Making the case: Pistons have flexibility to draft best player regardless of position

The first priority of an organization launching a rebuild is to up the talent level of its roster. It’s always easier when it happens in one fell swoop – winning the lottery in the rare year a LeBron James or Anthony Davis is available – or winning a recruiting battle for an elite free agent like … LeBron James or Anthony Davis.

But it rarely happens that way. If you’re the Pistons, it never happens that way – not in the draft, not in free agency.

The Pistons have been in the lottery 13 times in the 35 years it’s been in effect and never – not once – moved up. And the only time they even indirectly experienced lottery luck – in 2003 when the pick Memphis owed to them wound up yielding the No. 2 pick in a draft for the ages – the Pistons made arguably the biggest draft mistake in franchise history, taking Darko Milicic ahead of Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh or Dwyane Wade.

The best free-agent signing in Pistons history didn’t make splashy headlines at the time. Chauncey Billups took the mid-level exception in the summer of 2002 and two years later was NBA Finals MVP – before he’d made his first All-Star roster.

Failing a lightning strike, Ed Stefanski and his front office have to win incrementally. Getting the best talent without regard for roster fit – so long as it’s a player who seems likely to thrive in the system Dwane Casey brought to the Pistons and Casey’s system is really just one designed to let talented players do their thing within guidelines conducive to today’s NBA – is the priority, whether that’s the draft or free agency or via the trade route.

Let’s start with the draft, which might not be held on its scheduled date of June 25 as the NBA ponders alterations to its calendar in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic but is most likely the next opportunity for the Pistons to up their talent base. And let’s make the case for taking the best player available regardless of position by looking at each position on the roster, starting with …

POINT GUARD – We’ll start here because (a) it’s become the most important position to fill and (b) it’s the deepest position in the lottery. Of the current ESPN top prospects ratings, four of the top 10 and seven of the top 15 are point guards.

Only Derrick Rose is under contract for next season and it stands to reason the Pistons will make finding a starting-caliber point guard the priority of free agency, which they’ll enter with more cap space than all but Atlanta and New York. And take “starting caliber” to mean not a huge name, necessarily, but someone reliable enough to start and play 20-plus minutes. Rose, it figures, will be Casey’s closer, though Casey’s inclination to play multiple point guards – and Rose’s effectiveness as an off-the-ball attacker – opens the door for great latitude with the starter’s usage.

Nevertheless, if the circumstances converge appropriately, the Pistons would be delighted to take a point guard at their pick. They won’t force it by taking a point guard over a player they regard as a better prospect, but there’s a clear need to find a young player at point guard who has the potential to be an effective NBA starter within two to three years.

LaMelo Ball is generally regarded the top prospect at the position, though scouts will have to extrapolate much from the 12 games he played in Australia before his season ended last fall with a foot injury. French teen Killian Hayes, Iowa State sophomore Tyrese Halliburton, North Carolina freshman Cole Anthony and American teen R.J. Hampton, who like Ball played in Australia/New Zealand, are the other top-rated prospects by most accounts. Alabama sophomore Kira Lewis, younger than some of the freshmen in the draft, is a fast riser and should also be considered in that discussion.

History tells us one or two among that group will turn out to be solid or better NBA players and the others will struggle to land a second contract or secure a more permanent role. Stefanski, personnel director Gregg Polinsky and their team of scouts – and Casey, too, for that matter – will spend thousands of man hours between the March 11 suspension of the NBA regular season and whenever the draft is held making sure they get that call right.

We’ll make the case for taking the best player if it happens to be at each of the four other positions tomorrow.