Pistons roster building can start from a simple premise: acquire the best players available, period

Ben Wallace
Ben Wallace finished 7th in 2004 MVP balloting, the highest any Pistons player ever finished during a title-winning season
Jesse D. Garrabrant (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

The Pistons aren’t exactly starting from scratch when it comes to the rebuilding they acknowledged was their new course once injuries crushed their 2019-20 season.

They’ve got Blake Griffin and Derrick Rose under contract for next season and that’s a powerful 1-2 punch with the caveat of good health required. Luke Kennard established himself as a no-doubt NBA starter before knee tendinitis flared in late December. Sekou Doumbouya, around the inconsistencies anticipated of the NBA’s youngest player, flashed the high-end potential that tantalized the Pistons in last spring’s predraft process. Christian Wood emerged prominently as a modern-day big man, a player the Pistons will be favored to retain in free agency.

A handful of other young players, led by Bruce Brown and Svi Mykhailiuk, stamped themselves as promising rotation pieces.

But it’s not incorrect to say the Pistons can treat future roster construction as a blank slate. The considerations will be talent and makeup in whatever combination aligns with organizational philosophy with an emphasis on the shooting, length, ball skills and athleticism that Dwane Casey prioritizes.

Roster fit when it comes to major personnel decisions – draft picks, trades, long-term free-agent signings – matters far less than merely acquiring talented, high-character players. Once you’ve put in place an unmistakable building block or two for what the Pistons will look like in 2024 and beyond, then you judge future acquisitions through that lens. Right now, it’s all about the best players without regard for where they’ll play or how they complement others on the roster.

And because you’re never building a team in a vacuum, it will be relevant how the rest of the league is evolving – the trends of the game, the influence of the collective bargaining agreement on team building, the culture of the league.

The two golden eras of Pistons basketball – the Bad Boys of the late ’80s to early ’90s and the Goin’ to Work Pistons of the first decade of the new century – were two of the more unique champions in NBA history. Historically, superstars drive championships. Of the 64 NBA champions crowned since the MVP award was instituted in 1956, 24 times (37.5 percent) the champion included the league MVP. Remember, the MVP vote is conducted before the playoffs start, so the championship isn’t influencing balloting.

The Bad Boys eventually featured three NBA Hall of Famers in Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars and Dennis Rodman plus a Hall of Fame coach in Chuck Daly – general manager Jack McCloskey positively should be there and you could make a compelling case for Bill Laimbeer, too – but when they won consecutive titles in 1989 and ’90, their individual recognition was scant.

The Pistons were clearly the NBA’s dominant team in the 1988-89 season, going 63-19 before blowing through the postseason with a 15-2 record. And yet in MVP balloting, Thomas and Dumars tied for 17th with one last-place vote apiece. Neither was named to any of the three All-NBA teams. Their championship didn’t do much to influence voters in their successful 1990 title defense, either. Again, Thomas and Dumars tied with one lousy last-place MVP vote apiece, this time tying in 13th place, though Dumars at least was voted third-team All-NBA.

The 2004 championship Pistons have yet to see any of their players enshrined in the Hall of Fame and it’s no better than 50-50 that it will happen. Ben Wallace, a four-time Defensive Player of the Year, might have the best shot at it. And yet in the title year, Wallace finished no better than seventh in MVP balloting.

But as the NBA continues to evolve, with the premium increasingly on 3-point shooting, roster building also will continue to evolve. If you can thread the needle from a salary-cap perspective, the three-superstar model that LeBron James fostered by teaming with Chris Bosh to join Dwyane Wade in Miami will remain viable. But good luck pulling it off.

Otherwise, putting as much shooting and defense around a great player is the best that teams can realistically hope to do. Before the 2019-20 season was suspended, Milwaukee appeared on track to serve as validation for that blueprint, rolling to a 53-12 record with a historically good scoring differential (11.2 per game) with a team built around reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.

The Pistons will go into the off-season looking to take the first significant steps – armed with a likely high lottery pick and the third-most cap space in the NBA – toward adding the critical pieces who’ll be part of their next phase. They can embark on that process with one simple guiding principle: Get the best combination of talent and makeup available.

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