Detroit Pistons are in ‘competition phase’

It seems like not much has changed for the Detroit Pistons since Troy Weaver was hired as general manager in 2020 — if you’re just judging by wins.

The franchise finished 20-46 in 2019-20 before Weaver joined, then 20-52 during the 2020-21 COVID shortened season and 23-59 last season.

Rebuilding is not easy and often not fast, and profit totals are an imperfect tool for measuring progress. Much has changed beneath the surface. The roster has been completely renewed in recent seasons. The 2022-23 team has 10 players on its roster of 15 men under the age of 24, thanks to several seasons of smart trading, with six first-round picks and four lottery picks. Cade Cunningham looked like a thriving franchise player. The Pistons are creeping toward respectability.

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During media day Monday at Little Caesars Arena, Weaver said the Pistons are now at “ground zero.” The young core is ready for now. Detroit added two more lottery picks in Jaden Ivey and Jalen Duren this summer, and last week’s swap for Bojan Bogdanovic gave the team the efficient, spacey veteran it previously lacked and desperately needed. The team is optimistic. Cunningham, Killian Hayes, Saddiq Bey, Isaiah Stewart and others are ready to take a step forward. The Pistons will have significant cap space available this summer to continue improving the team.

The Pistons, as they should be, appear to be in much better condition than they were at the start of the rebuild. Now they look forward to doing something they haven’t been able to do for several seasons: compete every night.

“When I first came here, Ed (Stefanski) and his group had finally started to get the books in order, and we had to redesign the roster,” Weaver said. “I thought we came out of the red. I think we’re at ground zero now. I think every night we have a full roster of players to compete against each other. We’re in the competition phase now. We need to be able to compete before you can fights.”

Weaver and the coaching staff have made sure that expectations are not too high during the rebuilding process, but it was clear Monday that the team wants to see measurable growth. Cunningham was good last season, but needs to be better: more efficient, better conditioned, more active and committed as a leader. The rest of the 2020 draft class needs to be stepped up as well. Hayes and Stewart are expected to have the best seasons as shooters, and Bey should feel more comfortable as a go-to scorer.

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Detroit Pistons security guard Cade Cunningham poses for photos during media day at Detroit's Little Caesars Arena, Monday, Sept. 26, 2022.

But the Pistons are deep in young talent and we could see several players embracing bigger roles. Isaiah Lives had a healthy offseason after spending most of his rookie campaign recovering from a foot injury. Marvin Bagley III had a full outdoor season with the Pistons after a handful of up and down seasons with the Sacramento Kings. Hamidou Diallo also hopes to build on last year’s momentum.

Ivey and Duren will have the luxury of easing into their new roles as they play positions where the Pistons have depth.

“It’s the most talent we’ve had since I got here,” said fifth-year coach Dwane Casey. “Also the youngest talent we’ve had. We’ve added two young, very talented players. My first year here we had the experienced guys who had been in the league for a while, made it to the playoffs. That was a different type of team. But this team is more about the talent than those teams were.”

“We’re still in growth mode,” Casey added. “We still have the young guys, it was a great move and Tom (Gores) allowed us to bring in Bojan Bogdanovic who gives us an experienced scorer with that young talented group. We are still in growth mode, but we are ready to compete at a higher level than last year. We feel better about that. We are still growing. Cade is in his second year, Saddiq third. We’re still going this way. But with that group we are definitely going in the right direction.”

We have seen several young teams make unexpected leaps in recent seasons. The Cleveland Cavaliers were the surprise team in the East last year, winning 44 games after a total of 22, 19 and 19 wins in the previous three years. The Memphis Grizzlies took a bigger leap, improving to 56 wins after hitting just above .500 last year after three straight years of losing records. The Phoenix Suns surpassed all expectations in 2020-21, jumping to 51 wins after six consecutive seasons under .500.

The Pistons prioritized this offseason by adding talented veterans. Bogdanovic, Alec Burks and Nerlens Noel should raise the Detroit floor and alleviate some of the depth issues that have plagued the roster. But internal growth will determine the ceiling of this team.

Detroit Pistons center Isaiah Stewart poses for photos during media day at Detroit's Little Caesars Arena, Monday, September 26, 2022.

They have a difficult path to the playoffs or play-in tournaments. Ten teams in the Eastern Conference—the Boston Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers, Miami Heat, Toronto Raptors, Chicago Bulls, Brooklyn Nets, Atlanta Hawks, Charlotte Hornets, and Cavaliers—finished record wins last year. All but the Hornets seem to be at least as good or better.

But there are always surprises. Few expected the Cavaliers to make a 22-game improvement last season, and there are always teams affected by the injury bug. It will be a tough climb, but the Pistons are looking to the league’s other successful rebuilds as examples of what they can achieve this season.

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It starts with Cunningham, who has to play at All-Star level to give the Pistons a chance. The front office and coaching staff understand that if the Pistons are to make a leap, they must be led by their young talent.

“Often people want to look for all the answers outside the building,” Weaver said. “The internal growth is huge for us. You wonder why teams can make these jumps, you look at the players they had in their teams who made jumps. We hope that our internal players can continue to grow and develop at a pace that allows us to push and grow and compete and then compete as we please.”

Please contact Omari Sankofa II at Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa.

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