It's Time For The Pistons To Pick A Lane

Since trading Chauncey Billups in 2008, it’s hard to feel good about much that the Detroit Pistons have done on or off the court in recent years. The franchise has routinely missed on draft picks, have released and traded players, only to see them go on to bigger and better things elsewhere, and haven’t won a playoff game in 11 years.

By any measure, things haven’t been pretty.

Piston fans, of course, likely don’t need to be reminded about the team's struggles. Detroit is in the unique position where the vast majority of the fanbase is old enough to remember success at the highest level, but are now so far removed that they've struggled to keep their optimism. You can only watch coaches, general managers, and scouts fail so many times before you start to believe that they’ll never figure it out.

The most recent franchise-defining move came late in the 2017-’18 season, when the Pistons traded a litany of assets for Blake Griffin from the Los Angeles Clippers. Whether you liked the trade or not, Detroit gave up substantial flexibility to tie itself to Griffin for at least the immediate future. This was the case not only because of Griffin’s enormous contract, but also because the Pistons gave up multiple picks and many of the team’s young pieces to get Griffin.

It wasn’t "all in" with Griffin, but it wasn’t too far off, either.

Naturally, many considered this a message that the Pistons were shifting toward a "win now" approach and would no longer be looking toward the draft for their savior. After all, it’s hard to make the case that you’re trying to rebuild and/or build for the future when you trade numerous long-term assets for a player approaching 30 on a massive contract.

For brevity’s sake, I’m going to avoid diving into the can of worms that was the Griffin trade. Pistons fans have their views on that move by now and unless something drastic happens in the next few months (for better or worse), those opinions aren’t changing.

The early payoffs of the trade haven’t exactly sent fans running to find their seats, but they have been there. The Pistons made the Playoffs for only the second time in 10 years. And while the team exited in a sweep, it was at least an encouraging sign. Fans also got to enjoy a top-tier talent for the first time in quite awhile, as Griffin earned All-NBA third team honors this last season. A few young players like Bruce Brown and Luke Kennard also showed some positive things in that period.

However, as mentioned above, the Pistons have also been dealing with the downsides of the trade as well. The bench is remarkably thin and the roster has little to no flexibility. Unless you’re willing to trade a key piece, there haven't been many ways to rectify the situation.

Perhaps the long saving grace, though, was the team’s 2019 draft class. It might sound hyperbolic, but one can make a decent argument that the 2019 draft will end up defining the Pistons for the better part of the next three to five years.

Let’s dive into that for a quick second.

The Pistons project to be a team in no-man’s land next season (just like they were last season). Not good enough to contend for the title, but not bad enough to get a top draft pick. A few really talented players, but not enough depth or long-term assets to make major noise.

Add in the salary cap situation and things look even more concerning. The team has little room to make moves this summer and will only have flexibility entering the 2020-’21 season, when Griffin is 32 years old. Given his injury history and the general age progression in the NBA, it’s hard to feel optimistic about Griffin’s chances of maintaining his current play by then. This likely means that most of the "gains" from free agent signings in 2021 would likely just be replacing lost production from Griffin, leaving the team in the same uncomfortable spot.

But the 2019 draft class stood out as the exception. The Pistons didn’t have a top pick, but the 15th pick is nothing to shake your head at. And with a trade before the draft, Detroit actually had two more picks to work with. Odds of getting a major contributor in the late first or second are slim, but this looked like the one chance the franchise had of keeping its eyes set on winning and avoiding (once again) falling into the middle of the Eastern Conference.

Just hit on a pick and those salary cap issues start to dissipate. It also sets up a scenario where you’re adding players in 2021 to compete for a title, not just to replace lost production from an aging Griffin.

The Pistons’ management opted to go with some interesting selections. With the 15th pick, Detroit selected Sekou Doumbouya. The Pistons also took Deividas Sirvydis and Jordan Bone in the second round.

Generally speaking, I don’t have a lot to critique with regard to these selections individually. Doumbouya is a total unknown out of France and Sirvydis is a relatively unknown commodity out of Europe as well. Some of the initial tape I saw on Doumbouya was encouraging (he has a decent shooting stroke and impressive length), but he’s hardly a guarantee. The same can be said with regard to Sirvydis and Bone, who were both second round selections.

But even if you’re not sure about how these players will develop, there still has to be some concern. After all, this 2019 draft class reeks of the same moves that got the Pistons into the mess they’ve been in for the last decade, i.e. when the franchise would seemingly swing between short-term and long-term moves without explanation. On Monday, the Pistons would be committed to "winning now" and by Friday, they’d be looking to move proven commodities for picks and/or prospects. It’s like dumping your money in Google stock, pulling it out after an initial loss, and then reinvesting it after the stock has already recuperated. It just doesn’t make sense.

Maybe Doumbouya will be ready to contribute by next season, or maybe one of the second round picks really hit the ground running. It’s certainly possible. However, Doumbouya and Sirvydis have widely been regarded as long-term projects that may never work out. There’s always going to be some uncertainty with a draft class, but this one seems quite bizarre given the team’s current predicament.

By any reasonable evaluation, the Griffin trade was a "win now" approach. The franchise sold off a lot of assets for the shot at one of the game’s top talents. And with arguably the team’s best shot at cashing in with Griffin on the roster, management has decided to take two players that likely won’t contribute anything for two to three years and a late second round flyer.

The Pistons will assuredly fall back on the natural explanation, i.e. that you don’t draft for next season and take the best prospect, regardless of fit. And to some degree, that’s a reasonable take. If Doumbouya hits his ceiling, he might end up better than anyone not named Zion in this draft class. That would be a great outcome, even if Griffin isn’t in the Motor City by the time it happens.

But with that said, it’s otherwise tough to make sense of this strategy. Why the Pistons sold so much of its future to win now, only to suddenly reverse course and start investing in long-term assets. Whether right or not, it just feels like we have two people in a canoe paddling in opposite directions. One desperate to get the Pistons into the Playoffs and another trying to make shrewd moves that could payoff in three or four years.

For the Piston’s sake, I hope I’m wrong. Fans have had the brunt end of more than a decade of ineptitude and lost seasons. One shivers at the thought of the worst case scenarios from the 2019 NBA Draft. Many fans already seem to be becoming uninterested in the Pistons and another three or four lost years likely wouldn’t help things.

Yet, it’s hard to look at this 2019 draft class and feel good about where things might be headed for at least the next few years. Unless Doumbouya is ready sooner than expected, it feels like the Pistons just locked themselves into mediocrity for at least two more seasons.

And for those of us hopeful that the franchise would pick a direction, it’s frustration yet again.

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