Fixing The Pistons

Fixing The Pistons

The Detroit Pistons made the kind of history on Tuesday night that no one wants to make. The Pistons lost their 27th consecutive single-season game. Next up is the overall record of 28 straight losses, which was set by the “Process” Philadelphia 76ers over two seasons.

Things in Detroit are a mess. And that’s being kind.

The Pistons haven’t sniffed a .500 season since 2018-19. They haven’t had a winning record since 2015-16.

This once-proud franchise hasn’t won a single playoff game since Game 4 of the 2008 Eastern Conference Finals.

Only a couple of four-game sweeps as the eighth seed in a woeful Eastern Conference separate the Pistons from a Sacramento Kings-like run of futility.

So…what needs to happen to fix this?

Detroit’s governor Tom Gores scoffed at the idea that he should sell the team. Under his stewardship, the Pistons have posted a .348 winning percentage. He can tout his and his team’s philanthropic work in the community all he wants, but no Detroit fan is really going to care. All NBA teams do great work in the community. What fans really want is an owner who will hire the right people and write checks that lead to winning.

Assuming Gores is going nowhere, we’ll have to work within the construct that he’s running things. In a recent interview, Gores said he’s deeply involved in trying to help the Pistons snap the losing streak, both this season and overall. The Detroit owner said conversations are happening at such a granular level that he’s talking rotations with Monty Williams.

So, that’s kind of where we’ll start: honest conversations.

Troy Weaver

Troy Weaver took over the Pistons front office in June of 2020. His immediate deals made it clear that Weaver was resetting the franchise in a major way.

While we all laughed at Weaver’s apparent proclivity for acquiring centers, the Pistons were on a path. Detroit’s new general manager was acquiring assets by shipping out players and renting out cap space to take on undesirable salary. Weaver also landed a good free agent signing in Jerami Grant. That seemed contradictory to the teardown process, but he got Grant on a solid value contract. Grant’s deal was immediately deemed tradable, and he eventually was.

Sadly, that was probably the high point of Weaver’s run to date.

The losing continued, which was to be somewhat expected. It’s the rate it’s continued at, with an ever-increasing feeling of hopelessness that wasn’t expected.

That means it’s time for Tom Gores to have an honest conversation with and about Weaver. If there is any doubt that Weaver is the one who should lead this team beyond this season, it’s imperative that Gores fire him now.

The number one enemy of a stable franchise is a bad owner. Right behind that is the hot seat GM.

If Gores isn’t 100% sold that Weaver is the guy to handle an offseason where the Pistons project to have close to $40 million in cap space, then he needs to pull the plug right now. Letting Weaver handle a trade deadline, where he’s fighting for his job, could result in a series of deals and non-deals that set the Pistons even further back then they are now.

Isn’t that a scary thought?

This space will rarely campaign for anyone to lose a job, outside of abhorrent non-basketball behavior. But this space is also realistic enough to know that sometimes it’s just time for change.

Weaver has had three-and-a-half seasons. The Pistons have a .233 winning percentage during that time. They win roughly once every four games. The initial losing was a byproduct of starting over. But it’s only gotten worse.

Weaver has continued to rent out cap space, but he’s never acquired that great package of assets to do so. His free agent signings have been somewhere between irrelevant and bad since inking Grant. The draft has been his sole “success” and that’s still a very open question.

Gores needs to hear Weaver’s plan for today, tomorrow and the next several years. If there is a single part of that plan that doesn’t feel right, it’s time to move on.

Monty Williams

Tom Gores, and whoever is running the front office, next need to have an honest conversation with and about Monty Williams. And the “whoever is running the front office” part is of paramount importance here. If Gores isn’t going to involve the front office in picking a coach, then this entire exercise is futile. Nothing will change if there isn’t synergy at the top of the organization.

Gores is a business man at heart. All business men know you can’t continue to throw good money after bad. Sometimes you have to take your losses and move on.

That’s where it seems like the Pistons might be with Williams.

Yes, Williams is only 30 games into a reported six-year deal that is worth at least $80 million. But he’s lost 28 of those games, including 27 in a row (and counting).

It should have been a red flag/blaring alarm/flashing warning signal when Detroit had to keep going back to Williams to take the job in the first place. Not taking no for an answer is a tenet of business, but knowing when to walk away is just as important.

Now, Detroit is locked into a six-year deal for a ton of money with a coach who doesn’t fit. Some days, Williams seems to want to be anywhere else. Other days, he’s engaged, but is prioritizing all the wrong things.

Is it going to be easy to eat one of the richest coaching contracts in NBA history? Nope. Might it be necessary? Yup.

If Gores can’t have honest conversations with and about his GM and coach, and then make the changes necessary, Pistons fans might as well pick a new team. Nothing is going to change.

The Veterans

Now we get into the on-court stuff. The Pistons have some veteran players that should be desirable trade pieces as we approach the trade deadline. Detroit should be able to get some assets back for these players.

Sound familiar?

It should, because it’s the exact same conversation we had last year. And it’s about some of the exact same players too.

The Pistons didn’t trade Bojan Bogdanovic and Alec Burks last season. A year later, the same conversation about the same players can’t have the same result.

Maybe no one met Detroit’s asking price for either guy last year. Maybe Troy Weaver wanted too much. Maybe it was just that the Pistons really thought they’d be better this year and that those guys would aid in a postseason push.

That’s all fair. We aren’t going to beat them up too much for last year’s decisions. This year, however, it has to be different.

Bogdanovic missed some time with injuries, and he’s not much of a defender anymore, but he’s still a terrific scorer and shooter. His contract is also very movable at $20 million for this season, and only $2 million of his $19 million deal guaranteed next season.

Burks is a different story. He’s having a miserable season. Detroit might have missed their best opportunity to sell high on Burks a year ago.

Detroit should be able to get a protected first-round pick for Bogdanovic. Burks is probably only fetching a second-round pick, and that’s only if a team is convinced that he can get back to being a good shooter.

How the Pistons could improve their return is by putting the two together and taking back some undesirable long-term salary. Would that eat into their cap space this summer? Yes. Does that matter? Not really. Detroit isn’t positioned to be a real free agency player, and this free agent class isn’t that good anyway.

The Pistons should also be looking to see if there is any trade interest in Monte Morris (who has yet to play this season due to a quad injury), Joe Harris and Marvin Bagley III. Playoff teams are always looking for bench help and Morris and Harris both have postseason experience. Both are also on expiring contracts. Bagley has another year left, so he’s probably going to be harder to move. It’s still worth exploring though.

The return for any of Morris, Harris and Bagley won’t be great. Maybe a second-round pick (or two for Morris) is what the Pistons can hope for. Again, if Detroit puts them together and takes on some questionable long-term salary in a trade, the return should go up.

The Kids

For a team in the spot the Pistons are in, we’d usually point to their young players as reason for optimism. For example, the San Antonio Spurs are also terrible, but at least they have Victor Wembanyama and a host of other interesting young players.

For Detroit, that’s much more of a mixed bag.

Cade Cunningham is still a very good prospect. He’s may not hit the heights once hoped for as the first overall pick, but Cunningham is only 22 and he’s showing real signs this year of his all-around ability. Cunningham is still worth building around.

Jalen Duren is the next best prospect on the team. Despite battling injuries this season, Duren looks like a nightly double-double threat who can also protect the rim. He’s a worthy running mate for Cunningham.

Ausar Thompson is also a definite keeper. It’s all semi-unharnessed chaotic energy right now, but there’s a real player in there. Thompson’s skillset already looks like someone who might be the NBA’s most versatile defender someday. And if the shot comes around…

After those three, there are questions. Marcus Sasser shows the most potential. At the very least, he looks like he can be a high-end backup point guard. He’s a keeper.

Isaiah Stewart is fine. On a good team, he’d be an ideal third big. Stewart plays with great energy and his outside shot looks real. But he’s about to be at least slightly overpaid on his rookie scale extension. That puts his true value in a weird place. Detroit should keep him unless they get a good offer, but that’s probably a down-the-line thing.

For Killian Hayes (despite Monty Williams obsession with starting him), James Wiseman and Isaiah Livers, the shine is off them as prospects. Hayes has improved from a terrible shooter to a simply bad one. That’s not good enough. Wiseman remains a complete mystery box. He looks like a keeper one game; then like he’ll be on the fringes of the NBA for the next five games. And, after a promising rookie season, Livers has gotten worse for two consecutive seasons. None are going to be a part of the future in Detroit.

Last, but not least, is Jaden Ivey. He’s truly the hardest player to evaluate of the young Pistons. Ivey had a pretty good rookie season. He wasn’t very efficient, but Ivey could create his own shot, and he was a better playmaker for others than anticipated. This season, Ivey’s role has fluctuated and he’s been kind of a mess. The guess here is that Ivey is closer to the rookie version than what we’ve seen this season.

So, there are five keepers among the kids on the roster. That’s actually pretty solid. It’s also fine to keep Stewart as the rest of the roster sorts out. The rest can be added into trades or deprioritized as the rest of the season plays out.

The Rotation

This is where the Pistons can make the most immediate impact. It won’t translate in wins this year, but that hardly matters anymore. The idea is to build for the future.

One of Tom Gores immediate conversations with Troy Weaver and Monty Williams should be about the goals for the rest of this season. Those should be:

  • Maximizing spacing around Cade Cunningham, as best as possible, to see what he can really be. By April, the Pistons should know if Cunningham is a true number one in progress, or a very good complementary player.
  • Letting Ausar Thompson have some on-ball reps every game. It might be really messy. Actually, it will be really messy. But that’s fine. This is all about him learning.
  • Challenging Jalen Duren with different defensive responsibilities. Play him in drop coverages. Play him at the level of the ball. Switch with him and see what happens. He’ll get burned some, but the idea is to know what works with him as a defensive anchor and what doesn’t.
  • Getting Jaden Ivey more minutes and touches. Play him with Cunningham as a secondary creator. Play him as the lead playmaker for stints. Find out if Ivey is the guy he looked like as a rookie, or if he’s a nice, but replaceable rotation player.
  • In order to do this, Gores or Weaver, or both, have to take some of the tools out of Williams’ tool bag.

Remember the “Can’t play Pena” scene from Moneyball? Brad Pitt’s version of Billy Beane tells Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Art Howe that he can no longer play Carlos Pena over Scott Hatteberg, because Beane has traded Pena.

If Williams won’t stop giving rotation minutes, let alone starts, to guys like Killian Hayes and Marvin Bagley, then it’s probably time to get them off the roster. Those are wasted opportunities to evaluate players who will be a part of the Pistons future.

Beyond that, it’s time to stop giving minutes to guys like James Wiseman, Isaiah Livers, Kevin Knox and Joe Harris. Again, none are going to be a part of the next good Pistons team. Stop wasting minutes and opportunities.

The team should focus on the core guys and the guys who maximize them, while they are still in Detroit. Here’s a proposal for the Pistons rotation for the rest of the season:

Starters

Bench

That’s it. If you want to mix in Joe Harris over Alec Burks, no real complaint here. If you want to see if Isaiah Livers can figure it out with more opportunity, fine. If you want to bring Stanley Umude up from his two-way deal and give him 15 minutes per game, that’s probably even better. Burks is more of a placeholder at this point, than he is a building block.

As for everyone else, they are trade fodder or they sit until their contract runs out. Or, if desired, they can attempt to work a buyout. In that case, Detroit can cycle through their two-way players and G League callups to see if someone pops as a potential long-term roster piece.

That rotation gives the Pistons a good mix of guards, wings and bigs. There’s still not enough shooting, but that’s a handicap of the current roster. The idea is to put the best players around Cunningham to open games, while also making sure the young building blocks see as many minutes as they can handle.

The Offseason

The Pistons can create around $40 million in cap space for the 2024 offseason. That figure could climb even higher, pending what moves are made at the trade deadline and in advance of free agency.

We already outlined what the trade deadline strategy should be for Detroit. We’d move on from as many of the vets as possible, while taking on some money to plus-up returns where possible.

Whether that happens by February 8’s trade deadline or not is almost irrelevant. The strategy should remain the same, no matter what. Detroit isn’t going to be in the mix for the best free agents, assuming any of them even hit the market. It won’t benefit the Pistons to go all-in on a secondary or tertiary free agent option.

That isn’t to suggest the Pistons can have only kids on the roster. Some veteran presence is necessary. But that can be found as free agency winds down and money dries up. Detroit could overpay a veteran or two, or even three, on deals that run for only one or two years.

Players that could fit this mold are Gary Harris, Tauren Prince, Doug McDermott or maybe even Gordon Hayward. For some frontcourt depth, the Pistons could target undervalued players like Moritz Wagner, Drew Eubanks, Mike Muscala or Vlatko Cancar.

None of those players would be headline signings, but all would fit what the Pistons need, while not detracting from any of the kids. All can, at least, shoot or defend. All are professionals who can help the younger players, without stepping on them. And all are attainable, without having to grossly overpay.

Ideally, Detroit will use their cap space by taking on some salary in trades. The key? They need to come away with real assets this time. No more renting out cap space for middling returns. Get valuable draft picks and/or young players. If they can’t, then focus on signing undervalued free agents that can fill roles.

Summary

There is no point in continuing to bail out a boat that has already sunk to the bottom. The only recourse is to get a new boat. Salvage what you can and start your journey anew.

That’s the goal for the Detroit Pistons. There are no quick fixes here. This team might end up being one of the worst in NBA history. So be it. It is what it is.

The goal is to move forward. There are kids who can be a part of the next good Pistons team. There are tradable vets who can return real assets. Managing the cap flexibility is key. Whether it’s smart free agent signings or taking on salary for help returns, the front office has to get that right.

If Troy Weaver and Monty Williams can’t get behind the plan laid out above, then Tom Gores needs to swallow hard and wish them well in their future endeavors. And if Gores isn’t willing to make the hard decisions to get the team headed in a new direction, then those “Sell the team!” chants are only going to get louder and even more persistent.