Pistons rebuild starts with getting lottery right – and spotting NBA’s market inefficiencies

A decade or so ago, when numbers crunchers were still viewed skeptically by most who’d been in NBA front offices long enough to be called a veteran executive, Oklahoma City was at the forefront of the analytics embrace.

It was around that time I asked someone who’d worked with Thunder general manager Sam Presti for a peek behind the curtain. Just how much weight did the Thunder give to analytical evaluation?

“We consider it for everything. We use it,” I was told, “but it’s not like analytics caused us to draft Kevin Durant.”

A decade later, there might be varying degrees of commitment to analytics across the 30 NBA franchises, but nobody openly dismisses its value any longer. The best front offices have figured out a way to take the enormous streams of information analytics provide and integrate them into other aspects of the decision-making process.

It’s the promise of doing that expertly that christens the Troy Weaver hiring with the Pistons – his universally acknowledged shrewd eye for talent steeped in the analytics background anyone who’s spent the past 12 years as Presti’s first lieutenant would enjoy.

Analytics at its core is about spotting market inefficiencies and pouncing to beat others to the punch. The Oakland A’s, subjects of “Moneyball” that brought analytics as it applies to sports to mainstream consciousness, didn’t necessarily think all players with high on-base percentages were the best players, only that the market undervalued them and acquiring such players would be the quickest and cheapest way to improvement. As the market adjusts, other inefficiencies crop up and smart teams pursue those.

The Pistons have poured a lot of resources into analytics under Tom Gores, which stands to reason for an owner who built his business empire, Platinum Equity, on the principle of finding underperforming companies and transforming them. Analytics was at the heart of Platinum’s success.

Weaver takes over as Pistons general manager amid the most unusual off-season in NBA history. He’d no doubt prefer to assume his job under more normal circumstances, but the silver lining is he’s going to have ample time to game plan for how to attack when the serious business of rebuilding – the draft, trades and free agency – comes around this fall.

Nobody knows for sure how the COVID-19 shutdown and eventual restart of the 2019-20 season will affect NBA finances, but there seems a growing consensus that the league and players will find common ground at keeping the salary cap where it was this season for 2020-21. That means the Pistons will have slightly less than the projected $35 million in cap space but still more than all but two teams, the Knicks and Hawks.

A significantly longer list of teams, more than a handful, likely will be scrambling to avoid tax payments that suddenly become more daunting with a lower cap and tax number than front offices had projected.

And there’s the opportunity – the market inefficiency, if you will – for Weaver to pluck an asset or two to hasten the rebuilding process.

If you had to prioritize the most important thing Weaver and the front office need to get right this off-season, it’s the lottery pick. The Pistons go into the August 25 lottery in the No. 5 position, meaning they can’t pick lower than ninth and have a 42 percent shot at a top-four pick. Coming out of the draft with a potential star would be the best outcome of the summer.

But on its heels would be converting the cap space into another building block or two. It’s possible that means by conventional terms – signing an undervalued free agent young enough to still be of help three or four years down the road when a rebuilding would be expected to show return. It’s more likely it means adding draft picks or a promising young player teams are willing to attach for the right to park big contracts on the Pistons’ cap sheet.

Weaver was part of a front office in Oklahoma City that last summer received an unprecedented trove of future first-round picks in deals that shipped Paul George, Russell Westbrook and Jerami Grant out of town.

The Pistons don’t have George-Westbrook magnitude assets to offer, but the mechanisms for enacting the trades possible for the Pistons won’t be significantly different. Teams are willing to pay a premium to get what they most need to meet their objectives. Sometimes it’s a star player, sometimes it’s cap space to open the pursuit of a star player, sometimes it’s avoiding the tax collector.

All seems quiet now for the Pistons and the seven other NBA teams excluded from the Orlando bubble relaunch. Behind the scenes, you can bet Weaver and his front office are using this time to figure out which teams are willing to part with the assets they most desire to speed a Pistons rebuilding – figuring out market inefficiencies, if you will.