Rock and a hard place: Pistons aim to compete without top-5 pick on roster

Chauncey Billups was the No. 3 pick in the 1997 draft, but didn’t flourish until his sixth NBA stop – joining the Pistons in 2002.
Allen Einstein/NBAE/Getty Images
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

AUBURN HILLS – The 2004 Pistons were characterized as a team of castoffs and misfits, all of them with massive chips on their shoulders. That wasn’t necessarily inaccurate, either. It just didn’t tell the whole story.

Yes, the Pistons were the sixth NBA stop for Chauncey Billups, all before his 26th birthday. Rip Hamilton was never embraced in Washington despite averaging 20 points a game in his third NBA season. Rasheed Wallace became the public face of Portland’s dysfunction when the Pistons welcomed him at that February’s trade deadline, his fourth NBA home.

They joined Ben Wallace, undrafted and twice traded, and Tayshaun Prince, an original Piston but one passed over by 22 other NBA teams in a watered-down draft after four years as a starter at Kentucky.

But that characterization of the Pistons as castoffs obscures one salient fact: The NBA had recognized their talents long before they’d arrived in Detroit. Billups was the third pick in the 1997 draft, Rasheed Wallace the fourth pick in ’95 and Hamilton the seventh pick in ’99.

By the standards of NBA title teams, that made them nothing remarkable. San Antonio’s dynasty was launched on the backs of two No. 1 overall picks a decade apart – David Robinson in 1987, Tim Duncan in 1997. Franchises that have employed LeBron James – like Robinson and Duncan, not just a No. 1 overall pick but a generational talent – have seemed to fare OK since 2003.

It also explains the rock-and-a-hard-place positioning of today’s Pistons. They don’t have a single top-five pick on their roster. In fact …

“We’re one of two teams that don’t have a top-seven pick anywhere on their roster,” Stan Van Gundy noted as the season wound down.

Stanley Johnson (2015) and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (2013) are the highest-drafted players on the roster, both taken eighth. Andre Drummond went ninth in 2012.

The absence of a top-five pick alone isn’t an absolute disqualifier to compete for NBA titles. San Antonio remains a viable contender led by a 15th overall pick (Kawhi Leonard, 2011), though signing LaMarcus Aldridge, the second pick in 2006, surely props up the Spurs, too. Golden State won the 2015 title and was up 3-1 in the ’16 Finals while being led by two-time MVP Steph Curry (No. 7, 2009), Klay Thompson (No. 11, 2011) and a second-round pick (Draymond Green, 2012), but the Warriors still jumped on the chance to add Kevin Durant (No. 2, 2007).

The Pistons have four lottery picks on their roster (Johnson, Drummond, Caldwell-Pope and Marcus Morris, 14th in 2011). Take Johnson out of the equation – two years into the league and still just 20, it’s way too soon to evaluate his career – and there’s not much doubt that all have met or exceeded the average production for their draft slot.

(Interestingly, the No. 9 pick has been significantly more productive than No. 8 of late. No. 9 picks had a four-year run of All-Stars with DeMar DeRozan, Gordon Hayward, Kemba Walker and Drummond, but also count Noah Vonleh, Trey Burke and D.J. Augustin in the mix on either end of that run. No. 8, meanwhile, has seen Joe Alexander, Jordan Hill, Al Farouq-Aminu, Brandon Knight, Terrance Ross and Nik Stauskas taken in the years around Caldwell-Pope.)

Ditto for Tobias Harris (19th) and Reggie Jackson (24th), both – like Morris and Jon Leuer (40th) – products of the 2011 draft.

Their collective efforts were good enough for 44 wins and a playoff berth in 2016, but it’s a model that leaves little margin for error. That was borne out this season, when an injury to Jackson sent the offense tumbling from league average to 25th in efficiency rating, netting them 37 wins and on the outside looking in at the playoffs.

Van Gundy isn’t waiting around for a superstar to fall into his lap or digging through his talisman drawer in hopes of beating the long – looong – odds the Pistons face to pull a top-three pick in the May 16 lottery. He earnestly believes there’s untapped potential yet on his current roster and has also vowed to make changes, internally or externally, before next season tips off.

But, yeah, he’d probably be OK if the Pistons got that top-three pick, too.