Rebuilding means an uncertain path, but Pistons made the right call in altering course

Blake Griffin
Blake Griffin’s injury-aborted 2019-20 season was just the tip of the iceberg for the Pistons, leading to their decision to launch a rebuilding effort
Chris Schwegler (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

Nobody tanked harder than the 2011-12 Charlotte Bobcats. They brought back only two double-figures scorers from a 34-win team and went 7-59 – the fewest wins and the worst winning percentage in NBA history – during the 66-game lockout season.

Charlotte went into the lottery in the No. 1 spot with the 25 percent shot at landing the top pick that the system of the day allotted the Bobcats and were leapfrogged by only one team, New Orleans.

The difference between the top pick and the second pick was the difference between a dead-certain future Hall of Famer – Anthony Davis – and a journeyman, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Charlotte bought out Kidd-Gilchrist after no taker for him could be had at this year’s trade deadline. He played in only 12 games this season for Charlotte and has averaged 8.5 points a game for his career.

You want to know why franchises consider rebuilding as a last resort, there’s your answer.

Even if your intent to lose yields the worst team in the league by a degree of magnitude, it still requires the luck of the lottery – on top of the presence of a franchise-altering talent atop the draft – to validate the plan and jump-start the process.

Charlotte has made two playoff appearances in the nine seasons since deciding to rebuild and doesn’t appear any closer to getting over the hump as the Hornets than they did as the Bobcats. They were 23-42 when the NBA suspended the season on March 11, three spots behind the Pistons in the No. 8 lottery spot.

Philadelphia took tanking to the extreme, averaging 15.7 wins over a three-year period, and got about as much out of the draft as you could reasonably expect by coming away with Joel Embiid at No. 3 in 2014, Jahlil Okafor at No. 3 in 2015 and Ben Simmons at No. 1 in 2016, hitting on two of three top-three picks with Okafor the big miss. The 76ers also fumbled the 2017 draft, giving up a future No. 1 pick to entice Boston to drop from first to third and taking Markelle Fultz with the top pick while the Celtics plucked Jayson Tatum in Philly’s third slot.

It remains to be seen what the long-term payoff will be for the 76ers. They used most of the draft capital amassed over years of trading assets to acquire first Jimmy Butler and then Tobias Harris to complement the Embiid-Simmons core. For all of the anguish endured in Philadelphia, the 76ers were the No. 6 playoff seed at the time of the NBA’s suspension.

The Pistons certainly can’t be accused of rushing the process – no allusion to Philadelphia’s “The Process” intended – in reaching their organizational decision signaled clearly by February’s trade of Andre Drummond.

When Tom Gores hired Ed Stefanski two years ago, Stefanski says he told the Pistons owner he wasn’t interested in coming on to deconstruct a roster that included Drummond, Blake Griffin and Reggie Jackson. Gores, since buying the Pistons in 2011, consistently stated a desire to field a playoff contender without sacrificing the future to do so. Stefanski hired Dwane Casey, coming off of a Coach of the Year award, to maximize the talent on hand.

And the Pistons got back to the playoffs for the first time since 2016 when Casey coached them to a 41-win season in his first year. They got arguably the best individual season in franchise history from Blake Griffin and a full season from Jackson, then added Derrick Rose, Tony Snell and Markieff Morris. Stefanski said training camp was the best he’d seen in more than two decades in NBA front offices.

Then injuries tore through the roster in historic waves. Casey, too, has spent more than two decades in the NBA. He’d never experienced anything like what befell the Pistons. Griffin, Jackson and Luke Kennard – three of their top five players, by any measure – missed vast chunks of the season and that was the tip of the iceberg. Only Langston Galloway suited up for every game.

For all of that, the Pistons could have made another decision in February. They could have hung on to Drummond – with the expectation that he’d opt in and be back next season – and bet on Griffin’s healthy return from minor knee surgery plus Kennard’s continued ascendancy and doubled down.

Gores wants to win. Stefanski knows the tortured history of rebuilding. Their decision wasn’t as obvious as those banging the drums for a rebuild – none of whom have to wear the inevitable scars to come – made it seem.

But it was the right call. A Griffin-Drummond-Rose-Kennard core, given good health and another off-season to tweak around the edges, could have challenged for a playoff berth in 2020-21. Could it have had reasonable expectations beyond that?

“We were in the middle of the pack,” Stefanski said after dealing Drummond. “It’s not the place we want to be in. We’ve just decided this is the time.”

The hard work is staring them down from the distance. Getting it right requires a series of tough decisions based on projections that are more art than science. Getting it right also requires a healthy measure of luck. The Pistons are overdue for some of that.

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