The COVID-19 pandemic has brought a temporary end to many aspects of life throughout the world, which included putting a pause on professional sports for the time being. The lack of NBA basketball is far from the worst result of this extremely contagious virus, but it has definitely left a void in the hearts of many who look to sports, basketball, and for some – even the Detroit Pistons, as a way to escape during hard times.
Despite the shortened campaign, we were still able to get a good look – 66 games in fact – to evaluate the current state of the Pistons. Following a decade of mediocre basketball – too good to be a lottery team but not good enough to be a consistent playoff contender – Detroit finally bottomed out this season. While this sudden – and needed – change of direction has appeased the pro-tankers, it was never supposed to be like this.
Going into the new season, the Pistons had put together their deepest and most talented roster in recent memory and looked to build on last year’s 41-41 record and short-lived playoff appearance. Unfortunately, hopes of improvement were swiftly put to rest when Reggie Jackson suffered another injury and Blake Griffin, coming off a career year, was never able to return to from as his knee injury continued to linger. Jackson missed three months, Griffin underwent season-ending surgery, and the rest is history.
The Pistons brought out their league-leading 29th unique starting lineup in a late-February contest against the Denver Nuggets – a depressing feat that summarizes the whole season. With Luke Kennard, Derrick Rose, and Svi Mykhailiuk all missing time due to injury as well, Dwane Casey has had to get creative with lineups more often than not. Without a modicum of consistency in who was sharing the court together, it was evident that the team has lacked on-court chemistry at times.
After abruptly ending the season losing 12 of 13 games and sitting near the bottom of the Eastern Conference, it’s admittedly difficult to find too many positives in what turned into a lost campaign for the Pistons. However, it still does not take a magnifying glass to see the ones that exist. Just takes a glass half-full mentality.
1. The Rise of Christian Wood
Easily the most noteworthy takeaway from this season was the unexpected progression – and at times, dominance – of Detroit’s newest gem, Christian Wood. The 24-year-old big man showed flashes in an eight-game stint with the New Orleans Pelicans, but it was the Pistons who truly gave Wood an opportunity to earn real NBA minutes, and it’s safe to say the franchise was rewarded for their decision.
Wood started the season out of the rotation in favor of the familiar face of Thon Maker, as it’s no secret that head coach Dwane Casey is set in his ways when it comes to rotations. This makes it all the more impressive that Wood was able to put together a career year, as he basically forced Casey’s hand to start playing him by taking advantage of the small amount of playing time he received early on.
The first instance in which Wood truly showed off what he could do for the Pistons was the team’s fourth game of the new season. In the Pistons’ second match-up of the season against the Indiana Pacers, Wood put up an eye-opening 19 points and 12 rebounds in just 21 minutes, following a DNP-CD (did not play – coach’s decision) just two games prior. Despite this breakout performance, Wood’s playing time was sporadic throughout the following months; it wasn’t until the Andre Drummond trade when Wood truly started to spread his wings.
In just a week’s time, everything came together for the young stud. Starting on February 2, Wood would go on to score in double figures in each of the season’s remaining 16 games. It wasn’t until February 3 that he played 30-plus minutes for the first time, and it wasn’t until February 7 that he became a consistent starter – which was only the result of Drummond’s departure to Cleveland.
Wood left a lasting impression in the Pistons’ last home game of the season against one of the league’s best defenders in Rudy Gobert, notching a 30-point, 11-rebound double-double. This, among his other outstanding performances to close out the season, likely cemented Wood’s re-signing as Detroit’s top priority this offseason.
2. Bruce Brown, Point Guard
Before his rookie year, Bruce Brown was expected to be spending most of his season with the Grand Rapids Drive, while Khyri Thomas, selected a few picks prior, would be the rotation piece. Surprisingly, it was just the opposite, as Brown played nearly 20 minutes per game and started the majority of the games he played in as a rookie. However, his flaws were very evident whenever he entered a game, as there wasn’t much to call home about outside of his impressive on-ball defense.
This season was a different story.
Brown’s sophomore surge cannot be understated, as the second-year guard improved on, basically, everything. Reggie Jackson’s early-season injury opened up an opportunity for Brown to serve as Detroit’s other point guard opposite Derrick Rose, and he embraced it. Brown became a much more serviceable offensive player off the ball as well, becoming a corner specialist of sorts. He knocked down 39.3% of his left corner three-pointers, and 43.8% from the right – impressive for a player that you never wanted launching from beyond the arc a year ago. Brown’s defensive skills, already a strength, also improved, as he doubled his steals per game (0.5 to 1.1) and proved to be one of the best rebounding guards in the NBA, (2.5 RPG to 4.7 RPG) especially after the Drummond trade.
Despite these much-needed developments from Brown, arguably the most essential and effective were the strides he made as a playmaker. Brown’s assist numbers skyrocketed (1.2 APG to 4.0 APG) as he spent much more time on the court as a primary ball-handler. His improved awareness with the ball in his hands also opened up many more chances to feed teammates down low while also giving himself an easier path to the rim. Brown finished the year with a 2.35 assist/turnover ratio, an impressive feat for a player who rarely had the ball in his hands the year prior.
One of Brown’s most complete games came in a January contest against the Cleveland Cavaliers, where he showed off his improved vision and scoring around the rim while also showcasing his all-around defensive ability:
With the Pistons likely looking to the draft for their true point guard of the future, Brown’s future role seems uncertain. However, it’s probably for the best that Brown remains a “combo guard” rather than a pure point, as he should benefit as a secondary playmaker next season after the experience he gained this year running the show.
3. Finally, Direction
The Pistons failed to win a single playoff game in the 2010’s, as both Joe Dumars and Stan Van Gundy made a plethora of draft mistakes and free agent overpays that always left Detroit somewhere in the middle. Following the team’s failure to build on their 2016 playoff appearance in 2017 and 2018, Van Gundy pulled a blockbuster trade for Blake Griffin and his gargantuan contract, a deal that has given the team a mix of highs and lows since his arrival. This trade immediately put the Pistons in “win now” mode despite not having enough healthy talent around Griffin, who pushed himself to his physical limits en route to an All-NBA season last year.
The plan was again to build on a swift first round exit, but injuries forced Detroit to accept their failures as they finally cratered to become one of the worst teams in the NBA. Drummond, the franchise centerpiece since his second season in 2013, was finally moved when his value was at its lowest. While the aforementioned Brown and Wood both cemented themselves as key pieces following Dre’s departure, the Pistons went on to lose games – almost all of them – until the season abruptly ended.
Now, the Pistons are comprised of mostly young and potential-filled talents led by veterans Griffin and Rose. With a likely top-five pick in the upcoming NBA Draft, the franchise will be able to add another key building block, whoever that may be. In addition, with Reggie Jackson and Drummond gone and Langston Galloway (and Josh Smith, finally) coming off the books, the front office will have an asset that has been hard to come by over the last few years – cap space. Much of it will/should be used to bring back Wood, who was only signed for one year last summer. However, the rest can be used at Ed Stefanski’s discretion. He has shown to be patient, maybe too patient at times, when it comes to making franchise-altering moves. This is definitely a pleasant change of pace compared to how both Dumars and Van Gundy shelled out their available cash.
The Pistons are in a much different position than they were before the season, but honestly, this disaster of a year looks like it could pay off in the long run.