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NBA Daily: Fixing the Detroit Pistons

Zach Dupont continues Basketball Insiders’ “Fixing” series, taking a closer look at the Detroit Pistons.

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The Detroit Pistons were one of the NBA’s most competitive franchises at the turn of the century, appearing in six straight Eastern Conference Finals between 2002-2008 and winning the NBA Finals in 2004. But, since that run, the Pistons have been one of the least relevant teams in the league, having not won a playoff game since 2008.

This season has gone about as well as the last few have, with the Pistons sitting last in the Eastern Conference with a 2-8 record. But what led Detroit to this point? And what needs to change for them to regain their status as one of the NBA’s best franchises?

What is Working? 

Not a whole lot, that’s for sure. That said, there have been a few positives to see in an otherwise tough start to the year. 

Offseason acquisition Jermai Grant has been a pleasant surprise for the Pistons, starting the season off with some outrageous scoring stats. Through 10 games Grant is averaging a career-high 36.8 minutes, 25.1 points and 6.2 rebounds per game on an impressive true shooting percentage of 59.4 percent. Josh Jackson has been another pleasant surprise coming from free agency, as he has managed to turn his career around in the early stages of the season. Jackson is averaging 12.5 points and 3.9 rebounds per game and has even started six games so far.

The Pistons do have some promising young prospects on the books as well. The team has three first-round picks from the 2020 draft on the roster, with Saddiq Bey being the best of the three early on despite being chosen last. Bey is averaging 10.6 points per game while shooting 44 percent from three-point range. Seventh and 16th picks Killian Hayes and Isaiah Stewart have had tough starts to the season, while Hayes is now out indefinitely with a right labral tear. But, with no Summer League and only a few weeks between the draft and the beginning of the season, it would be foolish to write either of them off yet.

Detroit’s 2019 first-round selection Sekou Doumbouya has also shown a lot of promise early on his second NBA season, showing improved shooting as he’s hit 44 percent of his three-pointers and 89 percent of his free throws. Granted, Doumbouya is only playing 11.4 minutes per game, but at only 20-years old – third youngest on the roster – he still has plenty of time to figure it out. Svi Mykhailiuk has shown himself to be a reliable three-point specialist.

Yes, the Pistons have struggled immensely early on in the 2020-21 season. But, with some promising young players on the roster, the future isn’t all doom and gloom.

What Isn’t Working?  

That said, there is certainly a fair share of that doom and gloom going around the organization.

Grant’s start to the season has been encouraging, but it’s not translating to wins. Grant owns the 41st highest usage rate in the NBA and, despite that, he is averaging just 1.9 assists per game. So while Grant is scoring a lot, something the Pistons desperately need to be fair, it’s not making anyone on the team any better and not leading to a good team offense.

A significant reason the Pistons need so much scoring from Grant is because of the play and health of their star forward Blake Griffin. In seven games so far Griffin is averaging just 13.9 points per game, the lowest mark of his entire career. Griffin is obviously not entirely healthy, but, at 31-years-old, it’s not a given that Griffin will ever regain his All-NBA form, which is bad news for Detroit for more than a few reasons. While the Pistons would understandably be happy to have Griffin playing better just because it would make the team better, his poor play also hurts his trade value.

Griffin has one more year on his contract, assuming he accepts his $39 million player option for the 2021-22 season, but his underwhelming play and questions surrounding his health mean that Detroit can’t shop him to other contenders for future assets — more likely, they may even have to attach assets to get rid of him. Of course, the Pistons could just ride out the next two years of his contract, as it’s a safe bet that Griffin will pick up his pricey player option while his career is on a downward trajectory.

Without Griffin playing to his full potential, the Pistons are unsurprisingly bad on both ends of the floor. Detroit owns the seventh-worst defensive rating in the NBA of 112.8 and the sixth-worst offensive rating of 106.4. If it wasn’t obvious, bad offense and bad defense combine to form the worst teams, which is reflected in the Pistons’ net rating of -6.4, the third-worst net rating in the league.

The Pistons likely lack anyone that could become an All-NBA level player and, in the modern NBA, teams need at least one if not two of those types to become serious contenders. Guys like Hayes and Doumbouya are still early on in their careers and time will tell if they can reach those heights, but early indications aren’t promising. Detroit will have to look elsewhere for the top-end talent needed to be competitive in this league.  

There is no quick way out of this hole in Detroit, and the current roster won’t be capable of being a real playoff contender without a massive overhaul, so what needs to be done in Detroit?

Focus Area: Free Agency

The Pistons are currently under their first season with new general manager Troy Weaver and it’s still too early to tell what the direction of the franchise will be moving forward. However, Detroit’s free-agency will be less about who they should sign and more about not making poor free agency decisions. 

In years past, the Pistons have had a bad habit of signing up players to improve the team to the fringes of the playoffs, but never pushing them over the edge. This habit could be seen again this past offseason, with the acquisitions of Grant and Mason Plumlee on deals that were, at least initially, thought to be over-pays.

Detroit’s plan in the coming offseason needs to be not to lock themselves into more long-term money while remaining uncompetitive. Unless the Pistons miraculously find themselves in the running for Kawhi Leonard, it’s best for them to look towards the future and keep their money in the short-term rather than the long-term. 

If the luck out and, for some reason, Griffin decides to decline his lucrative player option for 2021-22, he will be the team’s top outgoing free agent. If not, that role falls to Derrick Rose. Entering his age 32 season, Rose has revived his career as a sixth man and has some value for the Pistons both as a player and a potential trade asset. Rose is averaging 13.9 points per game off the bench this year, but he has also missed time due to injury.

Even if he’s still on the team come the end of the season, it’s likely Rose won’t be coming back. The only other unrestricted free agents on the team for 2021 are Frank Jackson and Wayne Ellington, so there aren’t many pressing internal decisions to be made by Detroit in the coming offseason.  

The best way for Detroit to improve their roster in the 2021 offseason is with more low-risk, high reward contracts — like the one they gave Jackson this offseason — and by moving Rose and Griffin before the deadline for any value the team might be able to get.

Focus Area: Draft

There aren’t many ways for Detroit to rapidly improve its team in free agency, but there are ways they can in the draft.

If the season ended today, the Pistons would be tied for the best odds in the lottery at the first overall pick and would at least be drafting in the top six. The Houston Rockets technically own the Pistons pick if it isn’t in the lottery but, barring a significant turnaround, it’s safe to assume that Detroit will keep its first-round pick.

So, with the Pistons sure to be in for an excellent draft pick in the upcoming 2021 NBA Draft, they need to capitalize on a loaded group of prospects. The 2021 draft looks like it may have some of the best top-end talents to choose from in recent years, with guys like Cade Cunningham, Evan Mobley, Jalen Green and Jalen Suggs all having the potential to be some of the best players in the NBA. Detroit will have the benefit of being able to take the best player available wherever they draft, but they can’t afford to swing and miss as management has in the past with selections such as Stanley Johnson, Brandon Knight, Austin Daye and, of course, Darko Miličić.

The Pistons don’t own their second-round selection as they traded it to the 76ers before eventually becoming the property of the New York Knicks, but they do have the Toronto Raptors second-round pick via the Luke Kennard trade earlier in the offseason. In fact, if the down season in Toronto continues, Detroit might earn a solid, early second rounder. And, if they ever want to see the lofty heights of the Bad Boys era or the early 2000s teams again, the Pistons will seriously have to take advantage of those high picks.

We are only a few months into Weaver’s tenure with the team and it’s far too early to judge the roster moves he’s made thus far. That said, it’s rather bleak in Detroit right now and, with no immediate help on the way, it may be time for the Pistons to fully commit to the rebuild they’ve been avoiding for years.

Zach Dupont is a staff writer with Basketball Insiders currently living in Chicago. Zach's work has been previously featured in The Boston Globe, Boston.com and The Basketball Tournament.

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