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Can back-to-back first overall picks save the Detroit Pistons?

| Friday, January 28, 2022

Abysmal, atrocious, miserable, and disappointingly subpar.  These are all words that would be fitting to describe the 2021-2022 campaign for the Detroit Pistons thus far.  Barring a monumental turnaround, this season seems like a wash for the team. And a turnaround seems unlikely considering the hole that the Pistons currently lie in. In the Eastern Conference standings, they’re 13 games behind the eighth seed Boston Celtics. 

As currently the second-worst team in the NBA, by a pitiful three-game margin, there is not much farther for the team to plunge for the remainder of this year.  This is the same franchise that has a rich history in the league, highlighted by three titles. They took home back to back championships in 1989 and 1990, beating Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson-led teams. Then, in 2004, they dominated the Kobe Bryant-led Lakers.

The fact of the matter is that in Detroit, the Bad Boys have always reigned supreme with hustle-based basketball that has relied on gritty defenses that dimmed even the brightest stars. But, as of about the last decade and a half, that has not been the case.  Franchises with similar histories such as the Lakers, Celtics, and Bulls have faced similar struggles, but never quite to this almost Egyptian plague level of suffering. 

In professional basketball, there are a few predictive indicators to measure the success of a team’s season and the trajectory of the team in years to come.  Some of the most reliable of these factors would be making the playoffs or picking up other end-of-season awards such as the Most Valuable Player or Rookie of the Year.

Even for teams who are at the bottom of the totem pole when it comes to measures of overall success at the end of the season, there is the possible reward of a high draft pick won in the Draft Lottery. These achievements, even without the securing of a championship, bring a reward that is almost just as precious. That reward would be the way that these accomplishments inspire hope in the people associated with an organization.

For many years the city of Detroit, which was hit hard by the national economic downturn of 2008, was also struck by the downward spiral of their beloved basketball team. This is a city and franchise that has been lacking the hope that success brings for many years.

Additionally, with a small market team like Detroit which has not been able to put together even a pair of All-Stars since 2008, it is nearly impossible to attract big-name free agents.  In this year’s struggles, the team has been dealing with issues of players unable to play due to COVID-19 Health and Safety Protocols.  This has resulted in the team pulling up many G-League players who have put in some productive minutes for the squad, but this puts a significant hindrance on what the team can accomplish.  These circumstances have resulted in the jumbled and rag-tag lineups that include legitimate rising NBA talent like forward Jerami Grant with players who are just now getting their first professional minutes.   

While the Detroit Pistons have not netted a positive postseason achievement besides two first-round playoff exits since 2009, last year they managed to cash in on their struggles and land the first overall pick to draft Cade Cunningham.  With Cunningham leading a developing core of young talent that will hopefully bring the team to success in the near future, the Pistons are still widely considered the dredges of the NBA.  For many fans, however, the burning question stands, “When will it be our time?” or “Who will be the Moses to lead our team out of agony?” The answers to these questions are ones that no one knows, but the success of this basketball organization hangs in the balance of their answers.  

It is a real possibility that with the current trajectory of the Detroit Piston’s season they could find themselves at the top of the lottery with their current race for last place with the Orlando Magic. As they did last year, the reward of failure with the first pick in the draft could once again fall to the Motor City. However, the question stands, “What would another number one overall pick do for the Detroit Pistons?” Would this blessing from the basketball gods be enough to right the course of Dwayne Casey’s team?

Just like the Cleveland Cavaliers with Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins in 2013-14, or the Philadelphia 76er’s with Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz in 2016-17, the reward of back-to-back first overall picks may not be a sure marker for success. While these are complex examples, the Detroit Pistons could possibly be adding Gonzaga center Chet Holmgren or Duke forward Paolo Banchero to a locker room bursting at the seams with young talent. Another first overall pick would rejuvenate the Detroit Pistons for a short while, but the certainty of the team’s future success is still bouncing around the rim.  

While the chances of the lottery balls playing exactly to the Piston’s favor is far from a guarantee, there is still a multitude of avenues that the front office could take to bolster the team for future success. One of those options is going all-in on the last two years of drafted talent; meaning the team needs to surround the likes of Cade Cunningham, Killian Hayes, Saddiq Bey, Isaiah Stewart, and Saben Lee with veterans that will facilitate their growth. 

This plan also may involve moving star Jerami Grant who has been a bright spot for the team when he has been able to be on the court. His market value in either draft assets or a package deal far exceeds his value to the group if the team wants to focus solely on the younger players. The Pistons are moving for a rebuild from the ground up, but if they do this, they have to commit to the aggressive moves that come with a period of failure.  

Another avenue that the organization could push for is to do whatever it takes to strengthen the Rookie of the Year case for breakout star point guard Cade Cunningham. With him as the centerpiece of this long-term rebuild, this award would legitimize the efforts of the Detroit Pistons to continue their building of the team around him and the other younger players. Cunningham has every chance for this award to land in his young hands to try to mimic the second-year playoff push success of Lamelo Ball with the Charlotte Hornets.             

While this season has not been far from kind to the Detroit Pistons and their fans, there are absolutely a plethora of positive takeaways for those noble faithful few who want to believe in this franchise. With a group of hungry young players and the right moves made by the front office, this team could become a growing beast in the Eastern Conference.

Despite the struggles of the Detroit Pistons, there is just a dangerous slice of hope that the Motor City could have a team to boast about one more.  By no means should one buy their ticket to the championship parade just yet, but things may be poised to turn around in Detroit.  To answer the question, “When will the Detroit Bad Boys be back?” there is no definitive date, but it may just be closer than most people think.

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About Jack Sirianni

Notre Dame Class of 2025-Reese, Michigan-Fisher Hall-Political Science

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