What if? A look at possibilities for the Pistons if they hit tonight’s lottery

Arizona freshman Deandre Ayton is considered the likely No. 1 pick with more than a month to go before the June 21 draft
Sam Forencich (NBAE/Gett)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

AUBURN HILLS – It’s a coin flip what’s more astounding – the fact the Cleveland Cavaliers won the NBA draft lottery’s No. 1 pick three times in four years – twice with odds of less than 3 percent of doing so – or the fact that none of the players picked by the Cavs still wear their uniform.

The Pistons, meanwhile, haven’t had a shred of lottery luck in 15 years. That’s when they navigated very narrow straits to land the No. 2 pick on the 7.1 percent chance Memphis had of leaping from No. 6 in a year the pick would have remained with the Grizzlies had the 6.4 percent shot at landing the top pick come through for Memphis.

Wise guys would interject at this point that the Pistons weren’t so lucky, after all, given that Darko Milicic might possibly be remembered one day as the only one of 2003’s top five picks not to make the Hall of Fame. LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade are all pretty much locks and Chris Bosh will have a strong case given his two NBA titles and 11 All-Star berths before his career was cut short by blood-clotting issues.

No one’s betting that the 2018 draft will produce at quite that level, but it’s regarded as a strong draft at the top. If some of Cleveland’s mind-boggling luck has made it to the other shore of Lake Erie and pays off tonight when the Pistons go into the lottery needing a Hail Mary to keep their pick – it goes to the Clippers if the Pistons don’t pull into the top three – what would they do with a top-three pick?

The Pistons have a 1 percent chance to land the No. 3 pick and less than that of hitting at No. 1 (0.7 percent) or No. 2 (0.8 percent). Their cumulative chance of 2.5 percent to land anywhere in the top three is greater than Cleveland’s (1.7 percent) odds of landing the No. 1 pick in 2014 when it took Andrew Wiggins but less than the 2.8 percent chance the Cavs capitalized on in 2011 to wind up with Kyrie Irving. In 2013 when Cleveland went from No. 3 to No. 1 on 15.6 percent odds, the Cavs picked a player (Anthony Bennett) whose career makes Darko’s look Hall of Fame worthy.

Here’s a guess at what the Pistons would do if they land at No. 3, No. 2 or … hoo boy, might as well dream big – No. 1:

No. 3 pick – If the consensus is that Deandre Ayton and Luka Doncic are the top two picks – and it’s a thin consensus, if it exists – then we’ll set those two aside for the purpose of this exercise.

The next three prospects by most accounts are, like Ayton, three more college freshmen: Michigan State’s Jaren Jackson Jr., Texas’ Mo Bamba and Duke’s Marvin Bagley. If there’s a wild card, it might be Michael Porter, the versatile 6-foot-10 Missouri freshman who missed almost all of his only college season with a back injury but returned for the postseason and looked less than ready. Point guards Trae Young and Collin Sexton would come under consideration, as well.

Aside from Porter and the point guards, they’re all power forward/center types, which begs the question: Should a team with Andre Drummond and Blake Griffin – who’ll make a combined $57 million next season – really invest another huge asset in its frontcourt?

The short answer: Yes.

You just don’t worry about roster fit if you’ve identified someone you think can be a transformational player, a Hall of Fame-caliber talent. Drummond can opt out in two years. Griffin’s injury history can’t be ignored. And, besides, if Drummond and Griffin combine for 70 minutes a game – that’s a lot – it still leaves 26 minutes for somebody else at those two positions.

Bagley has high-end scoring potential and Bamba could be a defensive anchor. Jackson could be some of each. And he’s not even 19 yet.

I’d go with Jackson. But I’d look long and hard at Porter.

No. 2 pick – What Doncic is doing as a 19-year-old in Spain’s ACB – whose teams would dominate the best college teams – is remarkable. And, yet, a cohort of skeptics remain that he’ll be athletic enough to slide into the NBA and perform at the level you’d expect of a top-two pick.

What a firestorm a new management team would face if it took Doncic in the same draft slot the Pistons used on Milicic 15 years earlier. But, on paper, he’d have the best chance of stepping into a prominent role of any of the consensus top-five prospects. (If Porter is in that number, he’d qualify, too. Back injuries, though, raise red flags – big ones.) The Pistons have only Stanley Johnson as a natural small forward on their roster.

Doncic has point-guard skills, but at 6-foot-8 he’ll likely defend small forwards in the NBA. The Pistons could use another playmaker. I’d bet on Doncic’s Euroleague production making him an impact NBA player. And for all the Darko comparisons it would inspire, the one thing Milicic didn’t have on his resume is what Doncic has in spades: proven productivity against the best Europe has to offer.

No. 1 pick – The Portland Trail Blazers’ decision to take Greg Oden over Kevin Durant 11 years ago altered the course of at least two franchises. Even if Oden hadn’t endured a nightmarish history of knee injuries, it probably was destined to be judged as the wrong choice.

But Oden had a chance to be a dominant defender. So does Ayton, though his Oden-like size and athleticism didn’t really translate in his one season at Arizona the way Oden’s did in taking Ohio State to the Final Four as a freshman. Ayton also appears to have more offensive potential than Oden.

Not yet 20, Ayton probably wouldn’t offer the next Pistons coach enough versatility to play alongside Drummond, only behind him. But nothing wrong with getting 14 or 16 high-level minutes from your backup center as a rookie and then see where the possibilities take you after that. One or the other would be interesting trade bait if it came to that.

So on the 2.5 percent chance the Pistons hang on to their lottery pick tonight, those are the stakes: Jaren Jackson Jr., Luka Doncic or Deandre Ayton – or Mo Bamba, Michael Porter, Trae Young or Collin Sexton – in a Pistons uniform next season.