Prior to the 2018-19 NBA season, the Detroit Pistons decided to move on from both head coach and president Stan Van Gundy and general manager Jeff Bower, signaling that a new regime would be ushered in before the next campaign. In May 2018, Detroit hired Dwane Casey and Ed Stefanski to take the franchise into a new era.
SVG’s front office tenure in Detroit would be described as mostly negative, despite him swinging multiple trade fleeces that set up the roster becoming what it is today. Overpaying free agents in early July, impatience with developing talent, and questionable draft decisions summarize his presidential role. A combination of these three issues brought forward even more of a challenge for Stefanski, as not only was the team pushing towards the luxury tax with a mediocre roster, they were low on valuable assets as well.
With Van Gundy signing off on a blockbuster Blake Griffin trade just months before departing from Detroit, the blueprint was already set for the new front office, whether they liked it or not. Detroit had their star, paired alongside another All-Star big man in Andre Drummond, but the rest of the roster was filled with question marks brought from Van Gundy’s… unorthodox decision making. Detroit was cap-strapped with long-term deals, and with a pair of wings (Reggie Bullock, Stanley Johnson) primed for free agency, it was already known that there would be plenty of roster turnover between then and now.
It was known that Detroit’s core was going to remain intact last summer and likely still will in the future, despite the fact that Blake Griffin’s contract is no longer untradeable after this summer’s cap explosion. Andre Drummond has a player option following this season that he will likely decline for a longer, more lucrative deal with Detroit or another team, and Reggie Jackson seems all but gone in the next year unless he turns back the clock after a healthy offseason. These are decisions that are much bigger for the present than ones they’ve made so far, but from what we’ve seen, the new front office has been going about their decision-making in a much more productive way than years past.
In just over a full year in Detroit, Stefanski has made a plethora of underrated but positive moves that will benefit the team both now and in the future. Snagging both Bruce Brown and Khyri Thomas in the second round in 2018 looks like a huge win for the Pistons, as it’s uncommon that a second-rounder ever becomes a rotation player, nevermind two (although the jury is still out on Thomas). During the season, Stefanski was able to bring in more potential-filled talent in Svi Mykhailiuk and Thon Maker for the aforementioned free agent wings that the team would struggle to retain. Prior to the draft, Jon Leuer’s expiring contract was flipped for a key rotation player in Tony Snell and a late first. Stefanski made subsequent moves to replenish the team’s second-rounders, a valuable commodity that former GM Jeff Bower ran the team dry of.
The biggest question mark will be the development of newest rookie addition Sekou Doumbouya, a projected top-10 pick with loads of untapped potential who fell into the Pistons’ lap on draft night. With the list of year one contributors running short, the unknown commodity that is Sekou was selected, arguably the biggest example of a high-risk, high-reward draft pick. He likely will struggle to find consistent minutes in his first season, but this is an example of the team building for both now and the post-Blake era – something that cannot be overlooked.
Throughout the offseason, the Pistons have been a team in the headlines known for doing their due diligence in looking to add another star. Mike Conley, Russell Westbrook, and Bradley Beal have been at the forefront of those trade rumors over the past season, yet none of them ended up in Motown (albeit Beal still being a longshot possibility). Why has a deal not come to fruition then? The answer is simple, this new front office is prioritizing the future, and isn’t willing to hinder that future to acquire a player that doesn’t guarantee the Pistons as contenders. Westbrook ($38M/yr) and Conley ($32M/yr) both have massive contracts that will continue to skyrocket as they age into their mid-30s. Beal, while younger, will earn a massive payday soon as well, but his departure from Washington seems likely. However, the Pistons would essentially be forced to send out nearly every valuable asset they have and will be completely reliant on the team performing in a three-year window before Blake’s contract expires. If everything worked out, the Pistons would likely be considered as contenders, but that seems like a risk that the new front office would rather not take. Bower and Van Gundy, especially after trading for Griffin, would’ve likely had no regrets in pulling the trigger to acquire another high-end talent; but their ability to build a team around these stars would likely leave a lot to be desired.
Don’t confuse the Pistons being hesitant to haphazardly ship out their future as settling for mediocrity. Luke Kennard will continue solidifying himself as one of the league’s premier bench scorers – that is, if he doesn’t snag the starting shooting guard spot during the season. Bruce Brown, after an impressive Las Vegas Summer League outing, will likely see more opportunity with the ball in his hands to pair alongside his stifling perimeter defense. Both Khryi Thomas and Svi Mykhailiuk should have ample opportunity to earn a rotation spot this season. Sekou Doumbouya, just 18 years old, may never live up the Giannis comparisons but has star potential nonetheless. Thon Maker is a massive question mark, but with some added bulk and improved coordination, he could carve himself a nice role as a shot-blocking stretch big in this league; and maybe, just maybe, Christian Wood has finally found his long-term home in the NBA. To sum it all up, there’s a lot to love about Detroit’s budding young core, and maybe some of these guys will even help elevate the franchise to the next level when the current core is no more.
The NBA isn’t shutting down in three years, and nowadays young talent with potential is invaluable in this league. There may not be another All-Star coming to Detroit this season, but being able to witness all of the growing pains and improvement from the future of the team will prove to be worth it as we move into a new decade of Detroit Basketball.