When people look back at the most successful tank jobs in professional sports history, the 2020-21 Detroit Pistons should be at the forefront of that discussion. While operating under the unfortunate circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, the perfect opportunity opened up for the Pistons to lose as many games as possible while the arenas were empty. This once-in-a-lifetime(?) chance to tank without having to worry about attendance numbers was capitalized on, as Detroit would go on to finish with the league’s second-worst record at 20-52. Throw in the fact that the Pistons accomplished this with two All-Rookie team members and a Most Improved Player candidate while also clinching the number one pick – and you have the epitome of a perfect losing season.
Of course, handing out a massive paycheck to get Blake Griffin to leave and shipping Derrick Rose to New York for very little value can be viewed as negatives. (Losing both of them for nothing would be the one “fail” from last season’s goals, as I can safely say the Pistons accomplished the other three.) However, with Rose’s contract off the books and Griffin’s off after the upcoming season, the damage is minimal. Now, the focus shifts to the upcoming campaign – undoubtedly an important year for the franchise and a season that will help paint a picture of what the future holds. The Pistons should be more competitive this season, but the theme for the roster remains the same – growth.
Provide Opportunity for Garza, Livers at Both Levels
Not having a G League season last year presented a unique predicament for the Pistons, who had a number of borderline NBA talents that could have benefitted from some time with Detroit’s former affiliate, the Grand Rapids Drive. Instead, players like Saben Lee, Tyler Cook, Deividas Sirvydis, Frank Jackson and Sekou Doumbouya were thrown right into the fire with the Pistons despite not all looking like rotation-ready talents. Obviously, these circumstances worked out for Jackson and Lee, who both secured multi-year deals with the Pistons this summer. But for Cook, Doumbouya and Sirvydas – who are all already off the team, getting some run in the G League definitely would have helped.
Fortunately, the Pistons will again have a G League affiliate with the inception of the Motor City Cruise. The Cruise will play their games at Wayne State Arena, just mere minutes away from Little Caesar’s Arena, meaning the Pistons can call up and send down players without any hassle. They will also have a number of borderline NBA talents on the roster, with former University of Michigan star Isaiah Livers and former National Player of the Year Luka Garza joining the team as notable second-round additions. While both of them are polished collegiate talents that spent four years with their respective universities, the jury is still out on whether their skillsets will translate to the next level. With it being almost a certainty that both players start the season outside of the rotation, it makes too much sense to not let them put their skills on display with the Cruise.
However, the door should still be wide open for both Livers and Garza to earn a spot in the rotation this season. With the Pistons desperate for a backup combo-forward and the team looking thin at center behind Isaiah Stewart, both of these second-round rookies have a clear path to a consistent rotation spot with Detroit. I’m not saying either player will be a rotation-staple by the end of the season, but during what should be another lottery-bound year for the Pistons, everyone should get an opportunity to show they belong.
Give Everyone a Chance to Play With Cade
The value of the gems Troy Weaver dug up during the 2020 NBA Draft , namely Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart, should not be understated. Both of them opened eyes throughout the league as mid-first rounders without much hype surrounding them en route to All-Rookie team selections. We still don’t know much about Killian Hayes’ NBA future, but it’s easy to see what he’s capable of if you can look past the early efficiency struggles. These young guns will all play a large role for the Pistons in the coming years, but none of them mean as much to the future success of the franchise as this year’s number one pick, Cade Cunningham, does.
I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that Cade could – and should – become one of the best players in the history of the Detroit Pistons. He’s said all the right things since being drafted and has shown all the signs of being a natural-born leader, both on and off the court. The team revolves around him now, and it’s on the shoulders of both the front office and the coaching staff to make sure the players around him make sense. With a 6-foot-8, 220-pound frame, Cunningham has the ability to play and guard every position besides center, meaning the lineup possibilities involving Cunningham are abundant. Starting alongside ball-dominant players like Killian Hayes and Jerami Grant means Cade could be operating off-ball quite a bit with the starting lineup. Giving him plenty of opportunities as the primary ball-handler next season should be a priority – and with a bench unit that’s not abundant in playmaking, it shouldn’t be hard to accomplish. Anyone that steps on the court alongside Cade Cunningham should be a better player because of it, and if Dwane Casey and Troy Weaver see an exception to that formality, well… it might be a sign to move on from that player. After all, it’s Cade’s team now – and the roster should be built accordingly.
Figure Out What’s Next for Josh Jackson
Troy Weaver made it known soon after the conclusion of the Pistons’ season that there wouldn’t be too much roster movement this summer, and delivered on his word. The only notable addition to the team outside of the draft selections is veteran big man Kelly Olynyk, who should help the offense flow more smoothly with his elite three-point shooting. The notable subtractions were Dennis Smith Jr, Wayne Ellington, Sekou Doumbouya, and Tyler Cook – all of whom are easily replaceable. The front office made an effort to make sure the pieces fit for the future, and while the roster looks much more balanced than before, there are still a couple question marks on the roster – with one that particularly sticks out.
At the time a seamless addition, Josh Jackson came to Detroit last year and was given a volume scorer role during his first season – not because he was that great as a top option, but because the Pistons didn’t have a choice. The offense was barren for production outside of Jerami Grant, who is due for a slightly decreased workload with reinforcements coming in. With more mouths to feed on offense this season, Jackson’s erratic, high-volume, low-efficiency playstyle is no longer needed even if he had some fun moments last year. However, he is still on the team, and likely in the rotation for the time being. Who knows, maybe Jackson becomes a better three-point shooter and adds more discipline to his offensive game. Otherwise, the Michigan native could be shipped out in favor of bigger roles for Frank Jackson and Hamidou Diallo, who both recently re-signed with the Pistons.
Don’t Prioritize Winning Just Yet
The promising outlook of the Pistons’ current trajectory allows them to have patience with this group, which is now completely Weaver-made following the recent trade of Sekou Doumbouya. Considering Detroit willingly took on DeAndre Jordan’s contract just to buy him out shows that the team has no big short-term plans with their cap space, and for good reason. This is another year of retooling, where the focus should be individual and team progression rather than straight up wins. This is a season that will set the tone of what’s to come throughout the next decade – the improvement of the “Core Four”, Jerami Grant’s continued rise from role player to veteran leader, and the chance to see what Cade Cunningham has in store all comes during the 2021-22 season.
Following the NBA Draft lottery but prior to free agency, there was quite a bit of confidence throughout the fanbase, including myself, that the Pistons would have a real shot to make the play-in game or even the playoffs with this invigorated young core that has everything to prove. Then, the free agency gates opened and that confidence all came to a screeching halt. The majority of the Eastern Conference seemed to improve in the blink of an eye, with teams like the Chicago Bulls, Washington Wizards, and New York Knicks all transforming themselves from borderline postseason contender to likely play-in team in the span of a week. While it is admittedly a little disappointing that the Pistons are probably returning to the draft lottery next summer, Detroit can take comfort in the fact that there are no expectations to win this year. Even if the team exceeds expectations, the front office must stay the course and shy away from any short-sighted moves. For the first time in what feels like forever, the Pistons are abundant in valuable assets and young talent. This fourth and final goal should be the easiest to complete, yet is arguably the most imperative for the franchise’s future. The worst era of Detroit Basketball is finally in the rearview mirror – the winning will come, just not quite yet.