Good riddance? 2020 might instead be recalled as transformative for the Pistons
Chris Schwegler (NBAE/Getty)
If there’s anything a decidedly divided America can agree upon, it’s wishing good riddance to 2020. The only fly in the ointment is that turning the page to 2021 and leaving the rest to chance doesn’t necessarily guarantee an uptick in fortunes.
The same applies to the NBA’s changing of seasons. You can’t just assume things will get better with time if you’re charged with putting together a roster. Nobody can accuse Troy Weaver of sitting on his hands and hoping for the best with the roster he inherited as Pistons general manager.
The team the Pistons take into 2021 looks almost nothing like the one that began the 2020 season in Los Angeles, a result of Weaver’s first off-season since being hired as general manager in June – really, the result of a dizzying week of transactions once the NBA lifted the trade embargo, held its draft and opened free agency within the span of four November days.
Sekou Doumbouya, who’d turned 19 a week earlier, made his first NBA start that night at Staples Center against the Clippers. He’s one of three players who played that night still on the team. Svi Mykhailiuk and Derrick Rose are the others. Blake Griffin sat out and, a few days later, it was determined knee surgery that would end his 2019-20 season after 18 games was in order. Four holdovers from the 2019-20 Pistons remain, 11 newcomers – 13 if you include the two-way contracts – completing the roster.
In the moment, 2020 isn’t in the running to be remembered any more fondly by Pistons fans than by Americans at large. But 2020 has a solid chance to buff its image sometime not too far down the road as a transformational year for the franchise.
What has to happen in 2021 to alter the perception of 2020 for Pistons fans? Well, start with this:
Blake Griffin and Derrick Rose are both healthy on May 16, the final day of the regular season. Weaver and Dwane Casey made the call that amid wholesale change, it was vital to keep the star power and example of utter professionalism those two decorated stars represent to prepare the bevy of young players around them to accept the baton at the appropriate time. That effect is amplified if Griffin and Rose are in uniform and showing on a daily basis the level of dedication to their craft required to turn potential into productivity.
Jerami Grant validates his and Weaver’s faith in their belief that Grant is on the cusp of stardom. He’s been around for a while but Grant is still just 26. In the days when players arrived to the NBA as 22-year-olds, old school general managers felt a player’s prime began right around where Grant is now. Grant’s contract in free agency was one that raised eyebrows for how aggressively Weaver moved at the opening bell. But healthy, rangy, elite defenders who shoot 3-pointers in volume and above league average are the holy grail of the NBA present. Grant’s early production – 22.8 points and 6.0 rebounds on 47 percent shooting and 36.7 percent from three – sure makes it look like a worthwhile play for the Pistons. More of that and 2020’s upheaval will be recalled in a new light.
Killian Hayes achieves that moment where he realizes he belongs. Think about the journey Hayes has been on the past several weeks. First, consider this: If Hayes was playing for Tom Izzo’s Michigan State Spartans, he’d be their youngest player. He won’t be 20 until late July. Six weeks ago, he didn’t know where he’d be playing this season. In a draft heavy on point guards – LaMelo Ball, Hayes, Tyrese Haliburton, Kira Lewis and Cole Anthony in addition to Hayes went in the top 15 – only Hayes is starting. Hayes is going against elite starters and it’s all a little dizzying right now. Sometime before his rookie season ends, the rate of orbit will slow down for him.
Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart establish their futures. The two other Pistons first-rounders – acquired through trades Weaver made to pick up additional first-round picks, a remarkable achievement in itself given the value teams put on such assets – are off to flying starts. (Stewart, by the way, would also be Michigan State’s youngest player – unless Hayes was on the roster, then he’d only be second youngest.) Relative to Hayes, they benefit by coming off the bench where it’s a little easier – not easy, but easier – to pick spots where a rookie can gain a little traction. The best thing about the rookies – and you can throw two-way player Saben Lee in the mix – is their demeanor. There’s a humility about them that opens the door for them to become the best versions of themselves. If in 2021 Bey and Stewart solidify their status as legitimate NBA rotation-worthy players – on their way to becoming starters and good ones, at that – then 2020 will have some luster for the Pistons.
Sekou Doumbouya builds off his promising start to the season. The youngest player in the NBA last season, Doumbouya is still the third-youngest Piston – and he’s all of six days older than Michigan State’s youngest player. Think about that: A Pistons team with Hayes, Stewart and Doumbouya would be young not just by NBA standards but by Big Ten standards. The Pistons understood Doumbouya was all raw tools when they drafted him 15th in 2019 and those tools are still in the infancy of being refined. But they are clearly advanced from where they were a year ago. Doumbouya is just learning about how he can be an effective NBA player, but that’s the good news: He is learning. A lot of players who are all raw tools never make that critical step. Having Hayes, a teammate on French youth national teams from his past, can only help spur the learning curve for both players.
Josh Jackson and Svi Mykhailiuk make it impossible to keep them out of the lineup. Jackson has already moved the ball well down the field toward that objective. He’s making a case for Weaver owning one of the best value signings of free agency. He was the consensus No. 1 recruit in the high school class of 2016 and the No. 4 pick in the NBA draft a year later, so it’s not exactly a revelation that Jackson has NBA impact ability. Credit to Weaver for targeting Jackson so aggressively; credit to Jackson for seizing the opportunity so fully. Mykhailiuk is at the other end of the spectrum from Jackson. He was the 47th pick and unlike Jackson’s jack-of-all-trades resume, Mykhailiuk’s carrying tool is an elite 3-point shot. But he made huge strides in multiple areas late last season and, despite the 3-point shot not falling through the four games of the 2020 portion of the 2020-21 schedule, nobody believes he forgot how to shoot. If the two 23-year-olds – they’re the senior citizens of the nine-player cohort of 23-and-unders Weaver has assembled – use 2021 to set their standing as players every team would desire, that’s a big win for the Pistons.
Mason Plumlee, Delon Wright, Wayne Ellington, Jahlil Okafor and Rodney McGruder represent the middle-aged Pistons – the support system for Griffin and Rose on an informal leadership council. Weaver and Casey very assiduously decided on a character profile – team-first players, selfless, strong work ethic, everyday effort – to stock the roster and they nailed it across the board. The young players they added also fit that profile, but like all young players they benefit from seeing their instincts put into practice by those who’ve traveled the path they’re about to take. Having those players around for 2021 sets them on the right track along that path.
And, finally, the Pistons have a lottery ticket in 20-year-old Devidas Sirvydis, who at 6-foot-8 and with the tools to be an elite shooter, has a chance to become a unique weapon. He’d be spending vast amounts of time in the G League if 2020 hadn’t been turned on its ear by COVID-19. Next fall, the Motor City Cruise – the G League team the Pistons will launch – will be playing in a new arena on Wayne State’s campus and Sirvydis quite likely will bounce back and forth. If he elevates himself to the company of Hayes and Stewart and Bey and Lee, then that’s another reason 2020 might eventually be remembered as the year the third championship era of Pistons basketball was birthed.