51Q: How big a next step forward can the Detroit Pistons take?
We continue PBT’s 2016-17 NBA preview series, 51 Questions. Between now and the start of the NBA season we will tackle 51 questions we cannot wait to see answered during the upcoming NBA season. We will delve into one almost every day between now and the start of the season (we’re taking some weekends off).
How to rebuild without trying in six simple steps: Lose, lose, lose, lose, lose, lose.
That was the dirty secret to Detroit’s breakthrough last season. Though the Pistons never set out to tank, they built a solid young core by drafting in the top 10 five of the previous six years. The only year Detroit didn’t pick in the top 10 was because it traded the No. 8 pick in a disastrous salary dump that led to signing Josh Smith – whom the Pistons expected to jumpstart their rise.
But it still happened eventually. Lose enough in the NBA, and it’s hard to remain bad – especially when you draft well (which Joe Dumars did in this era) and trade well (which Stan Van Gundy has done). In the last six years, the Pistons have drafted:
- Greg Monroe (left in free agency, leaving cap space to add Marcus Morris, Ersan Ilyasova and Aron Baynes)
- Brandon Knight (traded for Brandon Jennings, who was flipped – with Ilyasova – for Tobias Harris)
- Andre Drummond
- Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
- Stanley Johnson
Suddenly, Detroit had a bright future. Its first playoff appearance in seven years, even if it ended in a first-round sweep to the Cavaliers, was exceedingly welcomed.
The Pistons should be done with top-10 picks for a while, so they can no longer back their way up the standings. They’ll have to earn the rest of their ascension.
That starts with internal growth. Not only were the Pistons’ the youngest team in last year’s playoffs (weighted by minutes played), they were the seventh-youngest all-time:
Drummond (23), Caldwell-Pope (23), Harris (24), Jackson (26) and Johnson (20) will continue developing, and that alone will make Detroit better.
But Van Gundy didn’t stop there.
The Pistons signed Ish Smith and Jon Leuer to relatively hefty contracts, hoping to address holes in the bench.
After trading Jennings at mid-season, Detroit was left with Steve Blake as backup point guard. The 36-year-old was a liability on both ends of the floor. For $18 million over three years, Smith provides an upgrade.
The Pistons had a couple burlier centers in Drummond and Aron Baynes. Marcus Morris, Tobias Harris and the since-departed Anthony Tolliver could play stretch four against other combo forwards. But against a legitimately sized power forward with 3-point range, Detroit was in trouble. Enter Leuer, who at 6-foot-10, will play both big-man positions and receive $41 million over the next four years.
The Pistons built their young core. They signed veteran reinforcements. They even added Henry Ellenson and Boban Marjanovic with an eye toward the future.
But they’re unlikely to draft high again anytime soon. They’re capped out and will be limited in free agency.
Forming this team came at a cost.
Detroit should take a step forward – but far enough to justify the years of losing and pricey backups? Van Gundy is just trying to win as much as he can, but that question looms over the Pistons’ accomplishments.