The NBA season might be over at the end of the night. The Los Angeles Lakers are up 3-1 on the Miami Heat, and the underdog Heat are still down Goran Dragic. The Detroit Pistons are nowhere near the caliber of either of these franchises. They aren’t anywhere close to the playoffs much less the Finals, in fact.
It might not seem at first that the Pistons couldn’t do anything to replicate or learn from either of these franchises on their own paths to the Finals. The perpetually fortuitous Lakers are constantly able to attract stars. LeBron James left his hometown Cavs for the second time for the glitz, glamour and prestige of spending his final superstar years in LA. Anthony Davis, after years of frustration with the New Orleans Pelicans demanded a trade to the Lakers. Despite having an insane amount of leverage, the Lakers still sent over just about every asset they had in exchange for Davis — young stars, future picks, pick swaps, you name it.
Can the Pistons convince superstars to sign with them to play in Detroit? Will a superstar be demanding a trade anytime soon? Hell no.
So let’s look at the Heat. They were the franchise to form the superteam — where three superstars, James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh — wanted to team up and play together in South Beach. Also something that would never happen in Detroit in a million years. They rode that wave and the prestige of GM Pat Reilly to a few championships and the establishment of #HeatCulture. That culture attracted the iconoclastic Jimmy Butler and he is powering the team to a surprise trip to the Finals.
So what can the Pistons take from that when they don’t have Pat Reilly and its beaches aren’t quite as attractive as the ones in Miami?
Similar to the Lakers, it’s not attracting any big stars that the Pistons can emulate, it’s all the little things that each franchise got right that allowed them to succeed in spite of myriad mistakes made along the way.
The Lakers are in the Finals because of James and Davis, sure. But the franchise also got 1,500-plus minutes from Kyle Kuzma, who the franchise drafted 27th overall and nearly 1,200 minutes from the undrafted Alex Caruso. Those players added the depth needed to survive minutes without the stars.
Even more instructive is the Heat who have absolutely not done everything right. They have absolutely mismanaged their cap for years with deals to the likes of Dion Waiters, Hassan Whiteside, Kelly Olynyk, Tyler Johnson and James Johnson.
They are where they are because they know how to hire the right people to maximize the talent of their players, grab gems in the lower rounds and out of the undrafted ranks, and absolutely know how to work the trade market.
There might not be a Jimmy Butler if the team didn’t have Josh Richardson on hand, taken 40th overall and groomed in Miami over several years. The Heat also know how to maximize first-round picks even when they don’t have slots in the lottery. Bam Adebayo looks to be one of the most promising big men in the NBA. The Heat identified him early, let him play to his strengths and weren’t afraid to put him in the starting lineup as soon as it looked like he was the best big on the roster even though it already have a $100 million big man in Whiteside (since traded).
Even more importantly, the Heat minutes leaders are Adebayo (in his third year), Duncan Robinson (second year) and Kendrick Nunn (rookie). Those three guys have played roughly 6,500 minutes for the Heat this season. They also knew exactly how Robinson, a limited player, could maximize his greatest skill (shooting), and get even better. The team focused on quickening his shot release instead of something more useless like working on his ball handling or some such thing.
If anybody knows how to mismanage a cap, it’s the Pistons. Their problem, however, is they don’t have a head coach like Erik Spoelstra or the player development program the Heat have. But they could!
A focus on finding the right people — the right player development coaches, the right scouts, the right leader in the front office — is certainly something the Pistons can focus on. It would allow them to not have to be a free agency destination, and it would allow them to recover much more easily from mistakes.
The Pistons are stuck in purgatory because they feel like they need to take a big swing and if it’s not the one-in-a-million hit, they are not only back to where they started, they are likely actually worse off (see the trade of Tobias Harris for Blake Griffin).
The Pistons need to become a franchise that can identify players to develop, develop them, and have coaches that can put them on the floor in positions to succeed so they grow their game and their confidence.
I know this isn’t rocket science, but it’s exactly what the Lakers and the Heat have done to get to where they are. It’s something the Pistons can replicate because there is no salary cap on building a front office. They just need to find the right people to build this organization.
Do they have them already in place? Well, we’re about to find out. Because even if they don’t want to use the term, the rebuild is on.
Maybe by 2026, the Pistons will be the one in the NBA Finals.