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Lessons the Pistons can Learn from the Lions

As the NBA’s worst franchise begins to rebuild the rebuild, they’d be wise to look to the Lions-yes, those Lions as a template of what’s possible.

NBA: Detroit Pistons-Press Conference Brian Bradshaw Sevald-USA TODAY Sports

There are no words that I can find that others haven’t already to describe just how toothless things seem for a once proud NBA organization. The Pistons aren’t just bad, they’re lacking a competitive pulse, and are getting blown out more nights than not. This should not happen on a team that has lottery picks from the past four drafts playing on it, and countless other former first round selections in tow. They are no longer trying to tank and they’ve said as much. What makes this especially weird, is that the organization does have some quality pieces to it. But the sum of the parts feels broken, and no one can point to a stand-alone reason for the regression from last year.

Maybe the one pinch of good news an objective observer could glean from this is that Detroiters are uniquely qualified to identify what a story book ending to this saga could look like. How, you might ask? Well all one would need to do is look just over the horizon, towards Ford Field, where the Pistons NFL peers have recently engineered the exact sort of turnaround that sports fans in Detroit are starved for. Here, I offer you the blueprint to the Pistons rebuild, by means of copying off the test answers from the Lions. Yes, buy a lottery ticket, because that is a real sentence in 2023.

Step One: Admit You Were Wrong.

One of the hardest things for most people in most walks of life to do is admit, out loud, to others that they were wrong. This becomes drastically more difficult when you enter millionaires and billionaires who are fixtures in the public eye into the equation. But it is a necessary step for the Pistons to take, and one the Lions took just a few short years ago. After Sheila Ford Hamp took over as Owner, she had to admit that the Lions attempt to recreate the “Patriot Way” had failed. When the Lions fired Jim Caldwell, and replaced him with Matt Patricia, it was billed as a move that would allow the team to take the next step towards being a contender. I view Monty Williams hiring this past summer as the Pistons version of hiring Patricia. In both cases, the coach they hired was one of the most sought after candidates in the cycle, and in both cases, the hire largely won the press conference. But it did not take long, in both situations, to recognize that the hire had not been the best fit with the roster in place, which, by the way, in both cases, was much further behind than what the front office was selling the fanbase. Look, Troy Weaver has had some good moments as GM. He has, aside from the covid draft of 2020, drafted fairly well. He has cleaned up the team’s payroll, and has made some savvy acquisitions, namely Jerami Grant, and Bojan Bogdanovic. But he has failed to put a roster (and locker room) around his young players that fosters a winning culture, and promotes an environment of growth and development.With Williams, it is not debatable that he has been a good NBA coach for a long time. He led successful turnarounds in both New Orleans and Phoenix. He has been an assistant in numerous successful organizations. He is well-connected around the league, and has been involved in Team USA for many seasons. Yet, something has been off with the team’s play this season. Despite youth and injuries, this outfit is not as bad talent wise as its record reflects. The questionable rotations, and player management have been well-documented. The bottom line is, when you’re 2-29, it’s not about identifying who’s most to blame, it’s about figuring out the direction to go from here. With both hires, the Pistons have been wrong. They must first admit as much.

Syndication: Detroit Free Press Junfu Han / USA TODAY NETWORK

Step 2: Bring in a Shared Vision

When the Lions moved on from “Patriots Midwest”, they made the smart move of hiring their coach and GM as a package deal of sorts, and made certain that they had a shared football philosophy. This has made for a great working relationship between the two of them, and has also helped the organization form a clear hierarchy of power in regards to football related decision making. Simply put, the Lions front office and coaching staff are there to support one another, not drown out one another. All other involved parties are pulling in the same direction. Study any successful pro sports franchise, and this is always the case. The main thing that can sabotage a team’s culture, direction, and therefore success, is power struggles within the front office, or between the front office and coaching staff. There have been many rumors about the current structure of the Pistons front office, which I will not attempt to further speculate on. However, when you read that the front office was split between three different head coaching candidates, and Weaver, the man supposedly fully in charge of basketball decisions, does not get to hire his preferred candidate (reportedly Kevin Ollie) it does make one start to question how decisions are being made within the organization.

The Pistons, like the Lions, need to focus on making a sound hire for the front office, and then coach, and then actually let them do their jobs. Dan Campbell was not the most sought after coaching prospect, just like Brad Holmes was not the flashiest GM hire. But they proved to be a good fit together, and their shared vision has allowed the organization to build a positive culture that stemmed from their working relationship. This has allowed the team to identify the type of players that they want in the draft, and to develop them at a high rate. That’s basically the blueprint to pro sports success. This is the type of shift we need to see for the Lions basketball counterpart.

A couple of GM candidates that would make sense for the Pistons to pursue, have both been rumored to have been of interest to the organization in the past. Both Tayshaun Prince, and Shane Battier would check a lot of boxes for what the Pistons are currently lacking. They are both fast risers who come from forward thinking organizations (the Grizzlies and Heat) who routinely find talent all over the draft board each summer. Each would be able to overhaul Detroit’s long broken scouting department, while helping them capitalize on draft picks, and not just the ones in the top 5. Additionally, these are men who either played for the franchise in Prince’s case, or grew up in the area as Battier did. This type of background is the kind that is necessary to reconnect to a fan base who has clearly lost faith in the front office (more on this in a minute).

Once you’ve hired that person, it is then on Gores to take a note from Hamp’s book, and take a step back. He needs to allow the person that he’s hired to interview and select a coach who he thinks possesses the same vision that he has for the organization. Someone that he can collaborate with, have difficult conversations with, and have faith in when things are muddy. Because, as we’ve seen with Weaver, who from the sounds of it was never able to outright hire his own coach, this can fracture the trust and alignment of an organization.

Step 3: Bring in Former Players to Serve and Support

NBA: Boston Celtics at Detroit Pistons Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

The final step that I’d take from the Lions playbook, is to bring in former players who have had success with the franchise to be a supporter, advisor, or ambassador for the organization, and front office. While this might sound corny, the Lions have done it, and the success is undeniable. They brought in Chris Speilman as a special assistant to the president, Barry Sanders as an ambassador, and Calvin Johnson, who has less of a defined role, but presence around the organization has been noticeable. These moves have been simultaneous with the team’s ascent.

Syndication: Detroit Free Press Kirthmon F. Dozier / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Pistons doing something similar would be a tremendous move for the organization in terms of restoring public trust. It could also offer the new front office and coaching staff a wealth of knowledge from people who have actually seen and experienced what success looks like in this city. Not to mention, many former players from Detroit’s championship teams have gone on to have success as coaches or front office members. The aforementioned Prince is one, Chauncey Billups currently is the head coach of the Blazers, Rasheed Wallace has been an assistant coach at the University of Memphis. I’d try to get any number of them to join the front office, or coaching staff in some capacity. Heck, I’d see if Joe Dumars is bored of creating take-foul rules, and would be interested in reuniting with the team he played for, and later ran for many years. Maybe Larry Brown would be enticed by a front office role. Moreover these are accomplished former players, coaches, and executives who have already made lots of money, and received plenty of accolades in their career. They would likely be less interested in simply seeking more power and credit, but would rather have the organization’s best interest in mind by serving and advising the present front office and staff in a less demanding role. Again, if you don’t believe me, look no further than Allen Park, or Ann Arbor for that matter, where Michigan football has thrived under a revamped coaching staff littered with former players. If you’re going to go down, it is best to go down swinging with people who have a deep connection and love for the organization.

Imagine a Tayshaun Prince lead front office teaming up with a Chauncey Billups lead coaching staff. You think these two men, who have played in countless meaningful games together, wouldn’t be able to collaborate, and be able to get an organization to pull together? I’d bet that they would.