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The third way: Detroit Pistons are walking their own path to rebuild

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There’s rebuilding on the fly, there’s tanking, and there’s Troy Weaver

Detroit Pistons v Miami Heat Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Halfway into his first season as General Manager, we can see some contours of Troy Weaver’s rebuilding philosophy with the Detroit Pistons. The team is heading for a pick in first half of the lottery. Even though it was, to a significant extent, predictable before the start of the season, Troy decided to invest all the cap space he got in dowry while he was tying the knot with the Pistons into old(er) and not cheap free agents, Jerami Grant and Mason Plumlee. This somehow escapes two most prevalent ways to rebuild in recent history. Lately, when a team attempted to rebuilt it was either by ‘rebuilding on the fly’ or by exercising the ‘process’ of tanking.

‘Rebuilding on the fly’ most likely won’t lead you so high

We know the rebuild on the fly from personal experience, inside and out. During his tenure with the Pistons, Joe Dumars showed us first its good face, and then its bad face. The first thing Joe D needed to deal with when he took over as Detroit’s President of Basketball Operations in 2000, was Grant Hill’s decision to leave that year in free agency. The Pistons Legend refused to follow that with trading another star (or rather borderline star) player in Jerry Stackhouse and bottoming out. Instead, he started adding to what he had, in some cases dealing it for more fitting assets, and thus produced a mixture that brought another trophy to Motor City.

Joe D’s second attempt at rebuilding on the fly, that started in late 2000s wasn’t as good, though. As a result of some miscalculations conducted during stormy days of ownership changes, the team entered a period of mediocre basketball with no sights at being any better until acting as de facto GM, Ed Stefanski, got rid of Andre Drummond’s massive contract last season, preparing the playground for Troy’s arrival. But the ‘rebuild on the fly’ strategy is still applied successfully by teams like Clippers, Heat and Lakers (in last two cases, the ‘fly’ is a little prolonged).

Tanking is not so often gold striking

What those latter three teams have, and most teams don’t have, is being attractive destinations for marquee free agents, and recently also attractive destinations for marquee players on contracts with other teams who force their teams to trade them there. For the less attractive teams, there’s a venue to relevance that goes through the draft. This venue was radicalized recently by teams like Sixers or Timberwolves who suck apparently on purpose in multiple seasons to accumulate as much high draft picks as possible.

However, the effectiveness of this venue is also becoming more and more questionable. Philadelphia still has not so much to show for its years of sucking, and to have anything to show for them it needed to add expansive veteran players. So much so that it had to overpay significantly.

But there are more troublesome intrinsic obstacles in this way to rebuild. The biggest is that in 2019 NBA changed the Draft Lottery rules, and now the odds of getting a top three pick are smaller.

A little less but still problematic is the fact that in the ‘one and done’ era, you can be sure of your pick much less than earlier. Let’s take the Sixers. In 2014 they took Joel Embiid with the third pick, one year later they took Jahlil Okafor with the third pick, in 2016 they took Ben Simmons with the first pick and in 2017 they traded their no. three pick with additional assets for no. one pick and took Markelle Fultz. Embiid and Simmons are All-Stars but so far without any team success. Jahlil and Fultz are still NBA players, but far and away from the level you expect a third and first overall picks to be. Therefore, the team still had to bring, in place of those missed picks, mentioned expansive veterans to give itself a shot at contending. It turns out to be an expansive flipping as it now has around $20 million tax bill to pay, it is slimmer by three FRPs and its modus operandi was discredited by the Jimmy Butler saga (a saga that earlier discredited another prolonged bottom dwellers, Timberwolves, which still have nothing to show despite having three first overall picks in the last six drafts).

Make your own way when others have not much to say

When you can’t rely on any specific strategy, you should try to exploit every possibility to its limits. And this seems to be Troy Weaver’s strategy. Troy doesn’t sit on his hands doing nothing. His drafting, free agency and trades, all show the same aggressive effort to make the team better.

Being known for his own ability to identify great prospects for high picks, and having already on board Gregg Polinsky, he added Harold Ellis and Ryan West to have a potent group able to identify good prospects for lower picks (a combined track record in this department of those three includes: Mason Plumlee, Jarrett Allen, Kyle Kuzma, Mitchell Robinson, Kyle O’Quinn, Larry Nance Jr., Ivica Zubac, Svi Mykhailiuk and Moritz Wagner). No wonder that, in the first draft with Weaver at helm, Detroit made additional investments in the draft and struck on at least three out of four draft picks the franchise ultimatly had. Isaiah Stewart, Saddiq Bey and Saben Lee, all already are looking like far and away better players than the slots from which they were picked would suggest, even though they’re only scratching the surface of what they can be. We can’t say that about Killian Hayes yet, but he showed on couple of occasions that the skills he has were worth taking a risk of spending the seventh pick on him.

Troy was also aggressive with Pistons’ salary cap. He recognized that teams currently being noticeably over the tax line are in contending mood, as well as that next year FA class won’t look any more tempting enough to lure teams into making room for them, and deduced that other franchises rather won’t seek to spent assets to unload some of their contracts. So he decided to spent the whole cap space the franchise had after trading Drummond (almost $29 million). But he did it in his own way. He didn’t throw it all on some splashy, max free agent like teams rebuilding on the fly tent to do. Neither he spent it on a bunch of cheaper players that doesn’t mash too good together and with the rest of the team just to fulfill requirements regarding minimal salary cap – as tanking teams usually end doing. Instead, he identify two players allowing him pace his third way and invested into them. And it looks like he struck again.

In Jerami Grant, he brought a player that turns out to have an upside that no one, apparently except Troy, foresaw. He embodies like everything we want Pistons mentality to be about. And despite doing the job of a max player, his salary is almost 50% smaller (except a few players being still on rookie deals, a bunch of role players and Julius Randle, Zach LaVine, Domantas Sabnis, Fred VanVleet and Jaylen Brown, all players having better WS than Jerami are max players). As his salary, he as a player doesn’t confine team’s future whatsoever. He’s young enough to be still in his prime (to which he’s maturing very fast) when the youngsters the team has and may add soon will be approaching theirs to form with them a core. And his contract is a great asset if the team will decide to trade him.

Mason was a great find no less. He’s crucial to cement team’s offense. And despite having some flows he contributes to a defensive structure “in which young Pistons players can develop and grow into their future roles.” Similarly to Grant, Plumlee has outgrown his contract by far – he’s in 89.6th percentile in WS, while his contract is a bit above the average salary in the League ($8 to $7.7 million) – and teams are asking about his availability in trades.

Troy also invested the Room Midlevel Exception exceptionally well. The Josh Jackson Reclamation Project looks to be very successful experiment, and it still has some room to look even better.

Next, the trades. We can whine about some of them in vacuum. But who you rather have: Bruce Brown looking for extension in the range of $5 million or, likely, more and still being bound by a offensive system not playing to his strengths, Luke Kennard with around $15 million per extension, Derrick Rose on expiring contract, some late first and two second rounders or Isaiah Stewart and Saddiq Bey on rookie deals, Delon Wright whose contract is a hot commodity and Dennis Smith Jr. who looks like another hit reclamation project who can be extended on reasonable deal. Yea, I thought so. And if this might still be not enough for some malcontents, let me remind you one important thing: as we indicated elsewhere (here and here), all those trade acquisitions (well, I didn’t touch upon Isaiah yet because it was too early to judge him from this perspective then, but he’s starting to show signs that he will qualify as well) fit the mold of Dwane Casey’s basketball philosophy.

This last thing leads us to the final ingredient of Troy’s own approach to the rebuilding process. Despite having second to last record in the NBA, Detroit is showing signs of firm, consistent and matured identity and culture ‘tanking’ teams don’t usually have. All the players are on the same page among themselves and with the coaching staff, all are working hard to get better and, regardless of their overwhelmingly young age, all are representing Detroit basketball the best Pistons fans could wish for.

In a span of only a few months, using draft, free agency and trades, Troy Weaver has conducted a complete overhaul of Detroit Pistons roster walking an unprecedented way. Yet, the new squad is looking like being determined to achieve the common goal as if they were playing together for years. In spite of losing, the franchise is as fun to root for as were the Pistons in Joe D’s first year as head of basketball operations. Even though we can’t say that this is refreshing – Troy is treading his own trail – the results might be not less beautiful and imminent was the dominance of Goin’ to work crew.