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DBB on 3: Tanking is harder than it looks

The Pistons are losing, but they’re not losing enough right now. We dive into whether they can they fix it.

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Sacramento Kings Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

With 17 games left in the regular season, the Detroit Pistons are in an unfamiliar position. They’re one of the three worst teams in the NBA, a feat they haven’t accomplished since 1993 when they landed the third overall pick. That selection, of course, ended up being Grant Hill, who is perhaps the single most talented player to suit up for Detroit since.

The Pistons are not only trailing the Minnesota Timberwolves and Houston Rockets for top lottery odds, but they’re in a battle with the tanktastic Orlando Magic and Oklahoma City Thunder for their coveted spot in the top three.

1. The Pistons’ quest for top overall draft lottery odds have slowed in recent weeks. What percentage chance do you give them of finishing the year with the best lottery odds?

Lazarus Jackson: ... 14%? Via the pick odds the NBA has established? The bottom-three teams all get the same maximum 14% chance at the No.1 pick. The Pistons are a bottom-three team (third, but bottom three) and project to be a bottom-three team for the final 18, 17 games of the season. Being worse - being THE worst team instead of a bottom-three team - is about raising the floor your pick can be, not raising the ceiling.

Ben Gulker: Basically none. Going by net rating, this team has been the best of the worst all season (23rd out of 30), and that’s turned into “unexpected” winning of late. The quality of the roster is better than its record, if only slightly.

Brady Fredericksen: Zero percent. They could lose their next 17 games and still not get there because I’m not convinced that the Rockets or Timberwolves could muster together three wins each in that span. I just want them to stick in the top three. I know they won’t move up, because good things like that don’t happen here, but if Cade Cunningham is truly the golden goose... third worst is no worse than worst, right?

Justin Lambregetse: No chance. The Pistons have an easy schedule to close out the season, the young guys are playing well, and there are teams outside of Houston and Minnesota, like Orlando, that are closing in.

Joe Sinke: Almost none. I wouldn’t be shocked if the Pistons hit a hard skid before the end of the season, but the teams behind them would have to actually win some games and a couple teams just ahead of them will probably lose a ton of games as well.

Christopher Daniels: 10% and it’s that high only because you never know what the other teams will do. Minnesota shouldn’t be this bad and maybe A-Rod gives them a boost. Houston should but again you never know, maybe Tillman Fertitta walks into the locker room, goes nuclear and scares them into a win streak. Wouldn’t bet on either though.

David Fernandez: I give Detroit a near 0% chance of landing the top odds—unless you mean, top odds at landing #1 pick, since that’s all they’d have to do is remain the third worst team. But I highly doubt they’ll jump Houston, who is A: terrible, and B: has the most difficult schedule remaining.

enbiejowiec: Yeah, it doesn’t look as I thought it would. I still think that—besides good play of their players—only Magic present a serious threat of pushing the Pistons from being among teams with top odds. But the threat is serious. So I’d say Detroit has less than 50% chance of staying with top odds.

ScottFL: Zero.

2. This recent “success” isn’t for lack of trying. The Pistons just play hard and win some games, even without their top players. Can they “right” the ship and get back to losing more over this final stretch?

Lazarus Jackson: I think so. Even with the recent success, the Pistons are still the worst team in the Eastern Conference, with “opportunities” to lose (“win?”) games against the Magic, Wolves, and Thunder yet to come. And if the Pistons win more games than they “should” but it’s mostly because Killian Hayes ups his career high or Saddiq Bey goes 7-10 from three or Hamidou Diallo scores 15 points in 12 minutes... I can’t get really mad at that.

Ben Gulker: Casey’s doing his part by playing essentially everyone on the roster, but there’s enough talent coupled with persistent hard work to make the team just that much better than the truly disastrous rosters out there.

Brady Fredericksen: It would take some pretty significant roster chess. They would need to follow OKC’s lead with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Al Horford by shutting down Jerami Grant and Mason Plumlee. That still might not be enough. You’re not gonna take away minutes from Saddiq Bey, Isaiah Stewart, Saben Lee, Hami Diallo and Killian Hayes. To me, the break-glass-to-tank option is to sit Grant and Plumlee—plus Cory Joseph and Wayne Ellington—while giving 20 or so minutes to Sekou Doumbouya and, yes, Deividas Sirvydis.

Justin Lambregetse: I’m not really sure how they can. They are giving a lot of minutes to two-way players like Saben Lee and Frank Jackson. The young guys are applying more while the veterans are starting to play less. As annoying as it is for draft odds purposes, winning games because young guys are playing well and hard is a good problem to have.

Joe Sinke: There isn’t a ton more they can do to try and lose more. They traded anyone with meaningful value, if they win they win. Only thing they could maybe do is shut down Jerami Grant because he has clearly worn down a bit as the season has gone on (and understandably so) but that seems unlikely.

Christopher Daniels: We can’t control our tank destiny by suddenly rolling out a bunch of the end of the bench because besides Okafor we’ve played them all and they’ve all been at worst playable. Crazy season.

David Fernandez: I don’t think the Pistons will do anything dramatic to boost the tank, other than possibly shutting down Jerami Grant for the last couple games of the season if that’s what’s needed. They’ll lose enough games organically.

enbiejowiec: I wouldn’t count on that. The guys won’t stop playing hard, it’s just not in their basketball DNA. The only solution would be to stop playing veterans. But I’m afraid doing it completely and consistently just isn’t in Dwane Casey and Troy Weaver’s cards.

ScottFL: Hopefully.

3. What does this season, if anything, tell you about the future trajectory of the team?

Lazarus Jackson: Mainly that they’re on the right track after the Blake Buyout. Picking up a top-2 pick in this draft facilitates that rapidly, picking up a top-5 pick in this draft keeps the wheels turning, and falling out of the top-5 is a setback (minor, but a setback). Unless they get Cade, this team is probably bottom-five bad again next season, which is good for another 14% chance at a top talent. In 2022-23, with (currently) a mere $49 million of guaranteed money on the books, two top-5 picks, along with third-year young guns Killian Hayes, Saddiq Bey, Isaiah Stewart, and Saben Lee, this team will be competing for the playoffs with a much more sustainable talent base than the 2018-19 Detroit Pistons playoff team.

Ben Gulker: I have a few relatively small concerns, but I’m mostly optimistic. I don’t love our cap profile in the immediate short-term, but Weaver has done a lot of good. He hit twice in the first round outside the lottery, and he’s identified good value in free agency. Perhaps most importantly, the entire franchise - from ownership to the head coach - is bought in to the full rebuild and understands it will be a long-term project.

Brady Fredericksen: They’ve got four keepers in Stewart, Bey, Diallo, and Hayes... I don’t think they’ve had four young players on the same timeline like that in... I don’t know how long. They still need a guy like Cunningham or Evan Mobley or Chet Holmgren or Emoni Bates or Victor Wembanyama. The Pistons are a team trying to play the lottery game, but it’s apparent that Troy Weaver knows it’s not just losing. You can be a terrible team with top picks and never make it to work. Culture matters, and the Pistons have that brewing. This wasn’t going to be the Trust the Process Sixers because that lottery system is extinct. It won’t be Oklahoma City because that was a once-in-a-lifetime event that Weaver experienced first hand. The Pistons need to find their superstar, of course, but they also need to avoid falling into long-term disarray like the loser franchises in Sacramento and Minneapolis.

Justin Lambregetse: I think this team is finally on the right track and there is light at the end of the tunnel. This team actually has some high level athletes that play hard and a GM who is not afraid to attack the draft, free agency, and the trade market. It very well could backfire, but I feel pretty confident it Troy Weaver’s talent evaluation abilities. It will still be a few years, but I think this rebuild will go quicker than people initially thought.

Joe Sinke: Very little. The Pistons have a few nice pieces but no one who looks like a proper centerpiece and until they get that the rest is pretty much moot. It’s most likely that nearly the entire current roster will be gone by the time the Pistons start to actually be good.

Christopher Daniels: What it seems to suggest is that you know you’re building a winning culture when you just can’t quite seem to lose enough. These guys just play hard and that’s on them but also on the organization as well. Casey seems a much better fit than I thought and Weaver seems to be a man on a mission and just getting started. Good shit.

David Fernandez: That Detroit has the right guy in charge in Troy Weaver, but they are in desperate need of a superstar quality player if they want to be taken seriously in the Eastern Conference.

enbiejowiec: Oh, they can be good. Really good. On the other hand, the addition of a top three pick would still be very helpful and desired. Without that, there’s a possibility that they come short of being contenders in a couple of years. Though in that case Troy can still work some of his magic and via free agency, trades and lower draft pick bring to those, who we have, players assuring they’ll be contenders. So we’ll see.

ScottFL: THIS is where it gets dicey, pending the outcome of this year’s lottery.

If you’re not stockpiling assets for the next disgruntled-superstar trade, and you don’t have extra picks to move up in the draft, then you are relying on either lottery luck or choosing a future superstar somewhere other than at the top of the draft (and no, I don’t think that has already occurred with any of this year’s rookies, although hope springs eternal).

For instance, the Pacers have eleven (11) decent-or-better players between the ages of 24 and 28. They are also in ninth place in the lousy East, are currently in possession of precisely zero future title equity, and are basically (self-plagiarism alert) the most-mediocrity-treadmill roster that ever treadmilled mediocrely. It is definitionally hopeless.

Do you want that? EYE don’t want that.

What happens if Jerami and Plumlee and this year’s rookies make a playoff run next season? This is the lousy East we’re talking about, after all. Notwithstanding having lucked into Cade Cunningham, and picking in the 12-16 range in the 2022 draft, have you already locked in something like that Pacers trajectory?

If the Pistons don’t get Cade, and don’t tank in 2022, what do y’all think of the resulting ceiling?

One other tangentially related thing that I have mentioned previously: I don’t think enough attention is paid to the fundamental shift of the supply curve in terms of talent. There are so many good players now, and lots more on the way. As such, I don’t think the 2004 Pistons Voltron Model is going to work ever again: in addition to the rules being changed to favor offense, the overall shooting and offensive aptitude and perimeter size has improved by orders of magnitude since then.

The next legitimately competitive Pistons team will have at least two players who are better than Jerami Grant is today. How do you get from here to there?

“I get Cade, or I get Emoni, or I get fired.” (Troy Weaver did NOT say this, to be clear; it is a facetious attribution on my part that I will absolutely continue beating into the ground for my own amusement.)

As always, play along in the comments. We’d love to hear your thoughts:

1. The Pistons’ quest for top overall draft lottery odds have slowed in recent weeks. What percentage chance do you give them of finishing the year with the best lottery odds?

2. This recent “success” isn’t for lack of trying. The Pistons just play hard and win some games, even without their top players. Can they “right” the ship and get back to losing more over the final stretch?

3. What does this season, if anything, tell you about the future trajectory of the team?