Turns out, no matter how hard you try, you can’t lose them all.
Are the Detroit Pistons trying to do that? No, not at all. They do appear to have a plan of attack down the stretch as they try to balance developing a solid core of young players while trying to put themselves in position for a chance at the No. 1 overall pick.
Here’s a fun fact:
- Jerami Grant has been inactive in nine games this season
- Mason Plumlee has been inactive in seven games this season
Four of those games have come this month, normal nights off for the team’s top veterans.
It’s probably not a coincidence that those “rest” nights just so happened to have come against three teams (and San Antonio) that could be tanking their way toward overtaking the Pistons for their coveted top-three position in the lottery.
The problem is the Pistons are winning a lot of those games, even when they’re short both their versatile center and leading scorer. This is the problem for Detroit: they’re putting the least proven version of themselves on the floor in games they need to lose.
But they’re winning.
Since the beginning of April, Grant and Plumlee have played in about half of the Pistons’ games. Most of those have come against playoff teams (or contenders) like the Mavericks, Clippers, Blazers, Nuggets and Wizards.
When there’s a formidable foe in town, Dwane Casey (and Troy Weaver?) seem inclined to go in with their full gamut of weapons. When it’s a lottery team, it’s time for the kids to take the reins.
This, in theory, isn’t a bad idea. Pitting the young players against other bad teams is good. Killian Hayes and Isaiah Stewart need all of the 25+ minute games they can handle down the stretch. Saddiq Bey may have locked up his starting role, but when Grant is out, he’s the co-go-to scorer with Josh Jackson.
The lineup Detroit marched out there against the Spurs and Cavaliers this week were as obvious a tank job as they come, but, again, they split those games. The same happened in Sacramento against the Kings and against an Oklahoma City team that we’ll get to in a second.
Benching your vets against bad competition and letting your future play is smart. It’s what rebuilding looks like in an already-lost season.
The Minnesota Timberwolves, a franchise who has landed the elite talent, continues to be trapped in the doldrums. Losing is all that franchise knows. They want to be good, they just can’t figure it out.
The Thunder, on the other hand, had a team that could have compete for the playoffs. Instead, they pivoted mid-season to an extreme that, personally, I think is a little much.
Al Horford, who was in the midst of a late-career revival, could help all 30 teams in the NBA today — yet he’s a healthy scratch because he makes an incredulous amount of money playing for a team with no desire to battle for the playoffs or play-in tournament.
And Shea Gilgeous-Alexander, their future star, is currently injured. More reps this season as the alpha for them would probably be good for his development, and I really do think he’s hurt. However, there’s no way the Thunder would put him back out there, even if he healed up, as they’ve sunk from close to that coveted bottom three position in the lottery.
The Pistons could shut down Plumlee and Grant for the rest of the season and they’d still likely get passed by the Thunder in the standings. Oklahoma City has something Detroit does not: players who, at this point, do more harm than good. Even Aleksej Pokusevski, a cult favorite among many, doesn’t actually help the team win when he’s out there yet.
For the Pistons, playing Stewart (0.19 RPM) over Plumlee (-0.28 RPM) makes them better. When Bey scores 17+ points, they’re 7-5. Hell, even Hayes, who was the kind of not-really-helping player early this season, has had a tangible impact since returning as the team has won 4 of 6 when he plays 25+ minutes.
Obviously, locking in the best odds to land Cade Cunningham would be the best outcome — even though the pessimist in me believes they would still end up picking like No. 4 — but there’s not much else you can do to secure that at this point. The other five teams battling for the top spot either have less talent, worse coaching, or both.
You conceivably could bench all the rookies and force feed 25 minutes a night to bums like Jahlil Okafor and Deividas Syrividas, but that’s garbage. It shouldn’t (and won’t) happen.
The Pistons have 12 games left. Nine of them are against playoff teams, and the other three are against Orlando, Minnesota and Chicago. You’re probably looking at a 3-9 finish — two wins over bad teams plus a random upset of a good team.
You’re probably not passing Minnesota for the second-worst record while Christian “Good Stats, Bad Team” Wood has the Houston Rockets tanking like it’s a science.
The question is, will they be where they need to be when the season ends?