I’ve mostly focused on New Orleans-based stories, but Music, Movies & Hoops do not exist without Detroit. The Second City. The Palace at Auburn Hills. Motown, Moody Blues, R&B. Aretha. Em. Detroit Rock City. The Bad Boys.
Whatever it is at the core of whatever it is that still fuels Detroit’s resilient soul, the past few seasons of Pistons hoops ain’t that. These Pistons are the rough time that is Detroit over the past few decades. The shrinking Detroit, the unkempt Detroit. The Bad Boy Pistons were downright pugnacious even in the face of obvious decline. For the city, it was a decline marked by crime, poverty, lost jobs, freeway construction that divided communities, a string of riots, unemployment, and a total lack of sense from elected officials when it came to managing finances. For the team, it was the realization that Michael Jordan was, in fact, THE Michael Jordan.
MMH Season Obit Pour One Out For: Divided Opinions and Blake Griffin Headline Headaches!
The city is on the mend––depending on who you ask. The team also is on the mend––depending on who you ask. Detroit General Manager Troy Weaver will no longer be asking the first person he hired last summer now that the Pistons have parted ways with now-former asst. GM David Mincberg. Mincberg was formerly VP of Basketball Strategy with the Milwaukee Bucks and Director of Scouting with the Memphis Grizzlies.
So there were some disagreements on how to build the roster going forward. Maybe there was a case of buyer’s remorse with the initial hire and how the year played out (Thank COVID!) or with evaluations of Killian Hayes, Saddiq Bey, and Isaiah Stewart. Either way, the Pistons have plenty of roster options despite some limited financial flexibility going forward. The only real drag on the salary cap is all that $30 million of Blake Griffin dead money but that is a helluva drag considering he might get a ring out of a Steve Nash-like recovery bamboozlement.
Think of old Detroit, cars rolling off the line. These next few years of Pistons basketball is that. This is the era of the old shuttered plant being reopened by a new upstart. They could go bankrupt in less than 20 months; they could be a thriving new industry in 2-4 years.
Dennis Smith Jr. (7-3-4 on 41% shooting this year) is a Restricted Free Agent not likely to get a huge bag thrown at him as a 23-year old scrapyard project with potential. He is an adequate piece to keep a rebuilding team competitive and also a great measuring tool for the front office when evaluating Killian Hayes. Retain Frank Jackson and the point guard rotation is nearly set while costing less than 20% of the salary cap.
The belief in Frank Jackson is real. Head Coach Dwayne Casey said at the end of the year,
“I’m so happy with Frank’s growth. I’m so excited about his growth. Here’s a young man who got cut. Came in as a two-way player. [Frank] has earned every inch of his playing time and he’s special. I know he’s a keeper. Works every day, puts his nose to the grind. He does everything the right way on both ends of the floor. He does an excellent job defensively and offensively. He’s that spark plug off the bench.”
Jackson has dealt with injuries since entering the league but averaged 41% from deep (3.8 attempts per game, 7.3 per 36). Jackson took over half his shots (51.2%) from deep, providing plenty of spacing. Per NBA.com, Jackson averaged 12.1 PPG in 22 minutes a game and hit 41.6% of his triples after joining the rotation permanently post All-Star Break. Jackson could look at the offers and opportunities on the market and decide he could take less now from Detroit to have the platform to earn far more money on his next contract. He could also play his way into a trade to a contender, benefiting all parties.
Saddiq Bey will slot next to Hayes, Jackson, or Smith Jr. a majority of the time with Sekou Doumbouya on the opposite wing. With those two unproven wing prospects on rookie contracts, the Pistons have both the room and the need to add at least one perimeter player that’s worthy of an above the MLE paygrade. The same applies to the big man situation.
Stewart can continue developing while sharing/stealing minutes with/from Jahlil Okafor. For Stewart to be considered a success, he must fight his way into a bulk share of the minutes. Stewart and Jerami Grant still need to learn to work together, but there were promising signs for their compatibility at the end of the season. Still, the Pistons will need to bring in a competent big man or two. Mason Plumlee ($8 million) behind Grant is not a bad option for a rebuilding team but the Pistons could move Plumlee and find a younger upgrade for about the same money. They can also use the MLE to find a veteran to be moved at the trade deadline for assets.
A pushing-30 Cory Joseph at $12.6M won’t move the needle either way but he will take up developmental minutes from the others. Same for Rodney McGruder (age 30 season, approx. $6m) and Wayne Ellington (32, UFA). Give some of that money to Jackson and devote the rest to rookie-scale contracts. Get a couple of mid-tier free agents to keep things competitive then fill the bench minimum spots. Save for later while squeezing pennies now in other words. Detroit has clean books after Griffin’s dead money is gone (after next season). If none of the draft picks from 2020-2022 pan out, at least the current front office will do the next one a solid. That’s not always the case in city politics.
The Pistons and the City of Detroit are both hamstrung by past mistakes but there is hope for better days soon. The move to a new arena did not go over well for many reasons. The main one? The team and city had both wrecked their relationships with the people of the city like old farm boys from the factory crashed rebuild project cars subsidized by someone else. The team is trying to pull that relationship from the gutter and the only real way to do that is to start winning in a style the fans will appreciate.
Detroit could jumpstart the ride by landing college star Cade Cunningham. The Pistons have a 14% chance at landing the top pick in the draft––and the NBA Draft Lottery is a week from today! However, the Pistons only have their first-round picks going forward. They’ll need to finesse a few more picks in the next 18 months to build their trade and draft capital. That’s the hardest part of building up this new team. That and not drafting the Darko of any particular year. (Sorry, had to work it in Detroit.)
There aren’t many spare parts lying around and not much worth in trade yet. But they have just enough young talent and free space to build a foundation. Detroit will have to piece together what it can in hopes of having a decent enough showing to attract some attention.
First-year General Manager Troy Weaver was hired after the Andre Drummond trade to remake the roster. He has the assembly line plans laid out. The chassis is taking shape and there are only a few spare parts to cash in on and a few others that can walk out the garage soon as someone else carries them. He is almost set to build out the frame and could land an F1-level engine in just a few weeks.
Detroit just needs to stick to aftermarket slap on parts and short-term contracts on the balance sheet until they are fully ready to compete. If not, they’ll blow the transmission and have to salvage the engine to a different team. In the championship circles of the NBA that mimic the speedways, we’ve seen that race before.
More of Dodson’s NBA Season Obituary series: