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The Pistons rebuild is about a winning culture, not winning games

The Pistons chose not to rebuild the way other teams have. It remains to be seen whether or not that is the right choice.

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Denver Nuggets v Detroit Pistons Photo by Brian Sevald/NBAE via Getty Images

Before the offseason really got going, there were two trains of thought about the direction of the Detroit Pistons’ offseason:

The Chase For The Eight:

Re-sign Christian Wood, sign Fred VanVleet, maybe extend Luke Kennard, use their first-round pick on someone a little more ready-to-contribute like Tyrese Haliburton. For sure make the NBA’s new play-in tournament, maybe make the playoffs if Blake Griffin stays healthy and plays 55 of 70 games.

The Full Teardown:

Trade Blake Griffin for whatever you can get (but sneakily hope you can use him to move up to No. 2 in the draft for Andrew Wiggins). Trade Derrick Rose for whatever you can get. Keep Luke Kennard, but don’t extend him. Re-sign Christian Wood (because he’s fun to watch). Use your roughly $30 million in cap space to absorb large, toxic contracts (SIN-EATING) for present or future draft assents. Win as few games as possible.

So, to date, the Troy Weaver-led Detroit Pistons have chosen... neither of these pathways. Which has left a lot of fans confused.

The long offseason - where these two trains of thought installed reinforced track after reinforced track in front of them by virtue of a limited number of things to discuss - didn’t help matters. Maybe Pistons fans wouldn’t have such a difficult time grasping what the Pistons ended up doing if we’d only been thinking it for three months instead of eight:

Yes, the Pistons are rebuilding, they’re just doing things differently. So what ARE the Pistons trying to do with their preferred mode of transportation? They’re trying to do the hard part first.

The Hard Part

The way a rebuild usually goes, a team pursues bad players for the draft picks they come with (see: The Full Teardown above). Those bad players cause the team to lose a lot of games. Then, the team (hopefully) gets good players with draft picks — both the draft picks you got for being bad, and the draft picks you got for taking on bad players. Then you excise the bad players to build the a team and a culture around the good players you drafted.

The Pistons are trying to build a team and a culture FIRST. Not necessarily a Winners Culture, but definitely a culture of Not Losers. They’ve said openly and repeatedly they don’t want to lose a bunch of games over the course of a season. They want tall, athletically gifted, self-motivated individuals on their team. And they want to have their draft selections step onto a team that does not need to excise (really) bad players.

My guess is they want to build the culture first because that’s the difficult part. Any front office (that gets the go-ahead from their governor to do so) can put together a team that will lose a lot of games. Any front office can put together a team that will not be paid a lot of money, which will make it easier to acquire those bad players and draft picks. Heck, we run a mock offseason at DBB, and without fail we get a couple of teams who purposefully see how bad they can be and how many picks they can accumulate as an experiment. If us yokels can pull it off, I’m sure an actual general manager could, too.

The hard part, the part we don’t have to do in the mock offseason, is what comes after all the losing. Pivoting away from the bad habits players develop as a result of playing lots and lots of losing basketball. Losing a lot doesn’t just pile up losses — it risks an excess accumulation of bad attitudes, a lax approach to the game, and a franchise looked at unseriously even by its own players.

The Pistons are thinking, “Hey, if the players never develop bad habits, we never have to spend time and energy on having them unlearning them. We can use that time and energy making them better.”

The counter to this argument is that the Pistons, who expended future draft capital this offseason, will have fewer chances to add players who can truly make an impact. In making a team of Not Losers, their draft pick will likely be worse, and in not adding more bad players for picks, they will have fewer opportunities to add younger players. They’ll have fewer darts to throw, and worse odds of those darts hitting the bullseye. This is a totally fair counterargument by the way - there’s usually a pretty good reason why the conventional wisdom is conventional.

My guess on the Pistons’ counter-counterargument (strawman alert!) would be that the restructured lottery odds make winning more games less punishing to non-playoff teams, and that their ability to scout and evaluate young players means that they don’t need as many opportunities to get the right guys. I would 100% agree with the first part of that argument - the NBA changed the rules, you can look at the odds yourself; It’s not nearly as good to go scorched-earth with your rebuild.

The second part of that argument is MUCH more dicey, imo. I know Troy Weaver is lauded for his scouting abilities, but “We will out-scout every team in the league over a multi-year period” is not the support pillar I want to build my franchise around. Even if the team has put an emphasis on scouting prowess in the front office, that’s a tough thing to guarantee.

Ultimately, the Pistons chose not to rebuild the way everybody else does. Maybe that makes them the anecdotal “smartest guys in the room,” maybe it doesn’t. We’ll have (less than! insanely!) a month to start figuring out whether or not that was a good decision or the correct decision, even if the judgement call takes us years to make.