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NBA Draft: The 5 Biggest Piston What-If’s of The Last 10 Years

How might this year’s team looked had some players been drafted (and not drafted)?

Stan Van Gundy and Stanley Johnson
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

I want to start off this piece with an apology, a preamble and a couple disclaimers. I promise it will all be worth it, and a bit of throat clearing will provide ample time for you, the the reader, to mentally prepare yourself for what you know is coming — some true Detroit Pistons NBA Draft misery.

I apologize to anyone who’s morning or afternoon I may have (or may soon have) ruined. Though the headline may suggest otherwise, my intent is not to drag the last few Pistons front offices through the mud for a total failure to execute multiple drafts, though they certainly did that. And no, I’m not here to revisit ultimate draft bust Darko Millicic, though bust he did even in the face of a 10-year NBA career.

Let’s face it, looking at “what-ifs” is part of the fun and mystique of being a sports fan. The pain of doing so can harbor, or reveal one’s passion for their team. For as long as sports have existed, we (as fans) have romanticized and bemoaned, the term “ what if?” A true sports junky loves nothing more than a conversation or debate over an office water cooler, or a late night beverage looking back on pivotal draft selections, or trades. It’s in our second nature to torture ourselves over these unanswered questions, or marvel at our teams good fortunes.

Now the disclaimers. I feel compelled to state explicitly that drafting the right player is hard. Like, really hard. There are always fewer hits than misses on every NBA GM’s ledger. There is a reason that all sports franchises, successful and bottom dwellers alike, have many regrettable draft choices to their record. There are so many factors to account for, and it is impossible to get it right every or even most of the time. In the truest sense, it is a crapshoot.

Second disclaimer. The Pistons even getting one of these decisions correct likely negates their ability to make those future NBA decisions because newsflash, drafting good players typically makes you a better team. Not that the Pistons are terribly familiar with that lately, but trust me when I say that it is generally a true statement. For this piece, we are generously assuming continued incompetence because trying to game out other options just leads to chaos. But I grant you that making the correct decision in 2015 would have plenty of ripple effects.

So as much as picking at these NBA Draft scabs might be a little painful, remember that if you’re totally invested in a future of Cade, Jaden, Jalen and whatever the future holds next week in the NBA Draft Lottery ... well, that probably doesn’t happen unless Detroit fails as hard as they have in the past.

With that said, the playoffs are in full swing, and end of season awards and honors are going out. That makes now a good time as ever to take a look at some of the players who may have altered the Piston’s path had they landed them in previous drafts before the draft. Enjoy the walk down memory lane, and try to keep your pitchforks in your shed.

Oklahoma City Thunder v Minnesota Timberwolves - Play-In Tournament Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

No. 5: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (2018)

This one might be considered cheating by some as the Pistons didn’t even have a draft pick in 2018. But it’s about the why. Our old friend Blake Griffin, whose acquisition meant the franchise missed on the chance to acquire a young player with star potential. The move ultimately also ended up being the final straw that led to the dismissal of Stan Van Gundy from running the team. After just one playoff appearance, and years of drafting in the late lottery, time was running out for SVG to prove that he was the right man to lead the franchise. For that reason, though it may have been logical, a rebuild was not in the cards for the regime. Instead, Van Gundy and GM Jeff Bower decided to double down on chasing the postseason, and trade for Griffin in hopes that he could lead the roster to regular playoff runs.

Griffin’s career in Detroit was complicated, and fans have many different opinions on it. I for one, will forever fondly remember him coming back from injury to battle the heavily favored Milwaukee Bucks on one leg after single handedly willing the team to the postseason in the first place. By all accounts, Blake accepted his trade to Detroit with grace, and embraced the franchise and city while playing hard during his time here. I do not understand the boos that he receives during his returns to Little Caesars Arena.

Nonetheless, this trade robbed the Pistons of the 12th pick in the 2018 draft, and the opportunity to trade for Kentucky guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, hypothetically. The Hornets selected SGA at 11 but knew he was on the LA Clippers’ radar so they swapped that pick for the Clippers’ No. 12 (Detroit’s original slot) for second-round picks in 2020 and 2021. Surely, Detroit could have met that price point.

Gilgeous-Alexander has become a bona fide star in his 5th NBA season. He would have provided the Pistons with another asset to use in a trade chip to hunt a star (and one that had less of an injury history than Griffin), or he could have served as a starting point for the team to begin a sorely needed rebuild. Though his presence would likely have not saved Van Gundy’s job, the cupboard would have been far less bare for the inheriting front office and coaching staff, and would have also allowed for the Pistons to sell higher than they did on guys like Andre Drummond, and Tobias Harris.

2023 NBA Playoffs - Philadelphia 76ers v Boston Celtics Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

No. 4: Tyrese Maxey (2020)

In the 2020 draft, the Pistons brought in three players who were viewed as foundational pieces to the beginning of general manager Troy Weaver’s “restoration.” The highest player selected at No. 7 was Killian Hayes (more on him to come), followed by Isaiah Stewart at 16, and Saddiq Bey at 19. With the latter two picks, Detroit opted to pass on Kentucky combo guard Tyrese Maxey. Maxey was selected shortly after Bey by the Philadelphia 76ers, and has gone on to have immediate success on one of the better teams in the league. He has shot nearly 50% from the field in his career, and is an above 40% 3-point shooter.

This past year, Maxey averaged 20 points and 3.5 assists per game. At times, he looked like the best guard on the Sixers, which is no small feat considering he shares the floor with future Hall of Famer James Harden. His production far exceeds that of all of the Pistons 2020 draft choices. With Maxey hypothetically in the fold, the lifeless first year of Weaver’s restoration suddenly would have looked more interesting when factoring in Stewart’s play (in this exercise, I am assuming that we would select Maxey instead of Bey). This likely would not have deterred the Pistons from taking Cade Cunningham the following year, as they would have still lost a similar amount of games. Additionally, the team would have still been bad enough that they’d have no choice but to have taken the consensus top prospect (Cunningham) and worry about potential fit issues later (kind of like Jaden Ivey). Maxey and Ivey have many overlapping skills, and a Cunningham-Maxey backcourt would have likely been a no-brainer for Detroit. This would have serve as a great start to the restoration, and provided the team with two scorers at all three levels who can also create for their teammates. It would also be a better shooting backcourt than the current outfit of Cunningham and Ivey.

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No. 3: Tyrese Haliburton (2020)

We will stay in the same year for this one. The 2020 draft class was heavy on point guards, and the Pistons, with a fully gutted roster, were poised to bring in their lead guard of the future with the 7th pick. With Lamelo Ball off the board, it seemed that the choice would likely come down to French prospect Killian Hayes, and Iowa State product Tyrese Haliburton. Both were considered bigger players for their position, but Haliburton was viewed as the safer, but lower-ceiling prospect. Hayes was viewed as a more risky pick who could develop into a high-level player if everything broke correctly.

Narrator: Everything did not break correctly.

You know the rest, Haliburton is coming off a career year after being traded to Indiana while Killian’s future in the Motor City is very much in question after struggling as a scorer during his first three seasons. Haliburton’s theoretical addition brings up a curious case. A jumbo-sized primary ball-handler who offers a similar skill set at a similar size to none other than Cade Cunningham. Since both are naturally pass-first players, the backcourt would be without a scoring-minded guard who is capable of playing off the ball for extended stretches. Both are outstanding with the ball in their hands, and have shown to be at their best when creating out of the pick and roll. The overlap in their respective skill sets would have likely made the Pistons at least ponder the thought of going in a different direction with the top overall pick in the 2021 draft. Detroit was rumored to have some level of interest in both Jalen Green and indications seemed they were leaning even more heavily toward Evan Mobley that year. Haliburton’s presence as the point guard of the future may have tilted the decision making process in their favor for Troy Weaver and his brain trust. A Haliburton and Evan Mobley duo would have been a great foundation to build on in Detroit.

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No. 2: Donovan Mitchell (2017)

In 2017, the Stan Van Gundy era was beginning to grow stale, and the Pistons coach knew if his team was going to make any immediate noise it needed more shooting. The 13th pick provided a fork in the road for Detroit; go with a player with raw athletic gifts (and star potential) that may need some time to develop, or take the player who is viewed as pro-ready, but may lack the natural gifts to become more than a complementary player in the Association.

The former was Donovan Mitchell, who came out of Louisville as one of the best athletes in the class, and doubled down on that reputation following an outstanding showing at the NBA combine. It should be stressed, however, that there were some reasonable and legitimate red flags in his college numbers.

The latter represented Luke Kennard, the sharpshooting guard out of Duke who came with big-game experience as one of college’s most dangerous and prolific shooters, but also with some obvious defensive concerns.

Facing pressure to win now, Van Gundy went with the safer bet in the sweet-shooting Kennard. While the Ohio native has proven to be a solid player in the league, his defensive limitations and Troy Weaver’s desire for a serious rebuild meant his future in Detroit was limited.

Part of this was due to playing under multiple coaches with a win-now mandate, and not being given the long leash that is often required for young players to come into their own. However, he’s no Donovan Mitchell, and he never will be close to his caliber of a player. Mitchell nearly won rookie of the year honors and had an instant impact on the Utah Jazz. He contributed to winning earlier in his career than anyone else on this list-including the player in my number one what if. In a loaded draft class that included Jayson Tatum, Brandon Ingram, and Lonzo Ball, Mitchell burst onto the scene and instantly made Jazz fateful forget about Gordon Hayward spurning them in free agency by leading them to the playoffs. Mitchell would have given the Pistons options. On one hand, he could form a formidable one-two punch with Blake Griffin if the team opted to continue to try and compete. On the flip side, Mitchell may have given the franchise flexibility, and would have allowed a run way to start a far less painful rebuild with a franchise cornerstone already on the roster with him.

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No. 1: Devin Booker (2015)

Looking back, this is the most critical moment to point to when assessing where the once promising SVG Era began to trend in the wrong direction. There was an obvious need at wing for Detroit, and the three most likely targets for them were Stanley Johnson, Devin Booker, and Justise Winslow. The Pistons held the 8th overall pick, and had the opportunity to select any of the three. Detroit selected Johnson, who showed moments of promise as a defender, but lasted less than four years as a Piston. He has since been in and out of the league as a two-way contract guy.

The Grand Rapids native Booker went on to have immediate success as a scorer, and had a 70-point game to his name by age 20. Now to be fair, Devin Booker was not necessarily viewed as a ready-made NBA star. He came off the bench at Kentucky, and fell all the way to 13th in the 2015 draft class. However, Booker would’ve injected life into an up-and-coming Pistons core that had solid pieces but lacked enough top end talent to ever be taken seriously.

Coupled with solid role players such as Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Tobias Harris, along with emerging *gulp* star Andre Drummond, Booker’s scoring punch would have instantly transformed the Pistons from blah to interesting. The Pistons were rumored to be split between Johnson and Booker, adding that much more salt into the wound.

Though he’s been surrounded by a high level of talent the past few years, he is a battle tested player who has had big games as the top scorer, and best player on a finals team. He continues to ascend into the conversation as a top ten player in a league that has never had more collective talent than it ever has. The Pistons, and Van Gundy alike could have had a much different trajectory.

Do you agree with these rankings? What about those second-round “what-if’s”? What is the biggest “what-if” that were missed?