Since the inimitable Tom Gores has taken over ownership of the Detroit Pistons the front office has been given an almost impossible task: win now while also building for the future. This seemingly mutually exclusive set of constraints brings to mind a scene from the 2007 movie Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, where our protagonist played by John C. Reilly is in rehab going through symptoms of withdrawal:
Nurse - Rehab : Doctor! Doctor!
Dewey Cox : I’m so cold.
Rehab Doctor : We need more blankets.
Nurse - Rehab : We need more blankets!
Nurse - Rehab : Doctor!
Dewey Cox : I’m so hot!
Nurse - Rehab : I think he has too many blankets.
Rehab Doctor : Fewer blankets!
Dewey Cox : I’m hot and cold at the same time!
Nurse - Rehab : He needs more blankets and he needs less blankets.
Rehab Doctor : [gravely] I’m afraid you’re right.
Trying to win now and build for the future is a bit of a more blankets and less blankets situation, with doing both at the same time seeming to be both a necessity and an impossibility. But sometimes life - or in this case a rash of injuries - intervenes, forces your hand and tells you it’s time for just more blankets (or...less blankets). In this case, more or less blankets is player development. Follow me? Of course you do, that wasn’t confusing at all.
Having three starters (Blake Griffin, Reggie Jackson and Tony Snell) and your sixth man and key offseason signing (Derrick Rose) miss substantial time and also be under load management (sorry, I said it) is not how Dwane Casey and the top Pistons (slightly tarnished) brass would have scripted the start of the season. But looking at it from a glass half full angle it also makes way for your younger guys to get some run and see how they do.
So far the young guys have acquitted themselves quite nicely. Luke Kennard wasn’t supposed to be a starter and doubling up his points per game has been a pleasant surprise. Bruce Brown Jr wasn’t supposed to be a point guard much less the substitute starting point guard. Christian Wood barely made the team, was behind Thon Maker (who we’ll leave out of this discussion for his own sake) and wasn’t looking to be much of a rotation player. Svi Mykhailiuk wasn’t supposed to become Luke Kennard 2.0 - facilitator and lights out 3-point shooter off the bench - before Luke became all those things as a starter. And all this came about, all of these players are rounding into shape much much faster than expected courtesy of injuries.
Casey may have his share of critics, both from Pistons fans now as well as from Toronto Raptor fans in his last coaching go around, but what is undeniable is that under his watch as Raptors coach a lot of players (most not expected to do much) made major strides through player development. The shiniest and spiciest of course is Pascal Siakam, who won Most Improved Player last season and is getting talk about winning it again (which has never happened). But there’s also Fred VanVleet, the undrafted PG who is killing it this year in the absence of Kyle Lowry after being indispensable in the Raptors NBA Finals win. Norman Powell had a down year last year but played well enough under Casey to get a fat contract. Delon Wright showed real promise before being shipped to Memphis in the Marc Gasol trade, as did Jakob Pöltl before he was included in the DeMar DeRozan for Leonard trade. OG Anunoby is looking like next man up this season.
These players didn’t all develop only because of Casey but he was certainly a part of it. And he seems to grasp as Pistons head honcho that now is the time to get minutes for the young guys and hope that they can still see minutes when the starters are all back and load management is less needed for Blake and Rose.
The glass half empty view of course says that if these injuries hadn’t happened we’d most likely have a winning record, which is potentially true and would be nice. But the reality is that relying on players with injury histories like Blake, Rose and Jackson means that injuries would’ve hit sooner or later, and with the pressure rising as teams get deeper into the season playing the young guys with confidence would have been much harder to do later in the season. Putting Svi out there in game 15 when the team has a losing record is a lot easier to do than in a hypothetical game 65 when the Pistons have a winning record and are fighting for a playoff spot.
Only time will tell how much fruit this early forced player development will yield but while the Pistons have suffered record-wise so far we may look back at this injury riddled part of the season as the real building blocks for a successful run in the future, a future with younger legs and smaller contracts.