Inflection point: How a year’s worth of work had Weaver, Pistons prepared on draft night

Troy Weaver was part of an Oklahoma City front office that pulled off an astounding trifecta that was never before seen and will never be duplicated for as long as the NBA exists – drafting future MVPs in back-to-back-to-back years with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden.

So what does it say about Weaver’s view of Thursday’s draft results when he said – on a sultry summer Friday at Rouge Park on Detroit’s west side, with newly drafted Pistons Jaden Ivey and Jalen Duran at his and Dwane Casey’s side – “I’m thrilled. You can’t see it because I’ve probably had six hours of sleep in the last 14 days, but I’m more excited than I have ever been.”

This is a story of how a draft comes together and how a few handfuls of people pour a year’s worth of work into one night with the goal of knowing everything there is to know about scores of basketball players, winnowing the list of desirable targets to a reasonable number and being prepared to pounce at the slightest hint of opportunity to acquire them.

When Pistons owner Tom Gores talked to Weaver a few hours before Thursday night’s draft, he told the man he tabbed as general manager two years earlier: “I want you to be aggressive and go for it.”

“I didn’t know what the rest of the day would look like,” Weaver said at the park where Gores has pledged to build a $20 million community center, “but this is the result of being aggressive and going for it. We’re thankful and grateful we landed here. These moments will be an inflection point in the restoration.”

For the Pistons to come out of the draft with Jaden Ivey, the consensus best guard in the 2022 draft, and Jalen Duren, a 6-foot-11 slab of granite who won’t turn 19 until a month into the 2022-23 regular season, required Weaver and his inner circle to be prepared to exploit opportunity as it arose.

Those opportunities came as part of the vulnerabilities and desires of two rival franchises on opposite coasts.

For weeks leading to the draft, a commonly heard refrain became, “The draft starts at four.” Sacramento, by virtue of moving from seventh in draft position to fourth via the lottery, would pick after Orlando, Oklahoma City and Houston divvied up the three big men who’d been projected as the first three picks for months – Paolo Banchero, Chet Holmgren and Jabari Smith.

The Kings had spent their last two lottery picks, Tyrese Haliburton and Davion Mitchell, on guards. They’re also paying point guard De’Aaron Fox a maximum deal. The Kings have gone 16 years without a playoff appearance and have churned through 12 coaches in that time. There is pressure to win – now. Reports surfaced that Ivey, who didn’t work out for the Kings, didn’t want to go there, following a trail of players from previous drafts. Asked about it three days before the draft, Ivey said, “I would just say I actually haven’t been in contact with them, didn’t work out for them. I’m kind of just letting this process handle itself. If I got drafted there, it wouldn’t be the worst option.”

“Wouldn’t be the worst option” landed with a thud in Sacramento. The Kings were seen as quite likely to trade the pick. But they might have overplayed their hand. One report last week said Indiana, picking two spots after Sacramento and just after the Pistons, was told it would take the No. 6 pick and two future first-rounders to move up where, presumably, Ivey was the pick. Reports said virtually everyone picking behind Indiana in the lottery was chasing Sacramento’s pick with designs on drafting Ivey.

The Kings stayed put and picked Iowa’s Keegan Murray. All scrutiny goes away if Murray becomes a star, but there’s now a ton of pressure on him to do so. The Pistons sat at five and got a player that many think could well turn out to be the best to come from the 2022 draft.

How do we know teams were calling Sacramento with designs on drafting Ivey? Because once the Kings passed on him, Weaver’s phone blew up. Reports had both Washington and the Knicks, among other suitors, wanting to trade for the fifth pick.

“There was a lot of activity,” Weaver said with typical circumspection. “I’ve been around this game a long time. Tonight has been as action-packed as I’ve been around.”

But while he had the Knicks on the line … hey, what about getting the 11th pick?

The Pistons had something the Knicks wanted: cap space. The Knicks have been more doggedly tied to a prospective free agent, Dallas guard Jalen Brunson, than perhaps any team and free agent have ever been. His former agent, Leon Rose, is Knicks president. His current agent is Rose’s son. The Knicks hired his dad, Rick Brunson, as an assistant coach.

The Knicks traded away their 11th pick to Oklahoma City for future draft capital. They used some of it to pick up the 13th pick from Charlotte. Now they had ammunition to get what they wanted most – well, as long as a young star like Ivey was beyond their reach. 

For the accommodation of taking on Kemba Walker’s one year remaining at $9.1 million, plus a 2025 first-round pick obtained less than 24 hours earlier – from Milwaukee and likely to be somewhere in the 20s as long as Giannis Antetokounmpo remains upright and breathing – the Pistons were gifted the 13th pick. It’s widely reported the Pistons are likely to buy out Walker. Buyouts typically are for 100 percent of the salary minus the veteran minimum the player will then be free to sign with any team, in Walker’s case about $2.5 million. The Pistons, even after docking the roughly $6.5 million buyout, will still take more cap space into free agency, most likely, than any other NBA team.

The Knicks viewed their three-trade ballet in totality and liked the outcome. It didn’t matter so much to them that their piece of business with the Pistons seemed, by all appearances, to tilt heavily toward Detroit’s end. That was Weaver and his “value team” – so dubbed by Pistons vice chairman Arn Tellem, who spent decades of draft nights as agent for players who would fill a wing in the Hall of Fame – in analytics being able to distill in pressure-filled minutes the metrics of trades that otherwise take weeks or months to come together. When the rubber met the road, their year’s worth of work prepared them for the moment.

So a young core that now requires two hands to count – Cade Cunningham, Saddiq Bey, Isaiah Stewart, Killian Hayes, Saben Lee, Isaiah Livers, Jaden Ivey, Jalen Duren and, maybe, Marvin Bagley III depending on how his free agency turns – is about to be augmented with the spoils of a free-agent bounty Weaver has spent two years amassing and nurturing. 

Next Weaver and his value team, maybe after getting a decent night’s sleep, will turn their attention to free agency. The result of Thursday’s draft and landing two elite talents – the most athletic perimeter player and most athletic big man available – is that the Pistons will remain impossibly young next season.

Maybe that changes the calculation for when it’s realistic to expect them to challenge for a playoff berth. Weaver and Casey aren’t going to hold this group back, for sure, but neither are they going to grow impatient. Too much has gone into it now to deviate from their rigorously disciplined approach.

As Weaver has said, you only get one chance to get it right when you strip something to the studs as the Pistons, as an organization, decided to do two years ago. The Pistons have something special baking now. And Thursday night, as Weaver said, is to be remembered as an inflection point.