The buzz around the Detroit Pistons is building. The fan base is hyped, the Q rating is rising, and a franchise that has been mostly forgotten for more than a decade has been getting praise from national media for the franchise’s restoration.
The Pistons might also be a worse team than they were a year ago.
All of the above can be true. There has been some momentum toward pegging Detroit as a team that can flirt with a play-in game and perhaps even a playoff berth. I just don’t see it.
For the long-term health of the franchise, I love where the Pistons are a lot more today than where I felt they were a year ago. Adding talent like Jaden Ivey and Jalen Duren is important as the team considers what it needs to surround its cornerstone player, Cade Cunningham.
The team further cleaned up its books to have a war chest for the next several offseasons, and an enviable amount of flexibility as it explores major free agent signings, potential trades and long-term investments in the future of its young players.
Still, last season the Pistons were the second-worst team in the Eastern Conference with the NBA’s third-worst record. When I look at the talent of this team, its abundant reliant on its youth, and the weaknesses its opponents will be able to exploit, I see ... Well, I see the second-worst team in the East and maybe the sixth(?) worst record in the NBA.
Perhaps this means I’m needlessly pessimistic, but really, I just think people are jumping the gun and thinking appropriate optimism will necessarily lead to immediate results.
This is still a team being carried by a No. 1 overall pick in his second season that struggles with turnovers. It’s a team banking on a rookie fifth overall pick who can be an elite inside player, but will need to learn the speed of the game and how to pick his spots and not be forced into bad shots. It’s still a team that will likely field one of the NBA’s least effective defenses and have to navigate myriad rotational considerations with its big men as Isaiah Stewart, Marvin Bagley and Duren have a healthy dose of pluses, and just as many minuses to their respective games.
The Pistons as a franchise will field on of the league’s youngest rosters, and I’d be hard-pressed to expect any franchise to see more impactful minutes from the 24-and-younger set. Detroit’s sixth-oldest player is second-year forward Isaiah Livers. Let that sink in for a bit.
From public comments from Detroit’s coaching staff and executives, there are much loftier expectations for this crew. Troy Weaver called it “ground zero” on media day, and coach Dwane Casey said they had enough depth and talent to sit a player if they weren’t producing.
Whereas it is typically the fan base that overvalues its own players, I fear the Pistons brass has overshot what this young group is capable of in the 2022-23 season. They might think Cade’s ready to breakout a season before his actual breakout, and they might think Saddiq and Beef Stew are ascending difference-makers when they might just be incredibly solid depth on a contending team.
This team lost Jerami Grant, and it was the right move, but his ability to score in a variety of ways and to provide that steadying veteran presence to an often-overmatched young team will be difficult to replace. Bojan Bogdanovic can shoot the heck out of the ball, but you can’t give it to him and ask him to make something out of nothing. Same for Alec Burks.
FiveThirtyEight released their NBA season predictions, and they have Detroit pegged at 23-59 with the second-worst record in the league. In our season preview, I was slightly more charitable and predicted a 26-win record. That’s a far cry from the 43 wins it took to make it into the play-in game last season.
But don’t be surprised if those dire predictions come true. And if they do, it doesn’t mean something went wrong. It just means poorly calibrated expectations led to unnecessary disappointment. There is also a chance they are a lot smarter than I am, and they have a clear vision of how this team will succeed, and how it will come up short. They could have a solid understanding of how the ledger looks at the end of the season, and it’ll be much more positive than my rather gloomy prediction. But if it doesn’t, that doesn’t mean this iteration of the Pistons is a failure. It means these building blocks are still learning on the job.
If the Pistons win 23 games again, that will be an inevitable disappointment to the fans and to the members of the organization. But it doesn’t mean they are on the wrong path, it just means they’re a little further than their destination than originally believed.
And it’s not such a terrible year to be one year away from true relevance. This upcoming NBA Draft is loaded with talent. Yes, it is headlined by Victor Wembanyama, but there are impact players beyond just the 7-foot-4 center who plays like Kevin Durant.
That doesn’t mean the Pistons should or will tank. They are committed to leaning on youth, trying to win, and the chips will fall where they may. This year’s Pistons is all about taking steps forward. Cade learning to be a leader and impact scorer. Ivey learning how to calibrate his speed to become an effective NBA player. Stewart to become a perimeter threat, and Bey to be a more consistent shot-maker. This is the year Killian Hayes emerges with enough offensive juice to unleash his arsenal of skills at point guard, and for Isaiah Livers to emerge as the team’s glue guy.
Even if it leads to a disappointing record and games that are more frustrating to watch than we’d prefer, I’m still incredibly hyped to see these players continue to grow, and continue to learn on the job.
It all starts tonight in Orlando. Let’s go.