The Detroit Pistons’ monumentally challenging rebuild

Doumbouya being drafted by Pistons

Detroit: Home to Eminem, D12, the Lions and the Pistons. Beyond that, the city has little else happening.

An old industrial city built on the manufacturing of anything with a motor has now fallen on hard times, with low income and not enough jobs to go around. Detroit is in need of investment, an attribute that is mirrored in its NBA team – just look at the Pistons’ most recent starting unit.

The Pistons have been NBA also-rans for 13 years, having failed to navigate their way past the first round of the playoffs since the 2007-08 season. Detroit’s ineptitude runs deeper than lackluster performance on the court – the franchise is also incredibly reluctant to pull the trigger on a full-scale rebuild, instead opting to continually retool. 

Specific teams have regularly navigated the pitfalls of retooling with ease, such as the San Antonio Spurs, who retool yearly to appease future Hall of Fame coach Greg Popovich.

But Detroit is not San Antonio. While Dwayne Casey is a highly respected coach, he is not Popovich, nor is the Pistons front office as frugal and meticulous as that of the Spurs. When retooling, you’re foregoing the opportunity to snag elite talent at discount prices through the draft. Instead, you rely on the coach to continually maximize a roster of aging veterans, journeymen, and mid-to-late-round draft picks. 

Using the retooling approach, teams place a premium on their scouting department, while also requiring a culture that entrenches all that walk through the door. Again, Detroit possesses neither of those things. The team continues attempts at fitting square pegs in round holes. Having drafted Andre Drummond in the summer of 2012, the Pistons have been trying to find the best supporting cast for him ever since. 

Detroit may have been busy in their attempt to surround Drummond with enough spacing to utilize his size down-low, but around them, the league was changing. By the time Drummond’s contract was up for an extension in 2016, the Golden State Warriors had already collected their first set of rings as their dynasty sent ripples throughout the NBA. These waves caused teams to tear up their roster, trying to find the best way of containing the offensive juggernaut that had descended on the Western Conference. 

The bi-product of the Warriors ascension to the history books was the league’s new found love of small-ball. For the Pistons, this would either play into their hands or force them further out of the playoff picture. Looking back, Detroit transpired as a casualty of this small-ball movement, having just signed the league’s most traditional big man to an astronomically large extension. So onwards, the Pistons continued retooling, failing, and retooling again.

This past summer, Detroit entered the NBA Draft with the 15th pick. Little did they know it, but this pick would change their trajectory for the better. They selected Sekou Doumbouya. The young wing, while still raw, has made quite the impression on the NBA with his length and defensive prowess. Doumbouya also projects as a solid slasher, driving the lane and forcing rotations from the opposition defense. 

Having a slasher such as Doumbouya on the roster made the front-court of Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond slightly redundant. Two bigs playing on the low and high block typically clog the lanes for players of Doumbouya’s ilk. However, Griffin’s ability to stretch the floor enabled Detroit to negate Drummond’s negative impact to the modernized offensive scheme that was developing. 

As the season drew on, murmurs began to surface that Drummond was considering leaving his $28.8 million player option for 2020-21 on the table at the end of the season. For Detroit, this forced the team’s hand, leading them to actively shop Drummond around the league as the trade deadline moved closer. 

While rumors had begun to be published revolving around trade talks between the Hawks and Pistons, they never materialized, with the Hawks instead opting for vertical spacer Clint Capela. The Capela news left Detroit reeling in the face of losing their franchise center for nothing in the summer, or so it would seem. A few days after the Hawks traded for Capela, the news broke that Drummond had moved on to the Cavaliers with the Pistons getting the paltry return of Brandon Knight, John Henson, and considerably less desirable of Cleveland or Golden State’s 2023 second-round pick. In essence, Drummond got traded for two expiring deals and a late second-round pick – hardly the haul they would have expected coming into the season. 

While the Drummond talk was at the forefront of the media, the Pistons continued to cull the deadwood from their roster. This time it was by agreeing to a buy-out with injury-ravaged guard Reggie Jackson. 

By eating all of Jackson’s cap hit this year, and avoiding using the NBA’s stretch provision, this buy-out frees up cap room for the Pistons from this summer onwards. Across social media, many Pistons fans were in agreement that tearing the house down was long overdue.

In terms of younger talent, the Pistons now have Sekou Doumbouya, Thon Maker, Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, Donta Hall, Luke Kennard, Bruce Brown, Khryi Thomas, and Christian Wood – all of whom are under the age 25. Those younger players provide the Pistons with the foundations of an actual rebuild. 

Having the young building blocks is only part of the battle for Detroit, they still have ageing big-man Blake Griffin devouring 26.3 percent of their total salary cap for at least another year or two if he picks up his player option, which is most likely. Outside of Griffin, resurgent former MVP Derrick Rose is still on the roster for another year to come, meaning he will be taking developmental time away from a younger guard. 

Should the Pistons front office successfully navigate the exits of Griffin and possibly Rose, they will still have the unenviable task of acquiring draft picks. Draft picks are the bitcoin of the NBA world, holding value far before it ever materializes into something of substance. Unfortunately for Detroit, their draft stash is threadbare, which doesn’t bode well for a rebuilding team. Even with any hypothetical trade of Griffin, odds are he moves to a contender looking to take that next step, which means any pick in return will need to convey a few years down the line when that team’s window has closed. 

Detroit might have to part ways with a player they consider an actual building block, such as Luke Kennard. Kennard is a prototypical modern two-guard, capable of playing off-ball and draining bombs on a nightly basis, along with showing the ability to go nuclear from time to time. Rebuilding teams who feel they aren’t far from contention would be very interested in a player of Kennard’s caliber and projected ceiling, so much so that they would be willing to part with a lottery level pick. 

While trading Drummond and releasing Jackson were moves in the right direction, the team has more uncertainty than usual. Detroit’s front office hasn’t had to navigate a rebuild in close to two decades. Now, they’re consigned with doing just that along with a culture shift to a more progressive brand of basketball. 

The road won’t be easy, nor will results come to fruition any time soon, but these moves are necessary. There will be many keen eyes on Detroit over the coming seasons, and who knows, maybe they will find a get-out-of-jail-free card in the 2021 free agency class.