How the Detroit Pistons hope team gathering will set the tone for successful season

Vince Ellis
Special for Pistons.com

Before beginning his remarks, Troy Weaver had one important matter to address with the early fall dinner audience, which included Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores.

Weaver, entering his second season as general manager, noted that several people – including rookie Cade Cunningham – had birthdays on consecutive days recently and he thought it appropriate to acknowledge that. Forward Jerami Grant took it further.

“We need the rooks to stand up and sing Happy Birthday!” Grant yelled.

A grinning Weaver agreed but said the chorus needed to include not just this year’s rookie class of Cade Cunningham, Isaiah Livers and Luka Garza, but also last year’s rookie class of Killian Hayes, Saddiq Bey, Isaiah Stewart and Saben Lee.

Hall of Famer Ben Wallace bellowed that rookie front office members needed to join the youngsters at the front of the gathering.  

As the audience whooped and laughed, Grant had one last request. He nixed the traditional birthday ditty for the Stevie Wonder anthem that was written to successfully advocate for Martin Luther King’s birthday to be recognized as a national holiday.

They did not do Wonder proud, but after a game effort, Weaver said: “Thanks, rooks.”

The team dinner at vice chairman Arn Tellem’s West Bloomfield home came on the eve of Media Day, which typically serves as the season kickoff. But this year was notable because it was the first time Gores, the  players, front office personnel, coaching and support staff were under the same roof since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last season’s strict protocols aimed at limiting interactions with players scuttled normal get-togethers, but a vaccinated group gathered before the season for fellowship and laughter, which hopefully portends a closer-to-normal 2021-22 season, which begins Wednesday night when the Chicago Bulls visit Little Caesars Arena.

And after last season’s 20-52 record, there is hope the gathering can serve as a tone setter for the franchise that is seeking a return to relevance.

“Absolutely excited about being able to have everyone together,” Weaver said the following day. “I’m a communicator and I like being around people. We hadn’t had that chance because of the pandemic and hopefully we will have more times like that.

“Having everyone in the room where you can see each other, touch each other, having the support of everyone there from the ownership group to basketball operations, coaches, players goes a long way.”

 

Ownership presence

Some type of season kickoff with ownership presence was customary in past years, but with the pandemic raging, no such event was held last season. With no player left on the Pistons roster from when Gores hired Weaver in June 2020, it was the first time for many players to have extended interaction with Gores, who has owned the Pistons for 10 years.

Off the court, it’s been an eventful 10 years with the Pistons moving back to downtown Detroit and opening a $90 million state-of-the-art facility in the New Center area, which is a short distance from LCA. Gores and the Pistons also brought a G League franchise, the Motor City Cruise, to Detroit. The inaugural season begins in November.

“Having a state-of-the-art facility and all those tools and resources and everything at your disposal is massive for players, coaches, training staff and front office,” newly signed free agent big man Kelly Olynyk said.  “To have everybody in the same place, pulling the rope in the same direction, that’s how things get moved.

“It’s special to be part of it. Having an owner that has your back and is with you along the way and gives you everything you need to be successful is Step 1 in the process. Once you check that box, you can get to the other stuff.”

But the team dinner provided an opportunity for players to hear directly from Gores. After a welcome from Tellem and motivational remarks from Weaver and coach Dwane Casey, Gores was handed the mic.

“Just being here in this moment, it’s incredible,” Gores said when looking back at the past year.

He told of his humble beginnings, immigrating with his family from Israel to the Flint area when he was a small child. He then paid respects to the two men seated beside him – Casey and Weaver – that he hired to restore this franchise, which is home to three NBA titles.

His attention turned to the players, who he encouraged to reach their full potential.

“Let’s go get it done,” he said. “You only have so many opportunities in life to capture the moment. Seize the moment. Understand the beauty of the all the work you accomplished to get here.”

He concluded by telling the audience: “I’m just part of this team. I always want to make sure I serve you guys.”

He then took questions from the players, which covered topics like his mother’s understanding after a tough loss as a youth to his leadership style.

“He’s very down to earth,” forward Josh Jackson said. “He’s a guy that pays a lot of attention to detail. He talks about some very interesting stuff, very knowledgeable guy, so I like being around him.”

 

Setting the tone

 

The Pistons are embarking on the most anticipated season in several years. They are coming off a 20-52 season, but there is optimism because of Weaver’s direction. Bey and Stewart are coming off NBA all-rookie seasons and Hayes is considered a promising young point guard. Lottery luck fell on the Pistons and they have added the top overall draft pick in Cunningham, who looks like a franchise cornerstone. Grant is seeking to build upon last season’s career year.

National pundits are predicting more losing this season, but a quiet confidence radiated among the players, the coaching staff and the front office during that team dinner. There is an expectation to compete for the play-in tournament, which would dictate at least a 10th-place finish in the Eastern Conference.

And after playing last season with few fans, there is also hope a more full LCA and less restrictive COVID-19 protocols will lead to a closer-to-normal season. The dinner was a good start.

“For everybody to be under the same tent (that) night, with Tom there and his staff, it was beautiful,” Casey said during Media Day. “It’s the first time we’ve been together in real life as a complete team under the same roof.

“To be able to experience that was a great way to start the season this year, being able to be together, being present, being able to give hugs and not worry about anything.”