Pistons wrap up 2020-21, but now the hard work starts as a critical off-season, draft loom

Killian Hayes
Killian Hayes finished with 10 points and 4 assists in the finale and will benefit from a full off-season program that he and other Pistons rookies were robbed of last summer due to the COVID-19 pandemic
Chris Schwegler (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

By the objectives the Pistons laid out plainly last summer and fall, the 2020-21 season that wrapped Sunday night can only be judged a rousing success. It was never going to be about the record and always was to be viewed through the prism of talent acquisition and player development. On those scores, check and check.

Troy Weaver changed over the roster from top to bottom almost literally – only Sekou Doumbouya played a game in a Pistons uniform both last season and this – and Dwane Casey gave all the rookies and newcomers plenty of rope to learn from both their successes and their mistakes.

With 11 players 24 or under and a starting lineup that at times averaged 21 years, Weaver prioritized a handful of physical traits – athleticism and length, foremost – but even more scrupulously sought players with undiluted competitive spirit and character beyond reproach.

“That’s what gives you optimism,” Dwane Casey said after the 120-107 loss to Miami. “The competitive nature of our players, the character of our guys. We have a bunch of high-character guys that are willing to put it on the line.”

And with the season behind them and the promise of a more stable and typical off-season ahead as COVID-19 protocols are eased, the serious work of the off-season will soon be attacked.

“It’s a lot of work that needs to be put in in order for us to get to where we want to be,” said Jerami Grant, the plum of Weaver’s first foray into free agency who led the Pistons in scoring at 22.3 points a game. “We’re capable of getting a lot better and that’s what we’ve got to do.”

Grant and all of the other Pistons veterans save for Cory Joseph sat out the finale. Both teams played with short rosters – the Pistons eight available players, the Heat nine, though Miami didn’t use veterans Udonis Haslem or Dewayne Dedmon. Miami’s ability to clinch home-court advantage in the first round was eliminated when New York beat Boston earlier in the day, so the Heat sat veterans Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, Goran Dragic, Andre Iguodala, Trevor Ariza and Kendrick Nunn.

The Pistons were without Grant, Mason Plumlee, Rodney McGruder and Wayne Ellington in addition to a slew of younger players either injured (Dennis Smith Jr., Frank Jackson, Deividas Sirvydis), ill (Sekou Doumbouya) or away from the team for personal reasons (Isaiah Stewart).

In the big picture, the most significant outcome of the game for the Pistons was the loss cementing the No. 2 lottery position. A win to make the Pistons 21-51 would have left them tied with Orlando, which would not only have slightly reduced their odds at landing a top-four pick but also meant their possible outcomes would have included sinking as low as seven.

The Pistons now have a 20 percent chance of falling to the sixth pick but could go no lower. They’ll have a 14 percent chance at landing the No. 1 pick, a 13.4 percent for No. 2, 12.7 percent for No. 3 and 12.0 percent for No. 4. The single most likely outcome for the Pistons is to land the No. 5 pick at 27.8 percent odds. In a draft where most see the top five as extraordinarily strong, the Pistons hope to add an impact player in the July draft to go with the jewels of their 2020 draft: Killian Hayes, Isaiah Stewart, Saddiq Bey and Saben Lee.

“Really excited,” Grant said. “We’ve got a lot of talent, a lot of young guys with a lot of talent – Saddiq, Killian, Isaiah, Saben. We can get a lot better. We had a lot of tough losses. We can turn those into wins with some work in the off-season.”

The shift in organizational focus allowed Casey the liberty to find playing time for rookies that otherwise would not have been possible, especially considering they didn’t have the typical development vehicles of a Summer League, an off-season program or a G League alternative to further their readiness. Bey wound up playing 1,900 minutes and Stewart nearly 1,500. Lee, a second-round pick playing on a two-way contract, logged nearly 800 minutes and Hayes managed almost 700 despite missing 41 games with a hip injury that knocked him out of the lineup in his seventh career game.

“We definitely built an identity, a group of guys who get after it,” Lee said. “Compete with anybody and not fear anybody and just go hard every night. Shots might not be falling, but we’re going to compete, play hard and be aggressive while doing it. A great group of guys with character off the court as people.”

They’ll all take a deep breath and step away from the relentless testing protocols – twice daily – that hovered over them for the past 5½ months. But there won’t be much of a break. Casey and his coaches will sit down with players this week to map out individual off-season development programs for all of them. Weaver and his front-office staff will gear up for a critical draft and another go at free agency.

“That’s when the hard work starts,” Casey said. “Give the guys a couple of weeks off and get right back at it. Like I told the team, this is probably one of the most important summers of their basketball-playing careers. It’s got to be a constructive summer, whether it’s basketball, weight training, diet – the whole shebang. We’ve going to map it out with them starting tomorrow.”

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