If luck is equally dispersed, it’s time the Pistons had a little thrown their way
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AUBURN HILLS – On the morning of Dec. 27, the Pistons woke up in the No. 4 spot in the Eastern Conference playoff chase. They also awakened with a sense of foreboding as they awaited word on the severity of Reggie Jackson’s ankle sprain.
They were 19-14 after smashing Indiana 107-83 the previous night – and that despite a seven-game losing streak earlier in the month when their offense soured amid a road-heavy schedule against almost exclusively playoff teams.
So things were pointed true north for the Pistons at that point, but Stan Van Gundy and his inner circle never engaged in self-delusion. They knew their margin for error was thin. The only way you ever avoid that circumstance in the NBA is to amass overwhelming talent.
Which brings us to the factor that NBA teams pour zero resources into cultivating but ultimately is more important than ever: luck.
Why more important than ever? Because a generation or two ago, before the NBA became a multibillion dollar industry, there was great variance in the competency of front offices. For several years after Bill Davidson bought the Pistons in 1974, the guy running his front office was his old law school buddy, Oscar Feldman. And that wasn’t unusual back then. It’s no accident that the Pistons gained traction for the first time since moving to Detroit in 1957 when Davidson in 1979 entrusted the franchise to a basketball lifer, Jack McCloskey.
Today, NBA front offices are vastly larger, filled with sharp minds and augmented by explosive technological advances. The gap between the upper tier and lower tier of NBA front offices has never been narrower. Thus, luck comes into play like never before, especially in a league where one player’s importance is outsized.
The Pistons, in large measure due to lousy luck in the lottery, haven’t been able to do so since the dissolution of the Goin’ to Work bunch that went to six straight conference finals more than a decade ago. The roster is in infinitely better shape today than it was in May 2014 when Van Gundy took over thanks mostly to a shrewd sequence of trades made in rapid order to acquire Jackson, Tobias Harris and Marcus Morris without sacrificing much in return.
There’s a reason the Pistons held on to their No. 1 picks even as they were aggressively talking to the league’s 29 other teams looking to upgrade their talent base. Van Gundy knows just how precious they are. All he had to do was look to the rosters of the teams in the East the Pistons are fighting against. In almost every instance they’re going up against franchises that caught a break – or two or three or four – on lottery night.
Boston, currently with the best record in the East, owes a great deal of its success to one transaction: its pilfering of draft picks from Brooklyn in the latter’s desperate 2013 grab for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce when Garnett was 37 and Pierce nearly 36. That trade netted Jaylen Brown with the No. 3 pick in 2016, Jayson Tatum with the No. 3 pick in 2017 and served as the key piece in acquiring Kyrie Irving – the No. 1 pick in 2011 – for Brooklyn’s unprotected pick in 2018. Those assets also surely were decisive in convincing free agents Al Horford and Gordon Hayward to sign with the Celtics the past two Julys.
When the Pistons lost to Washington a few weeks back, I mentioned to Van Gundy the following day that the Wizards lineup included one overall No. 1 pick (John Wall) and two No. 3 picks (Bradley Beal, Otto Porter).
“That’s how you get good,” he said, a little wistfully. “That’s how you get good. Yeah, they’ve got a lot of talent.”
Van Gundy is terrific at taking whatever hand he’s dealt and cobbling together a system that works and units that fit. But without Jackson – far and away the Piston who best creates scoring chances – and with Avery Bradley scuffling to find his scoring touch as he deals with a nagging groin injury, too much of the onus on offense has shifted to Tobias Harris. Until his 4 of 10 performance from the 3-point arc on Sunday at Cleveland – when the Pistons lost their eighth straight game and fell to 3-12 without Jackson – he’d made a total of eight 3-point shots in the previous seven games.
Frustration was etched on his face after Sunday’s loss, in which the Pistons were all even with eight minutes left but didn’t have the passing gear Jackson so often provided.
“We haven’t found a starting lineup that can hold their own. We just haven’t,” he said. “We’re getting pummeled by good teams’ starting lineups. I don’t have many options left.”
Good teams’ starting lineups almost always include top-five picks. Go up and down the standings. Indiana’s surprising bid for a playoff berth after having its hand forced in the Paul George trade is largely due to the flowering of first-time All-Star Victor Oladipo, who at 25 is for the first time playing like a No. 2 pick, which he was in 2013. Philadelphia’s resurgence is driven by the play of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, the first and third picks from recent drafts.
The Pistons have zero top-seven draft picks on their roster. Despite six consecutive trips to the lottery – a streak that ended in Van Gundy’s second season – they never drafted higher than seventh and only that high once, in 2010, when they picked Greg Monroe. Brandon Knight and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope were eighth picks, Andre Drummond the ninth pick in 2012.
They never moved up in the lottery but got bumped down in 2011, when Cleveland, with a 2.8 percent shot at the No. 1 pick, jumped them and won the right to select Irving; in 2013, when Washington hit on a 4.8 percent shot and jumped from No. 8 to No. 3 to get Porter; and in 2014, a week after Van Gundy took over and saw the Pistons lose their No. 1 pick as Cleveland hit on 1.7 percent odds to go from No. 9 to No. 1 – enabling, ultimately, the Kevin Love deal for Andrew Wiggins and quite possibly the carrot that enticed LeBron James’ return in free agency – and push the Pistons down the one spot they couldn’t afford with a top-eight protected pick.
So, yeah, horrible lottery luck.
Of the teams ahead of them in the East today, only Toronto doesn’t at least have a top-four pick on the roster. And the Raptors have a No. 5 pick, Jonas Valanciunas, from the 2011 draft.
Even several teams behind them in the standings have rosters dotted with top picks. Charlotte has a No. 1 overall pick (Dwight Howard) and two No. 2s (Marvin Williams, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist). New York has two top-four picks (Enes Kanter, Kristaps Porzingis). Orlando has four top-seven picks (Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac, Mario Hezonja, Bismack Biyombo), Chicago two (Kris Dunn, Lauri Markkanen) and Brooklyn one (D’Angelo Russell).
Getting top-five picks isn’t the only path to success. Toronto’s best players – DeMar DeRozan (No. 9), Kyle Lowry (No. 24) and Serge Ibaka (No. 24) – weren’t high lottery picks. Milwaukee’s best player, even if Jabari Parker (No. 2) returns to form from another ACL tear, was 15th pick Giannis Antetokounmpo.
But it’s the surest way. Van Gundy has proven he can coach teams not blessed with All-Star talent to the playoffs. He did it two years ago with the Pistons. They stayed remarkably healthy that season. Now injuries to Jackson two years in a row have derailed them, underscoring the perils of roster building without a star as its anchor.
If luck is equally disbursed over time, then it should be about ready to sprinkle a little gold dust on the Pistons.