As Pistons approach a transformative night, Bucks serve as reminder that the path to the top is winding

Isaiah Stewart
Isaiah Stewart was one of 3 rookies Troy Weaver drafted in the first round in 2020 to set them up for a run at bigger and better days ahead
Chris Schwegler (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

Winning an NBA title is tremendously difficult. Winning an NBA title takes a run of good fortune … and a corresponding run of avoiding bad breaks.

You want the lesson of the Milwaukee Bucks run to the 2021 NBA championship and how it applies to their division rivals and neighbors across Lake Michigan, the Pistons, there it is.

There is a palpable buzz about the Pistons these days that there hasn’t been in an NBA generation, since 15 years ago as the Goin’ to Work Pistons were coming to the unofficial close of their run with Ben Wallace’s departure to Chicago in free agency in the summer of ’06.

Troy Weaver wiped the slate clean in his first year on the job as Pistons general manager, arriving with an unswerving determination to “restore” – not rebuild – the Pistons to greatness and not blinking even once since. His aggressive strike after targeting Jerami Grant and his draft night maneuvering to land three No. 1 picks that turned into Killian Hayes, Isaiah Stewart and Saddiq Bey laid a foundation faster than an Amish barn raising.

If you believe in karma, then you saw what transpired the night of June 22 coming. The Pistons won the NBA draft lottery, the first time in 14 tries they’ve moved up at all – never mind to No. 1 – since the lottery’s inception in 1985. Their timing was right, too. It’s considered a once-a-decade type draft with star talent teeming at the top. You can make an argument that the No. 1 pick in the 2021 draft is one of the 20 most valuable single assets across all 30 NBA franchises.

So expectations for the 2021-22 Pistons season are going to spike wildly. We’re not here to douse those expectations in cold water, but we’re not here to give them a Gatorade bath, either.

Within days after the Pistons make their decision with the No. 1 pick, they’ll gather the core of last year’s youth cohort and begin practicing for Summer League. It’s conceivable that their Summer League starting lineup will represent 80 percent of their starting lineup for opening night of the 2021-22 season. I’m not doing the research, but I would be comfortable betting that this would be an NBA first.

Grant, assuming he’s fully healthy while coming off his run with the United States Olympic team, will be a dead-solid lock to be in the opening night lineup. The other four starters could well be Hayes, Stewart, Bey and whoever is next week’s No. 1 pick. Mason Plumlee remains the likely starter at center, but it’s not a stretch to believe Stewart could win that job outright off of his eye-opening rookie season and the work he’s putting in this summer having just turned 20.

Whether that’s the starting lineup or not, there’s a certainty that the Pistons are going to have a rotation that consists of a handful of players 22 or younger. Three or four of them – Hayes, Stewart, the No. 1 pick and Sekou Doumbouya – will be 20 or younger. The 2021-22 Pistons would be a young team by NCAA standards, never mind NBA norms.

That’s a long way of saying they’re still due to absorb some tough lessons. Giannis Antetokounmpo won two MVPs and endured years of playoff heartbreak before cradling the Larry O’Brien Trophy this week. Khris Middleton has been at his side for all eight of those seasons, growing from second-round draft pick – by the Pistons – to trade throw-in to promising young player to solid contributor to NBA All-Star.

Step by step. It’s a journey. And almost inevitably one that includes a wrong turn or two. It comes with no guarantees. A month ago, Milwaukee had its back to the wall and might well have been bounced in the second round if not for James Harden’s hamstring and Kyrie Irving’s ankle. Mike Budenholzer’s job, by credible accounts, was in grave peril.

The stars have seemingly aligned for the Pistons over the past year. Weaver and Casey hold a singular view of what they desire in players and the values they prioritize for team building. Weaver’s confidence in his ability to judge talent, well earned, inspires the fearlessness to make moves – and run the risk of being wrong, an inevitable outcome when you’re in the personnel business – that have pushed the Pistons forward at warp speed.

All of that has put the Pistons in position to make next week’s draft a transformative night for the franchise, on par with drafting Isiah Thomas in 1981 or Grant Hill in 1994 or trading for Rasheed Wallace in 2004. Not every transformative moment produces an outcome that results in hanging a championship banner, witness the Hill era coming to an end with his departure in free agency amid a career-altering injury.

And when a franchise faces such a crossroads, that’s when it has to double down. Hill’s exit seemed the darkest day in franchise history, but it wound up leading to the arrival of Ben Wallace and the launching of the second championship era in Pistons history. Troy Weaver’s unyielding focus on the values those championship eras embodied and his synergy with Dwane Casey as they embark on this next transformative phase in franchise history give Pistons fans legitimate hope that a third championship era is afoot.

Let the Milwaukee Bucks serve as a reminder: It won’t come easily.

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