Okay, I need to admit something. I’m so old that I remember the rebuild the Detroit Pistons went through after the Bad Boys ended their run. The departure of respective guys from the championships teams (James Edwards, Vinnie Johnson, John Salley), the acquisition of playable veterans (Terry Mills, Olden Polynice, Alvin Robertson, Darrell Walker, Orlando Woolridge) were interwoven as the franchise tried to retool rather than bottom out. This was the first year of a new era with new executive Billy McKinney at helm replacing Trader Jack, and former assistant Ron Rothstein replacing Daddy Rich on the sidelines.
The team almost made it to the 1993 NBA Playoffs, fighting for the last spot with the ascendant Indiana Pacers powered by Reggie Miller, Dunking Dutchmen Rik Smits and former best Sixth Man turned starter Detlef Schrepmf. Also fighting for the spot was an Orlando Magic team powered by rookie sensation Shaquille O’Neal. Pacers won the battle for the playoffs, Magic – despite having the worst odds – won the lottery for the second consecutive year and the Pistons were left with the last lottery pick (plus a second to last from Spider’s trade to Heat).
A Rebuild Fit For Teal
After that season it was evident this team needed more than a retool. The team needed to deal with the Worm in the offseason. A few games into the season, Lambieer understood it was time to call it a career after a fist fight with Isiah Thomas during a practice. Isiah himself as well as Joe D needed to deal with nagging injuries. Finally, Sean Elliott, acquired in the Worm trade from Spurs, not only had an uncharacteristic down year in Detroit in his march to becoming a 20 point per game scorer in the NBA, but his kidney issues, revealed at the last minute, ruined a trade for young exciting player Robert Horry. On the bright side, the Don Chaney coached squad finished with only 20 wins and was due for a high lottery pick. The two rookies from last year, Lindsey Hunter and Allan Houston, showed some promise and Terry “Three” Mills established himself as a great contributor.
Nevertheless, that bright side was significantly overshadowed somehow for me by the fact that when I finally persuaded my peers in Poland what a great sport basketball is, my beloved basketball team was reaching the bottom, so all I heard from my peers was “Michael Jordan did this or Michael Jordan did that.” But all those shadows were dispelled when lottery results were announced for the 1994 NBA Draft. Finally, Jordan’s greatness was useful for me. He was taken third overall, the same spot the Detroit Pistons were picking. And with that pick, the Pistons selected Grant Hill. Did he deliver? Yhhh…
The first year of the Grant Hill era was a disappointment. The team used its cap space wisely, I thought, bringing two solid bigs from the Suns – Oliver “Big O” Miller and Mark West. Joe D was a great veteran presence and Three Mills started the season on a very high note.
Houston began to emerge and Hill won the Rookie of the Year Award (with Jason Kidd) which was essential to confirm that he could be on a Jordan-like trajectory.
But Detroit won only 8 more games than the previous season. Lindsey lost almost half a year to injury. Bill Curley (a rookie taken with the 22nd pick obtained from Spurs for the Elliott disaster) was a complete failure. Big O and West missed a ton of games.
Worst of all, there was only one(!!!) Pistons game broadcast in Poland. Even worse, it wasn’t a full game but a 25 minutes summary. Even worse than that, it was in German.
After the disappointing season, the franchise used the 1995 offseason to make some changes at the top. Doug Collins was introduced as a new head coach and top executive. And it all clicked. Collins made some crafty roster moves, cutting ties with Miller who had repeated problems with staying healthy, dealing the No. 8 pick from the six-players-deep 1995 Draft to the Trail Blazers for two rookies from late teens and a second-rounder, and then trading one of the rooks and the Bill Curley disaster back to Portland for disgruntled Otis Thorpe. Thus Collins put some muscles (Thorpe, rookies Theo Ratliff and Don Reid) around a young core of Hill and Houston (Hunter was still trying to catch up with his promising rookie year after injury) to go along with savvy veterans, Dumars and Mills. As a coach, he took a full advantage of NBA moving the long line closer in 1994, and the team was on the rise making a 16-game jump in the win column.
In 1996, Collins was about to add another ‘H’ to team’s young core of Hill, Houston and Hunter by signing up-and-coming forward Juwan Howard, only to find out that Houston, who “privately assured the Pistons he would re-sign,” jumped on a deal offered by Knicks (S. Addy, J. F. Karzen, The Detroit Pistons. More than Four Decades of Motor City Memories, Champaign IL 2002, p. 215). Instead of making a big free agency splash, Motown needed to settle on two veterans, Stacey Augmon and Michigan-native Grant Long, who didn’t work out. Even after being betrayed by Houston, not to mention missing on Howard, the team had still a better year, winning six more games. A solid contribution to this progress was thanks to Lindsay finally hitting his stride. Yet it became apparent that Hill needed more help around him for the team to ever truly compete.
I thought those reinforcements were coming when the franchise handed a hefty contract to Brian Williams in the summer of 1997 and when at the beginning of the following season it traded for Jerry Stackhouse. But the departure of Thorpe, paint packed by Williams presence, Stack’s wild play and NBA decision to move the three-point line back didn’t do Hill’s game any favors. The team was underperforming for the next two seasons and in 2000 free agency Hill left for a doomed stint with the Orlando Magic.
Clocking in for the Goin’ to Work Era
Another rebuild started. This one was supervised by Joe D who ended his decorated career two years earlier, paid some dues in the front office for one season and took its reins at the turn of the millennium. It looked like he’s was taking over a franchise that is set back a couple of years with Hill’s departure. But the new PBO changed it into his advantage. In hindsight we all must agree that it wasn’t Hill leaving, it was Joe D trading for Ben Wallace and Chucky Atkins using Hill that changed history. He wanted to get Big Ben, who set some screens to remember when they played against each other, in the sign and trade for Hill and he did. And he struck gold as Big Ben became an anchor for the team Joe D would build.
In his first offseason, Dumars also made three other trades for useful veterans, decided to stick to Stack and thus the team was able to win 32 games in the season, in which he also traded for another important piece, Corliss Williamson.
In his second offseason, Joe D traded for Jon Barry, Cliff Robinson and Željko Rebrača, plus got a great value with 38th pick in Mehmet Okur (which helped make up for Detroit’s disastrous pick of Rodney White at No. 9 overall). He was close to bringing in Chris Webber, who was at a peak of his career, home in free agency, though C-Webb decided that after a stormy start to his career, he wanted to finish what he started and re-signed with Kings. Joe D took it easy. A couple months earlier, he found a great coach for the group he already assembled and thus he had a 50-wins team that won Central Division title. An 18-win turnaround.
Using free agency (Chauncey Billups), trades (Richard Hamilton and Rasheed Wallace) and the draft (Tayshaun Prince) in the two following seasons, he replaced the likes of Barry, Uncle Cliffy and Zelly with this portion of necessary pieces and thus constructed a powerhouse that with new coach brought another trophy to Motor City.
Joe D made the second-best team in franchise history very quickly by choosing players who fit perfectly with each other. None of them was what commonly is called a star; Dumars didn’t had at his disposal means to get one, except a No. 2 selection in 2003 NBA Draft that he blew on Darko. But he used what he had – some cap space, other draft picks, tradable players – to put around Big Ben a collective sharing the same identity of dedication to hard work; a collective that was able to dominate the game for a bunch of seasons.
However, what he built very quickly was paving a way for another bright future very slowly. In fact, only now we’re able to see some possibility of another light at the end of a tunnel. The situation has some similarities with both rebuilds as current Pistons top executive, Troy Weaver, is walking his own way to make a contender.
The Lost Decade
Before we get to Weaver, however, we must acknowledge the rebuilds that never were, both under Joe Dumars and under Stan Van Gundy. Like the post-Bad Boys era, this was an attempt to retool and compete at the same time. Only, instead of realizing the error after a season and pivoting toward a complete rebuild, it took the franchise more than a decade to realize the error of their ways.
They attempted to contend with high-priced free agent disasters like Ben Gordon, Charlie Villanueva and Josh Smith. There was the same old compulsion to latch on to a superstar in Allen Iverson and Blake Griffin. There was cap mismanagement, holding on to veterans way too long, and poor drafting aplenty, all with an eye toward maybe, hopefully competing for one of the final playoff spots in the East.
NOW we can talk about Troy Weaver!
Leaving the Clip Empty with Troy Weaver
Before Troy arrived, Detroit was given one last chance to ride a roster that brought them to the playoffs in 2019, as the franchise did during the twilight of the Bad Boys era. When it became apparent it wasn’t going to work, the team freed a significant portion of cap space, secured a decent lottery pick, and use these assets to bring one of the most coveted executives in the NBA (Troy) on board.
And the new executive started to work at Joe D’s turn-of-the-century, two-phones-in-hand speed as soon as he arrived. It was obvious Griffin wasn’t the player he once was as injuries had taken their toll. Weaver decided then to use cap space to bring two other veterans to help provide consistency on both ends as the team focused on youth.
He brought Mason Plumlee to be Joe D kind of veteran presence from the teal years. And he brought Jerami Grant to bet on his upside. The bet paid off as Jerami after his first season in Detroit is looking comfortable to take a role of a Grant Hill or Chauncey Billups type, a star player who nevertheless needs to be teamed with other star-level players to contend. What also needs to be stressed here is that Jerami grew into that role without inhibiting Detroit's chances of getting a high lottery pick in a top-heavy draft that comes this summer.
Next, Troy used room exception to invest in a reclamation project in Josh Jackson and minimum exception to invest in another one in Jahlil Okafor. Finally, he used all other assets to build through the draft (Killian Hayes, Isaiah Steward, Saddiq Bey, Saben Lee) and trades (Dennis Smith Jr., Hamidou Diallo) on young players with upside, the proper work ethic, competitiveness, and physical profile.
Therefore, Troy’s Pistons not only look to have a proper veteran presence – Mason as poor man’s (but still very rich in the bank account) Joe D, plus Cory Joseph as someone comparable in this regard to Three Mills. In Jerami, the team looks to be discovering one of its defensive and offensive cornerstones, who is on a great deal and can be easily flipped for some haul if the opportunity presents itself. In Hami, Isaiah, Saben and Saddiq, it could have its own versions of the Houstons and Hunters from the teal or Palace Princes from Goin’ to Work rebuild, spread through various positions. In Tyler Cook, Killian Hayes, Frank and Josh Jacksons, Sekou Doumbouya, Jahlil, Deividas Sirvydis and DSJ it could have its own Big Nasty, Memo, Dice or OT, or use them to bring such contributors.
But that’s not all. The team seems to have a very well-suited coach both for now and for the future, at least a future of the most difficult position in the game. This offseason, Troy’s team could own a pick that will allow to add the kind of top-level talent it could never secure in the Grant Hill era. You need at least one superstar to build around and plenty of high-level complementary players. Already decently stocked with young, complementary pieces, this upcoming draft could deliver the team its another (super)star (though there will be a danger that it could be another Darko Milicić). After next season, the team will have some decent cap space and could be in a situation to lure one more. And this offseason, the team could open up enough room to add a Jerami Grant-level player with just a few minor moves to the roster.
So yes, against the background of previous rebuilds and rebuilds that never were, Troy’s looks encouraging. Yet we – and Troy mostly – need to remember that it ‘looks’ encouraging. Jerami still has some work to do to be a leader of a contender, and Troy has some parallel work to do to identify whether he’s really on that track or you need to flip him. Likewise, other guys have some work to do to be contributors on up and coming team on par with Houstons, Hunters etc. from previous rebuilds, and accordingly Troy has some work to do in identifying which ones of them will be, for you can’t develop around a dozen of youngsters with high upside at the same time.
Avoiding the Darko disaster and using this year's pick on a star to pair with Jerami as well as being rightly prepared for free agency in 2022 will be no less challenging for Troy.
Everything so far has looked good for Troy, but there is still quite a long way to go and it’s always the next move that could define the next five to 10 years for this franchise, and his tenure as GM.