, Detroit basketball (said in public address announcer John Mason’s voice) has left a lot to be desired in the last decade plus.
They have not won more than 44 games once since that span. They have been in a perpetual rebuild mode that continues on into 2021.
How did they get here, and what can they do to improve in the next few years? The Pistons currently have one of the worst records in the NBA. They will look to build a foundation anchored by young talent in hopes of becoming relevant again in a couple of years.
How they got here
Andre Drummond’s value decreased in the modern NBA
When the Pistons drafted Andre Drummond with the 9th pick in the 2012 NBA Draft, it seemed like they would have their man in the middle for the next 15 years.
Drummond cleaned the glass about as effectively as anyone in the NBA since he’s been in the league, leading the league in rebounding in four different seasons, and currently paces the NBA in that category this year as well. If you told the Pistons that Drummond would turn into such a reliable player on the glass before the draft, they probably would’ve signed up for it without hesitation.
The problem for Detroit though was that due to no fault of their own, the NBA completely changed into the space and pace game that we see played today by most teams. It’s not that teams can’t win with a rim roller/rebounder/shot blocker as their best player, but it’s become such a disadvantage to deploy players who can’t stretch the floor that Drummond’s fantastic work on the glass is somewhat mitigated by his inability to shoot from the field or at the line.
The team realized that midway through last season. The Pistons started their rebuild when they shipped Drummond to Cleveland for Brandon Knight, John Henson, and a 2023 second round pick—which is not the haul they would’ve received back had someone of Drummond’s skill set played in 1991, let’s say.
Win now trade for Griffin didn’t work out
Almost exactly three years ago, the Pistons pushed most of their chips into the middle of the table by acquiring Los Angeles Clippers star Blake Griffin in exchange for Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley, Boban Marjanovic, a 2018 first round pick, and a 2019 second round pick.
While individually, none of the players or picks necessarily turned out to be difference making assets, it probably would have been better to keep some/or all of those pieces to use in other moves or in a rebuild effort.
Griffin was acquired in the 2017-2018 season while the Pistons were ninth in the Eastern Conference. It wasn’t like his arrival was going to catapult them into the top half of the conference standings.
He hasn’t been terrible in his tenure with Detroit, but he needs better point guard play around him in order to fully unlock his skills. He also only played 18 games due to injury in the 2019-2020 season, and is making upwards of $36 million this year and over $38 million next year. The team would probably love to jettison him to accelerate their rebuild, but it will be difficult to find takers at Griffin’s exorbitant salary.
How they can improve
Killian Hayes shows flashes this season
Unfortunately for the Pistons, this season is not only off to a bad start from a wins and losses perspective. The team will also lose a large chunk of time to evaluate 2020 first round pick Killian Hayes. The young point guard suffered a labral tear in his right hip, and won’t be re-evaulated for a return to action until March at the earliest.
It’s the worst possible scenario for Detroit, who needed to play Hayes considerably in his rookie season to get a sense of whether he could be part of the building blocks for the future.
Before he went down with the injury, the young player who grew up in France was struggling from the field, but did show some signs of playmaking ability. He registered 8 assists against the Atlanta Hawks in late December. Ideally, Hayes would recover fully by the middle of March and get some more experience, but Detroit may also view him as a shut down candidate in order to prevent re-injury.
They get the number 1 pick in the 2021 NBA Draft
As it stands now, the Pistons are squarely in the mix to have the best chance to obtain the number one pick in the NBA Draft next season. It’s still relatively early in the year, but the teams around them in the loss column (like the Washington Wizards, Minnesota Timberwolves and New Orleans Pelicans) all figure to be trying to win this season, while Detroit probably did not expect to be in contention in 2020-2021.
Even if their veteran players do play a ton of minutes and remain healthy (Griffin, Derrick Rose, Jerami Grant), their overall talent is not good enough to take them out of the running for a top selection.
As the Pistons found out the hard way in the last few years, it’s difficult in this day and age to rebuild around a prototypical center and find a tremendous amount of success. Assuming they land one of the top 3 picks, they’ll likely be looking long and hard at Gonzaga point guard Jalen Suggs, Oklahoma State guard Cade Cunningham, or guard Jalen Green (currently playing in the NBA G League).
Hayes’ development this year, or lack thereof, likely won’t stop the team from adding a dynamic guard to their roster.