I’m worried. I’m scared. I’m pessimistic. Part of the objective of writing this piece is that I hope to be able to look at it three months from now, six months from now, or a year from now, and have a good, deep laugh. If I want to truly understand how wrong I was, I have to put digital pen to paper and document what I’m feeling right at this very moment. Maybe, in the end, I will be able to consider this a significant moment in time, because it is the moment when everything began turning around.
I have lost almost all confidence in the Detroit Pistons’ 3.5-year rebuild and quest to regain some modicum of relevance in the NBA.
Here I sit, covering the Pistons for more than a decade, and I know the full rebuild was the right move, I have agree with several of the moves (and heavily disagreed with others), but today, I also feel like there is so little to grasp onto regarding this team, it’s present, it’s future — it’s plan.
The roster is misshapen and lacks fundamental talents necessary for success in today’s NBA. The team is largely running back the same roster that saw near-historic levels of franchise futility last season. It looks today like a bottom-five offense and a bottom-five defense.
What are we really doing here?
Detroit entered the 2020 NBA Draft selling every bit of what little assets it had to accelerate a down-to-the-studs rebuild. It was the right move. The problem, wouldn’t you know, is in the results. The Pistons came away with Killian Hayes, who, if he is ever to justify his draft status as a top-10 pick, will almost certainly do it on another team. They drafted Isaiah Stewart who recently signed a long-term deal but is also a player that might have a ceiling as a very good reserve; and James Wiseman who is likely not going to be wearing a Pistons uniform after this season. They have Wiseman because they drafted Saddiq Bey, who they didn’t think had a long-term future on the team and opted for Wiseman over the alternatives — five second-round picks or just keeping Bey and seeing if he grew into a defined role.
So that 2020 NBA Draft was, even in the best light, not a shining beacon of success, and at worst was a total wipeout.
True luck shined down upon them and they earned the right to pick No. 1 in 2021 and draft consensus first pick Cade Cunningham. Great!
But, sitting here now, I have so many worries and “what ifs” about the future of Cade that it makes me actively uncomfortable. Some of those questions are because we haven’t seen much of Cade due to injury. But some of those are also precisely because of what I have seen on the court.
What if Cade isn’t “Him”
I have no doubt that Cade is going to be a good player, and his floor might be a “very good” player. But what if that’s it? What if he’s not a star? What if he never figures out his turnover issues? What if he never becomes an efficient perimeter threat?
The 2021 NBA Draft was loaded with talent, and the Pistons could have literally picked anybody. What if Cade is good but Evan Mobley, Franz Wagner, Josh Giddey, Scottie Barnes, and Johnathan Kuminga are better?
Will we look at the selection of Cade as just another missed opportunity? This season will allow him to prove his doubters wrong, but on the eve of those games being played, my confidence is a bit shaken.
I should be brimming with excitement at the dawn of a new NBA season. The Pistons have a healthy Cade ready to put the league on notice. They have a new coach widely regarded as one of the NBA’s best in Monty Williams. They ushered in a great new coaching staff full of experience.
I loved Detroit’s pick of Ausar Thompson at No. 5. He has popped in ways early in his Pistons’ career (and we’re talking so early that he hasn’t actually played an NBA game that counts) that I haven’t seen since Grant Hill. It sounds crazy, and it probably is. But if that’s what I truly feel then why am I not more excited?
They aren’t devoid of talent. They have Cunningham and Thompson, yes, but also Jaden Ivey and Jalen Duren from last year’s draft. The latter two players really showed a lot last year as rookies, and now they can build off that and do it with the benefit of Cunningham back in the lineup, who was limited to just 12 games last season, making things easier on everybody.
A Lack of Assets
So why do I feel so dour? It’s always easy to reverse engineer best-case scenarios for any group of young players, I suppose, but then you see Victor Wembanyama and quickly realize what a true consensus top player looks like. You see Chet Holmgren already doing things on the court and recall just how much Cade struggled in those first weeks.
As much as I enjoyed Jaden Ivey’s rookie season, they are now tempering my excitement for the season by likely bringing him off the bench. I loved watching Duren and Ivey last season, but if neither learns how to defend at an above-average NBA level what does Detroit really have with them? Are they just high-level bench guys?
These are not the questions I want to be asking myself a week before the season kicks off.
I want Cade to show he was right to be the consensus No. 1 in 2020. I am rooting for Isaiah Livers to show that he is a steal in the second round, but the former Michigan star can’t stay healthy. He’s entering this season in a walking boot.
You see other teams drafting seeming difference-makers outside of the top 15 in the NBA Draft like Houston and New Orleans taking Alperen Sengun and Trey Murphy back-to-back in 2021. And the Pelicans also drafted Herb Jones at No. 35 in that same draft.
The Pistons haven’t drafted well or often enough to have a deep wealth of talent after aggressively rebuilding for years, they don’t have the surplus of sought-after assets to swing a big consolidation trade, and their cupboard of future assets is about as bare as a rebuilding team can have.
They are actually down a first-rounder that they will eventually owe to New York connected to the Isaiah Stewart trade. That pales in comparison to the legendary future OKC war chest but also is nothing close to what teams like Portland, San Antonio, Utah and Washington have as they embark on rebuilds.
Starting from Nothing
That’s not entirely GM Troy Weaver’s fault. The Detroit rebuild started from literally nothing, and I’m not sure many NBA fans really appreciate how rare it is to tear it all down and have nothing to show for it once the dust settles.
The best asset it got when they hit reset was a heavily protected second-round pick for Andre Drummond. They had to release Blake Griffin and keep his money on the books. They had to release Reggie Jackson.
There was no Dame, Gobert, or Beal to get a rebuild started off right with extra players and picks.
The Pistons had no assets. Now they have a few. But here they sit entering year four of a rebuild, and they might once again compete for the worst record in the NBA. Vegas thinks only the Wizards will finish below the Pistons. Now, I’m starting to wonder if Vegas was even a bit too optimistic in projecting a 10-win improvement for Detroit this season.
I look at Detroit’s potential rotations and all I see are the flaws. Lack of spacing. Lack of defense. Lack of complementary skills. They went through the painful process of rebuilding the right way. They didn’t take shortcuts. However, I am sitting here in 2023 wondering if the Pistons’ rebuild needs a rebuild.
But I hope I am wrong. I hope this is just the byproduct of not seeing the Pistons be the Pistons yet this preseason. Huge chunks of the rotation have been out and most of those players should be ready to go by opening night. Quality veterans like Bojan Bogdanovic and Monte Morris won’t suit up at all this preseason. Both are slated for important roles, and Bogdanovic is likely a starter. Cade has missed a game as he ramps up after missing nearly all of last season.
What Does the Future Look Like?
I recognize there are reasons for hope. There is a world where Cade dominates like he reportedly did this offseason for the USA Select team. A world where chemistry continues to build among the core of Cunningham, Duren, Thompson, and Ivey. There is a world where Isaiah Stewart becomes that dangerous 3-point shooter they’ve been building up over the years and he becomes a true weapon as a versatile big man. There is a world where installing Monty Williams markedly improves both the offense and the defense. He did it before in Phoenix.
I can recognize those things, but my ability to truly believe in them is dwindling. There is a world where none of it happens. Where we are sitting here in January asking “where do we go from here.”
Mark it down. On Oct. 19, 2023, I wrote the most insanely misguided, reactionary, incorrect thing I ever published (don’t go digging in the archives to prove me wrong). I hope that is the case. Because the alternative is truly terrifying.