Given moderate good fortune on the health front – the eternal caveat of every NBA team’s every season – the Pistons’ fate in 2019-20 comes down to the cumulative contributions of their many relative unknowns.
The operative word in that sentence for the purposes of this essay is “many,” a tribute to the good work with limited assets available to him of Ed Stefanski and the front office he’s assembled since signing on to run the Pistons front office 16 months ago.
Look at the roster Stefanski inherited. The only players on rookie deals when he took over in May 2018 were the three No. 1 draft choices of the Van Gundy regime – Stanley Johnson, Henry Ellenson and Luke Kennard. No second-round picks from that era, no undrafted finds, no G League graduates.
That might still have been enough if not for the fact that Johnson and Ellenson both missed their mark by wide margins. After a promising rookie season, Johnson never took the anticipated steps and, by some measures, regressed. Ellenson, after flashing the intriguing offensive potential that got him drafted, couldn’t overcome the doubts about his lack of lateral mobility that caused him to fall out of the 2016 lottery and to the Pistons at 18.
They’re both gone, leaving Kennard as the only vestige of four drafts run by the previous regime.
Well, check that. The Pistons cashed out the last few months of Johnson’s rookie deal for one-plus seasons of Thon Maker’s.
And Maker joins a cadre of young assets that’s tripled the Pistons numbers on rookie deals or their equivalent from the three Stefanski inherited to nine who’ll gather for training camp later this month.
In addition to Kennard and Maker, there’s the two players Stefanski drafted in 2018, Khyri Thomas and Bruce Brown. He didn’t have a first-round pick – it was sent to the Clippers in the Blake Griffin deal – and went into the draft with just his own second-rounder, but traded into the top 10 of the round to get Thomas at 38 before taking Brown four picks later.
As he did in the Johnson-Maker deal, Stefanski used 20-some games of Reggie Bullock to get a future second-rounder plus the rights to two-plus seasons of minimum wage for Svi Mykhailiuk to give the Pistons three second-year players for 2019-20.
He picked up Christian Wood on a minimum deal on the waiver wire to go with the three players added on draft night. Sekou Doumbouya is the wild card, a player the Pistons clearly valued as a top-10 pick who shockingly was available to them at 15. For the future of the franchise, no one is more important – Kennard is arguably equally so – for their ability to allow the Pistons to ascend than Doumbouya, but at 18 he might have to get in line behind a handful of their other young players for this season.
The Jon Leuer-for-Tony Snell deal on draft eve was a master stroke that not only plugged a gaping hole at small forward – Snell is almost certain to join the rotation, likely the starting lineup – but opened a roster spot by shedding Leuer and his contract while also adding another asset. The 30th pick that Milwaukee used to sweeten the pot – really, the deal made sense for the Pistons even without that enticement – was flipped for four future second-rounders that Stefanski churned to trade up for Deividas Sirvydis and to trade back into the second round for Jordan Bone. He pockets a future second-rounder even after those deals.
Sirvydis, 19, will spend the season in his native Lithuania, but showed the length, shooting range and creativity in Summer League glimpses to reinforce the front office’s faith in his potential. Bone’s jaw-dropping athletic testing display at the May NBA draft combine combined with his winning pedigree at Tennessee makes him a candidate to contribute as soon as this season even though he’ll play on a two-way contract.
The Johnson and Ellenson experiences serve as reminders that not all young assets fulfill the loftiest visions – or even more moderate ones. But the more lottery tickets in your fist, the better your chances of cashing out.
The Pistons know what they have in Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson. Derrick Rose and Markieff Morris have long track records of productivity. Snell has six years of defending and shooting 3-pointers at an above-average clip. Dwane Casey trusts Langston Galloway for maximum effort and fearlessness to defend and take big shots.
It’s the solid base of a playoff contender that has an upward mobility it lacked before Stefanski got to work. How soon and how far they ascend in the season ahead is tied to the cumulative contributions the Pistons receive from all those young players now packing the roster.