The Detroit Pistons are a team that has remained largely in the same state of malaise for most of the past decade-plus, but winning the NBA draft lottery and the corresponding Cade Cunningham sweepstakes is a culmination of a year of change.
It’s almost impossible to overstate how far the Pistons have come in the past couple of years, and the past six months in particular. For most of Tom Gores’s tenure as owner, the goal was to make the playoffs, in any capacity, at any cost. There’s something to be said for competitiveness, but there’s also a rationale behind a strategic retreat in order to boost your chances at enhanced competitiveness.
The Detroit Pistons are the big winner of the NBA draft lottery and Cade Cunningham sweepstakes, and it’s a lesson of how quickly things can change.
The Pistons entered the 2019-20 season with a new lease on life, coming off a playoff appearance against the Milwaukee Bucks. That playoff matchup went… well, about how you expect it would. Blake Griffin had battered his knee into a crumbled husk trying to get his team into the postseason and missed the first two games once they got there.
When he did return, it didn’t do the Pistons much good as they were swiftly and mercifully (because of the swiftness) swept, and it may have ruined the rest of his Piston career.
Going into that 2019-20 offseason, there was hope he could return at full strength and the Pistons could make another playoff appearance, maybe even getting the seventh (or sixth!) seed and perhaps winning a game. Reggie Jackson was coming off a season where he played all 82 games, and he was excellent most of the year. Derrick Rose was a new addition with something to prove, and Markieff Morris was another signing. Andre Drummond was coming off a pretty good season as well.
2019-20 was a hellscape. Jackson suffered a stress fracture in his lower back and missed most of the season before he was bought out along with Morris, Griffin missed the start of the season, was ineffective and shut down just after Christmas. Luke Kennard was shut down for the season right around then as well, and Rose didn’t make it much longer before he started missing games and was out by the time the season was suspended by the COVID pandemic.
They ended up going 20-46 and their .303 winning percentage was one of the worst in the history of the franchise. It was safe to say that with another two full years of an incapacitated Blake Griffin on the books, they had one of the bleakest futures of any team in the NBA.
Then, things changed when they hired Troy Weaver to run the team. His vision and imagination and willingness to always empty the clip turned over almost the entire roster before the season began, with only Rose, Griffin, Svi Mykhailiuk and Sekou Doumbouya returning. Then he traded Rose to the New York Knicks for Dennis Smith Jr. and a second-round pick, and reached an agreement to buy Griffin out and save $13 million of the $52 million remaining on his contract. Mykhailiuk was also traded away.
It was a total turnover, with players that fit Weaver’s vision. This vision was more comprehensive than the one Stan Van Gundy used to construct a former iteration of this team, doing things such as signing Jon Leuer as a Kevin Love-lite after watching Love torch his team in another inconsequential playoff appearance.
The 2020-21 Detroit Pistons lost a lot of games and their 20-52 record produced the fifth-worst winning percentage (.278) in franchise history. But they did it by design, and grit, accountability and hard work were more important than anything else. For a young team building the foundations of what is hopefully meant to be a great franchise in the future, the building blocks were in place.
Now, fast-forwarding a bit, the Pistons and their hard, painful work over the past year have been rewarded. There won’t be anything easy about this, but teams don’t win anything of import without generational and transformational talents. Time will tell if Cade Cunningham is this, but we know right now he might be.
And that’s the reward Troy Weaver and the Detroit Pistons have been chasing in their work to restore this franchise’s former greatness.