Judge the 2020-21 Pistons by something other than their record: Here’s what’s gone right so far
Garrett Ellwood (NBAE/Getty)
The Pistons hit the halfway point of the season – and in this radically unusual season, the All-Star break really is the halfway point – with a 10-26 record. And if this were a year ago and if you were into the whole mid-semester grades exercise, that would earn the franchise a big, fat F.
But the Pistons were up front about what this season would entail from the moment they introduced Troy Weaver as general manager last June and, in fact, from before that – from the February 2020 trade of Andre Drummond.
So the record isn’t the barometer anyone paying attention to the Pistons should use to judge their progress.
What’s the best way to judge it?
“The growth of the young guys,” Dwane Casey said as the first half wound down. “As you watch them play, there’s subtle growth areas with those guys.”
The Pistons went into draft night with only one pick – at No. 7 in the lottery – and they’ve gotten a total of 148 minutes from the fruits of that pick, Killian Hayes. His hip injury, suffered in the season’s seventh game on Jan. 4, qualifies as the first half’s biggest disappointment – to be mitigated, the Pistons hope, if Hayes can return to get a solid final month of the season under his belt.
Weaver dealt his way into acquiring three more picks in November – 16, 19 and 38 – and all three of the players taken with those picks have given the Pistons ample reason to feel good about their futures and, thus, theirs.
They’re on the list of the things that went right in the first half of the season for the Pistons. Here are a handful:
The signing of Jerami Grant – technically, a sign-and-trade deal, but substantively a free-agent acquisition – is the headliner of the season to date. Not just because acquiring a prime-age player performing as a borderline All-Star is supposed to be darn near impossible for a rebuilding franchise but for what it says about Weaver’s ability to target young NBA veterans about to experience a breakthrough.
Grant has not only taken the unusual step as a seventh-year veteran from role player to go-to option. His scoring average has nearly doubled (12.0 points per game in 2019-20, 23.4 in 2020-21) as his usage rate his increased by 50 percent (18.0 to 26.9) while his turnover rate has barely budged (8.0 to 8.4 percent).
Grant remains a high-impact defender whose versatility at both ends – he’s been a force off the dribble and has remained an above-average and high-volume 3-point shooter – who figures to be an easy fit for however Weaver fills out the roster in coming seasons.
Josh Jackson’s emergence parallels Grant’s on a lesser plane and would be worthy of headliner status in most years. Where Grant’s leap was from valued role player to primary scorer, Jackson has established himself as the anchor of the Pistons bench unit a year after spending most of his time in the G League.
Jackson is three years younger than Grant. It’s not crazy to think the No. 4 overall pick of 2017 can continue following Grant’s career arc. In any case, getting Jackson for a modest two-year commitment counts as a major win for the Pistons and further evidence of Weaver’s eye for emerging talent.
Even at the top of the lottery, the draft can be very much hit or miss. If you land a long-term asset outside the lottery half the time, you’re beating the odds. The Pistons appear to have gone 3-for-3 on the rookies who’ve cemented themselves as building blocks of the future – Isaiah Stewart, Saddiq Bey and Saben Lee.
If there’s a common attribute among them, it’s their uncommon humility. A sense of entitlement and a skewed self-perception is the undoing of many young players, but Stewart, Bey and Lee arrived with both feet on the ground and haven’t let any of their successes distract their focus.
Bey’s elevated himself to starter and is a 40 percent 3-point shooter already, rare territory for rookies, without being limited to 3-point specialist. Stewart leads all rookies in blocked shots and offensive rebounds and is second in rebound average. Lee, given a chance to play by an injury to Delon Wright, was a revelation in the two weeks leading to the break: 12.6 points, 3.9 assists against 1.3 turnovers, 1.0 steal on 59 percent shooting in 24 minutes a game over a seven-game span.
From a macro perspective, the job Weaver and Casey did in stocking the roster was remarkable given the scope of the job and the time frame imposed on them. In the span of four days in November, the NBA lifted the trade embargo, staged its draft and opened free agency. The Pistons filled 13 roster spots in that window and managed to find players who exude the qualities Weaver said would be his priority – toughness, selflessness, competitiveness.
Mason Plumlee’s contract was roundly questioned when it was reported he’d gotten a three-year deal averaging about $8 million a season. For about 7 percent of their salary cap, the Pistons landed a starting-quality center who is one of the NBA’s top passing big men, an important consideration for a team breaking in a rookie point guard, and a widely admired veteran known for being an exemplary teammate. The other veterans Weaver and Casey selected to surround the 10 players 24 and under on the roster – Wright, Rodney McGruder and Wayne Ellington – are much the same.
It’s no wonder Casey closed out the first half after Thursday’s loss to New York saying, “This group, I love their character, their heart, the way they fight and not give in. Teams right now are going to have to really, really fight to beat us.”