Pistons lose their pick as Cavs jump to No. 1 - again

Jennifer Pottheiser/NBAE/Getty Images
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

It probably won’t make anyone feel significantly better in the here and now, but it stood to reason even before the Pistons lost their lottery pick to fate Tuesday night that their most significant off-season improvement would come from areas outside the draft.

There was only a 17.6 percent chance that the Pistons would lose their lottery pick, but the Cleveland Cavaliers – who picked No. 1 in 2011 and ’13 – went from No. 9 to the top spot for the third time in four years. Getting bumped just one spot was enough to cost the Pistons their No. 1 pick since it was protected only through the top eight by the conditions of the June 2012 trade that sent Ben Gordon to Charlotte.

So the Pistons won’t be able to plug in a Marcus Smart or a Noah Vonleh or a Nik Stauskas in Stan Van Gundy’s first season. And while all of those players might turn out to be All-Stars someday, the truth is none was very likely to move the needle much next season – not if the Pistons expect to compete for a playoff berth, as both Van Gundy and owner Tom Gores made clear last week was the intention.

“Tonight’s results are disappointing, but not disastrous,” Van Gundy said in a statement released by the Pistons. “We still have many assets and tools at our disposal to upgrade our roster, including the upcoming free agency period in July.”

The Pistons were going to have to hand over that No. 1 pick to Charlotte eventually. Doing it this season gives them certainty that they’ll have a first-rounder in 2015.

Of course, they wanted to keep the pick this year because they surely intend to win more than 29 games and avoid the lottery’s whims altogether next spring.

That quest starts with Van Gundy himself. Everyone – inside and outside the organization – believed the Pistons had more than 29-win talent last season. They talked in training camp of the need to develop chemistry, but it never happened. And that went beyond the perceived roster incompatibilities with the big three of Greg Monroe, Andre Drummond and Josh Smith.

The Pistons entered the season fully expecting it might take them some time to figure things out offensively, but it was their defense that failed them most emphatically. Smith and Drummond’s frontcourt athleticism didn’t translate into a synchronized five-man defensive unit that shut down the paint, for whatever reason.

But Van Gundy has routinely turned teams without multiple outstanding individual defenders into top-10 defenses. If he can move the Pistons up from the mid-20s to the middle of the NBA pack in the key defensive metrics, that alone will spark more improvement than whatever contributions the Pistons could have expected from the No. 8 pick.

Then there’s the cap space the Pistons will carry into the summer, and if you want to look for a silver lining to the lottery’s dark cloud, there’s this: Not having the No. 8 pick will give the Pistons an additional $2.3 million to spend on veteran free agents.

That figures to give them more than $13 million to lure free agents, even accounting for Monroe’s $10 million cap hold, and that’s enough money for Van Gundy to find a few solid veterans who can patch some holes.

Finally, there’s the improvement the Pistons can anticipate internally. Drummond’s growth curve has been spectacular and there’s reason for optimism – given Van Gundy’s history with Dwight Howard – that another big leap is in store for year three, when Drummond will be all of 21. Greg Monroe has yet to turn 24. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, 21, finished his rookie season with a flourish. Kyle Singler and Brandon Jennings are still very young veterans. Even Smith is only 28.

Losing that draft pick took a little of the wind out of their sails, on full billow after last week’s momentum-churning unveiling of the highly regarded Van Gundy as coach and chief basketball executive. But a few strategic tacks and they can find a new breeze at their back. It was a disappointment. It was a long way from a disaster.