The 2010’s will always be remembered as a low point in the history of the Detroit Pistons.
It was a decade that saw the Palace of Auburn Hills, one of the NBA’s most packed and beloved arenas during the mid-2000’s, become a deserted venue – fans were no longer interested in a team that had become a perennial bottom feeder. The Pistons won more than 30 games just one time between their two first-round sweeps at the hand of the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2008-09 and 2015-16 – the latter being the franchise’s last games at “The Palace”. The campaigns in between can be described as forgettable, uninspiring, and simply pitiful compared to what Detroit fans had become accustomed to in the decade prior. Bad and inconsistent coaching paired with ill-advised free agent signings and poor draft night decisions kept the Pistons consistently mediocre-to-bad with little hope for the future during the first half of the 2010’s.
Things seemed to be looking up following the team’s playoff appearance in 2016, as Stan Van Gundy had put together a group that looked like it could win together – if they stayed healthy… which, yeah. The rest of the decade was filled with “we coulds” and “we shoulds” as Reggie Jackson and Blake Griffin, among others, simply could not overcome their injuries. Instead, the era was capped off by a first-round sweep to the Milwaukee Bucks, a fitting ending to cap off the last decade. However, the era never truly felt over until Jackson was bought out and Andre Drummond, the franchise’s centerpiece since he was drafted in 2012, was shipped to the Cleveland Cavaliers for scraps. The meager return of John Henson and Brandon Knight, neither of whom played in the NBA this year, signified just how meaningless and depressing this Drummond-led era of Detroit Basketball really was. Just about every news article and opinion piece written about the Detroit
Pistons prior to the 2020 NBA Draft can be deemed obsolete, and the reason can be attributed to one person: Troy Weaver – the man who erased a decade of depressing Detroit Basketball in a single year.
Troy Weaver was hired on June 18, 2020, finally ending the question, “do the Pistons even have a general manager?” At this time, it was obvious that the Pistons were headed for a full-fledged rebuild, with Sekou Doumbouya, Bruce Brown, Luke Kennard, and the hope that Christian Wood would return being the only pieces deemed “part of the future”. It was an underwhelming group of young players, but still a better crop than the Pistons had put together in a long time. To add insult to injury, the fifth-worst Pistons fell to the seventh pick at the NBA’s draft lottery, adding another obstacle to Weaver’s first off-season with the team. Once draft night rolled around, however, Detroit got its first taste of their new aggressive, I’m-gonna-get-my-guys GM, as Weaver turned two pieces of the aforementioned “core” in Kennard and Wood, among other assets, into two more first round picks.
In the end, the Pistons came out of the draft with four players: Killian Hayes, Isaiah Stewart, Saddiq Bey, and second-rounder Saben Lee. While Hayes was the fan-favorite pick and Bey was already being talked about as the steal of the draft, the high selections of Stewart and Lee admittedly caused some confusion and doubt. Stewart, especially, has been incredible compared to what was expected of him as a rookie. He led all rookies in both rebounds and blocks, along with improving his shooting range immensely as the season carried on. Stewart and Bey should both be featured on an All-Rookie team and, had Hayes not been injured for the majority of the season, he might’ve been there with them. Regardless, having not one, but four productive rookies in an NBA rotation is unheard of, and shapes up Weaver’s first draft with the Pistons as one of the best.
The draft was only the beginning of Weaver’s work, as free agency presented a whole new challenge to the first-year GM. With little to no foundation or consistency from seasons prior, Weaver was tasked with finding the right players to both mentor and improve alongside Detroit’s first-year players. Weaver’s most prominent move, which proved to be another massive win for him and the team during the offseason, was bringing in combo-forward Jerami Grant on a three-year, $60 million deal. While there was some excitement around signing a two-way player of Grant’s caliber, most thought the contract was a bit too luxurious for someone that was coming off the bench for the majority of the 2019-20 season with Denver. Weaver, who knew Grant from their time together in Oklahoma City, obviously knew something that most didn’t about the 27-year-old, as he was able to pry him away from the title-hopeful Nuggets for the same price. The result of this gamble? A career year from Grant, who posted impressive averages of 22.3 points and 4.6 rebounds as the Pistons’ number one option en route to finishing as runner-up for this year’s Most Improved Player Award. Had it not been for an otherworldly campaign from Julius Randle and the New York Knicks, the award would’ve been another positive for Grant, Weaver, and Detroit this season.
Grant wasn’t the only former Nuggets bench player brought to Detroit either. Weaver’s signing of do-it-all big man Mason Plumlee for three years, $25 million was easily his most questioned move of the offseason. At 30-years-old, Plumlee didn’t exactly fit with the timeline of the rest of the roster, but he proved to be a valuable veteran presence who consistently did the dirty work inside while also serving as one of the NBA’s best passing big men. While Plumlee’s age will always make the signing confusing, the value of his contract cannot be understated – $8 million per year is more than reasonable for what he provides. With the unexpectedly quick emergence of Isaiah Stewart and the possibility of adding big man in Evan Mobley in this year’s draft, Plumlee could net Troy Weaver and the Pistons another valuable asset for the future. After a productive season, this outcome would be the best-case scenario for both the Pistons and Plumlee considering the youth movement taking place in Detroit and the veteran’s likely desire to win.
Plumlee’s only two career triple-doubles coming this season with the Pistons was cool, too:
It became obvious as the season carried on that Weaver had a future envisioned for the Detroit Pistons of the 2020’s, as he made it a point to get “his guys” on the roster. While Grant and Plumlee were the biggest names, adding guys that have something to prove – such as Josh Jackson, Frank Jackson, Tyler Cook, and Hamidou Diallo are what, in my opinion, takes Weaver’s first-year grade from an A- or B+ to a resounding A+. Josh Jackson was a high-profile name and former top-5 pick that had struggled at both of his prior stops before returning to his home state, and while the story of the season for him was inconsistency, he showed flashes of being a valuable role player that can get hot in a hurry. Shipping off sharpshooter Svi Mykhailiuk, a common archetype to find in the NBA, for a younger, high-flying, defensively gifted wing in Hamidou Diallo was the highlight of the trade deadline for the Pistons, and all signs point to the 22-year-old being an integral piece of the team’s future. Speaking of shooters being easy to find, Frank Jackson’s emergence from two-way player to consistent rotation piece can be attributed to him moving from point guard to his natural position, shooting guard, despite being a bit undersized. Tyler Cook was widely unknown to most Pistons fans when he signed a pair of 10-day contracts with the team, but provided consistent energy and electrifying dunks off Detroit’s bench, earning a multi-year contract before the season ended.
It wasn’t just about the guys that Weaver brought in that made his first season great, but also how he handled the veterans that no longer fit with the team. We knew that the Blake Griffin trade was a short-sighted deal by Stan Van Gundy to catapult Detroit into playoff contention, which it did – barely. Without any hope for a repeat of his memorable 2018-19 season (or even a dunk), Weaver made the inevitable choice to cut ties with Griffin, who gave back $13.3 million during his buyout. Griffin’s abrupt exit from Detroit to the title-hopeful Nets without much of a goodbye from the six-time All-Star admittedly irked many fans, but the value of that extra cap space can not be undermined. Similarly, Derrick Rose had seemed to fall off a bit in his second season with the Pistons, and Weaver acknowledged that his services were no longer needed. While the return for Rose (Dennis Smith Jr. and a second-round pick) seemed underwhelming considering Rose’s recent playoff heroics with the Knicks, it was a move that had to be made and benefitted both sides. Weaver wasn’t able to get much in return for the former stars, but opening rotation minutes for players like Saddiq Bey, Sekou Doumbouya and Saben Lee was enough of a win in itself – a vital turning point of this season.
Championship teams are not built in a single season. Same goes for winning cultures. But Troy Weaver has laid out the foundation for both in just one season with the Pistons. Only one player remains from before Weaver was hired, Doumbouya, who still has much to prove before I am confident he is part of this franchise’s future. Now, the Pistons have four rookies, Sekou, and young fliers in the Jacksons, Cook, and Diallo to build around, not to mention a likely top-5 pick in the coming months. Weaver has already stated that he doesn’t anticipate too much roster movement this offseason, strengthening the idea that the majority of the aforementioned core will be back, according to Keith Langlois of Pistons.com.
“I don’t anticipate having too many roster spots available,” Weaver said Monday, the day after the first season on his watch as Pistons general manager ended. “We like our group and we’re excited about the guys under contract and even our own free agents. I don’t anticipate much turnover at all.”
With most of a young, talented roster returning, a likely top-5 pick – which can’t fall below six, potentially $20 million in cap space to work with, and three second-rounders in this year’s draft, Weaver will have ample assets to help take the Detroit Pistons to the next level of their “restoration project.” With what he was able to do with so few assets last year, I have the utmost confidence that Weaver can build a team that will be competitive within the next two years. There’s still plenty of work to be done, but forget what you remember about the poverty Pistons of the 2010’s – it’s a new decade with a new team, a new culture, and new aspirations to make it back to the top, and it all starts with Troy Weaver.
Featured Image: Michael Reaves/Getty Images