Without a slam-dunk draft star, there’s a silver lining if Pistons don’t win the lottery

Draft Lottery stage
New GM Troy Weaver will represent the Pistons when the NBA determines the 2020 draft order at Thursday’s lottery.
Gary Dineen (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

As the No. 1 pick in the 2019 draft, Zion Williamson signed a contract that stipulated he’d be paid $9.7 million for his rookie season. His teammate Jaxson Hayes, as the No. 8 pick, signed for roughly half of that, $4.8 million, in first-year salary.

And even if Hayes showed some flash as a rookie and profiles as a prototypical modern-day big man, there isn’t one among the NBA’s 30 front offices that wouldn’t rather have Williamson at twice the salary.

You wonder what the vote would be, though, if you could poll the 30 front offices this season on whether they’d rather have the No. 1 pick in the 2020 draft and be obligated to pay nearly $10 million for the player of their choice – players on rookie contracts are paid based on a set scale as determined by the collective bargaining agreement – or be on the hook for half of that for the uncertainty of who’d be available to them after seven others were drafted.

Which brings us to Troy Weaver and his first draft with the Pistons – and the lottery, two weeks from today, that will determine where that pick will fall.

The trait that elevated Weaver’s profile as a general manager-in-waiting more than a decade ago as a young executive in Oklahoma City was his keen eye for spotting talent. Those 12 years he spent as Sam Presti’s first lieutenant exposed him to every other facet of the job, but it’s fair to say the most pronounced skill he brings to the Pistons is the ability to look at 18- and 19-year-old players in some stage of development and determine where that development is likely to carry them.

There’s another reason some GMs might prefer to not win the August 20 lottery this year beyond the chunk of the salary cap it would consume by winning. It’s to avoid the stigma of blowing the No. 1 pick. There’s greater tolerance for missing with, say, the No. 6 or No. 9 pick than the first pick – even if the consensus opinion holds that there’s no slam-dunk future star available.

Weaver’s confidence in his ability to spot talent means he won’t be actively rooting against the Pistons to win the lottery draw, but he might be more concerned about the cap ramifications. In Weaver’s first draft as part of the Oklahoma City front office, he was especially high on Russell Westbrook and Brook Lopez, he’s said. Westbrook went fourth, Lopez 10th and you wonder if the Thunder hadn’t taken Westbrook if he might have gone three or four spots lower – which wouldn’t have been a huge upset given his predraft evaluations.

If Weaver gauges the 2020 draft – one where it is accepted that there will be wide variances of opinion as to individual front offices’ boards – in a similar fashion, maybe he’s more comfortable with the fifth pick than the first given how the disparities in salary slots over the life of rookie contracts affect cap space in subsequent years.

None of that will be known until after the October draft and probably not even then. But a year from now, after the class of 2020’s rookie seasons are in the books, it wouldn’t come as much of a shock if it’s clear that teams that didn’t win on lottery night wound up getting the most bang for the buck out of the 2020 draft.

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