DETROIT, MI - DECEMBER 28: Jalen Duren #0 of the Detroit Pistons helps up teammates against the Orlando Magic on December 28, 2022 at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit, Michigan. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE (Photo by Brian Sevald/NBAE via Getty Images)

A euphoric ending to a night that portends a bright Pistons future

The Pistons hit the halfway point of the season, 41 games, ahead of all 29 other NBA teams, punctuated Wednesday night – or Thursday morning back home – by Saddiq Bey’s buzzer-beating 3-point shot to edge Golden State, which had been 17-2 at Chase Center this season.

They Pistons also have played more road games, 23, than everybody else. They’ve played all of those games without their leading scorer from the last two seasons, Jerami Grant, and all but 12 of them without their leading scorer from this season, Cade Cunningham.

Oh, there’s this, too: They’ve played the NBA’s toughest schedule. Their opponents have won 53 percent of their games.

And they’ve done it with a team with four starters 21 or younger. Jalen Duren, the quarterback of their defense as the team’s starting center, is the NBA’s youngest player, barely 19. Through it all, they’ve maintained a fighting spirit evident to others. On their current five-game road trip, they overcame an 18-point deficit to win at Minnesota and refused to be staggered by Klay Thompson’s cold-blooded triple to tie Wednesday’s game with a second to go, setting up Bey’s heroics.

“(Bey) hit one of those shots that usually isn’t going to go in, but I also feel like the game rewards the team that maybe plays harder,” Golden State’s Steve Kerr, who won five titles as a player and four more as a coach, said after the 122-119 Pistons win. “… I thought Detroit played great. They played really hard all game. … they hit big shots and I thought they deserved to win. They were fantastic tonight.”

Kerr didn’t mention Dwane Casey in there, but he didn’t have to. A team that plays hard in the face of adversity is always a reflection of its coach. Casey and Kerr, members of the fraternity, understand the language. Kerr could not have paid Casey a higher compliment than what he said.

Some of the challenges the Pistons have had to overcome, of course, were of their choosing. They made the decision almost three years ago now, before general manager Troy Weaver’s hiring in June 2020, to take on the arduous process of a bottoms-up rebuilding. There’s a reason the Pistons never before had taken the plunge, of course: It’s painful.

There are no guarantees when a franchise chooses this path. If it brings about a degree of liberation, it also demands a series of shrewd decisions just to get back to ground zero – essentially, where the Pistons were in February 2020 when the roster was headed by Andre Drummond, Blake Griffin and Derrick Rose. For every rebuilding job that pays off with a legitimate NBA title contender, there are a half-dozen that run aground far short of sunny beaches.

It’s remarkable that Weaver and his cabinet have amassed a young nucleus voted by his peers, in the annual general managers survey conducted by NBA.com, as third most promising behind Memphis and Cleveland – franchises whose own rebuilding efforts were started one and two years ahead of Detroit’s. Given the historical hit rate of first-round picks taken outside the top three, the fact all six of Cunningham, Duren, Bey, Killian Hayes, Isaiah Stewart and Jaden Ivey appear well on track for long, productive careers crushes the odds.

That series of good decisions – plus others, like getting Isaiah Livers in the second round and trading for the likes of Bojan Bogdanovic, Alec Burks and Marvin Bagley III without sacrificing any piece of their future – has the Pistons on the cusp of a breakthrough. They’re poised to add another high-end talent in the coming draft and they have a clean cap sheet to accelerate their progress.

Cunningham’s injury and subsequent conclusion that season-ending surgery was the advisable course took their collective breath away, but it ultimately should prove a blip on the radar. The nature of the injury means he’ll almost certainly be back as good as new and, in the meantime, the responsibility that falls to Hayes and Ivey in his absence will make both more rounded players upon his return.

It shouldn’t be lost in the clamor over Bey’s shot-making heroics that Hayes and Ivey combined for 18 assists and zero turnovers in the win at Golden State. Hayes had 13 of them in his return from a three-game suspension resulting from last week’s brouhaha with Orlando. In year three – just at a point many were ready to write off Weaver’s first Pistons draft pick at the ripe old age of 21 – Hayes is becoming a bona fide NBA playmaking savant.

There’s a lesson in there that goes to the essence of rebuilding projects – or restorations, as Weaver prefers, a nod to his reverence for the history of greatness held by a franchise that’s one of only eight in the NBA with a minimum of three championship banners hanging from the rafters.

Some would call it patience. Maybe a more apt characterization would ascribe it to conviction. It starts with ownership, Tom Gores. When you sign off on a rebuilding, you can’t have weak knees. And it’s an absolute requirement for the person entrusted in carrying out the mission, Weaver, and the coach on whose shoulders the day-to-day rigor of a rebuilding most clearly falls, Casey.

The story the NBA standings tell is an accurate snapshot of the present but a poor predictor of the future. They have no sense of context. The Pistons have the conviction to see this through – and a confidence in their shared vision of how it turns out. It includes plenty of nights that end with the kind of euphoria that punctuated the final game of their season’s first half.