The Detroit Pistons are a team that has remained largely in the same state of unease for most of the past decade, but winning the NBA Draft and corresponding Cade Cunningham Contest is the culmination of a year of change.
It’s almost impossible to overstate how far the Pistons have come over the past two years, and the past six months in particular. For most of Tom Gores’ 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 logic behind a strategic retreat to increase your chances of increased competitiveness.
The Detroit Pistons are the big winners of the NBA draft lottery and Cade Cunningham’s draw, and that’s a lesson in how quickly things can change.
The Pistons entered the 2019-20 season with a new lease on life, after a playoff appearance against the Milwaukee Bucks. This playoff game went… well, pretty much how you’d expect it to. Blake Griffin had beaten his knee in a crumbling envelope trying to get his team into the playoffs and missed the first two games once they got there.
When he returned, it didn’t do the Pistons much good as they were quickly and mercifully (because of the speed) swept away, and it may have ruined the rest of his Piston career.
Heading into this 2019-20 offseason, there was hope that he could return to full strength and the Pistons could make another playoff appearance, maybe even get the seventh (or sixth! ) Seed and maybe win a game. Reggie Jackson was coming off a season where he played all 82 games, and he’s been excellent most of the year. Derrick Rose was a new addition with something to prove, and Markieff Morris was another rookie. Andre Drummond was also coming off a fairly good season.
2019-2020 has been hell. Jackson suffered a stress fracture in his lower back and missed most of the season before being bought out with Morris, Griffin missed the start of the season, was ineffective and shut down just after Christmas. Luke Kennard was also called off for the season around this time, and Rose didn’t wait much longer before he started missing games and was out when the season was suspended by the coronavirus pandemic. COVID.
They ended up going 20-46 and their .303 winning percentage was one of the worst in franchise history. It was safe to say that with two more full years of an incapacitated Blake Griffin on the books, they had one of the bleakest futures of any NBA team.
Then things changed when they hired Troy Weaver to lead the team. His vision, imagination and will to always empty the clip transformed almost the entire roster before the start of the season, 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 struck a deal to buy out Griffin and save $13 million of the $52 million remaining on his contract. Mykhailiuk was also traded.
It was a total turnover, with players who matched Weaver’s vision. This vision was more comprehensive than the one Stan Van Gundy used to build an older iteration of this team, doing things like signing Jon Leuer as Kevin Love-lite after watching Love burn his team down in another inconsequential appearance in playoffs.
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 on purpose, and courage, responsibility and hard work were more important than anything else. For a young team building the foundation for what will hopefully be a great franchise going forward, the basics were in place.
Now, moving forward a bit quickly, the Pistons and their painful hard work over the past year have paid off. Nothing will be easy about this, but teams won’t win anything significant without generational and transformational talents. Time will tell if Cade Cunningham is in attendance, but now we know he could be.
And that’s the reward Troy Weaver and the Detroit Pistons seek in their work to restore this franchise to its former greatness.