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Lesson of the playoffs: Patience a necessary ingredient for Pistons

We’re perhaps on the cusp of an NBA Finals between two teams built without benefit of lottery fortune. If the Pistons – or Pistons fans, for that matter – needed any incentive to stay the course, Miami – provided the Heat don’t become the first NBA team of the 150 who’ve taken a 3-0 series lead to not finish the task – and Denver are here to deliver.

The Miami story is especially compelling. The two unquestioned stars of the Heat are Jimmy Butler, the 30th pick in 2011, and Bam Adebayo, the 14th pick in 2017. They’ve survived the loss of Tyler Herro, the 13th pick in 2019, in large measure because of their remarkable knack for mining the undrafted free agent rock pile for gems.

Even before the highest-drafted player on their roster – Victor Oladipo, No. 2 pick in the star-crossed 2013 draft – was lost for the season in these playoffs, he was playing behind some or all of the four critical UDFAs that have made possible this improbable Heat run.

That’s a roundabout way of saying Troy Weaver and the Pistons haven’t curled up in the fetal position since last week’s lottery delivered them their worst possible outcome, the fifth pick.

You know who would have been available at the fifth pick in past drafts? Everyone on Miami’s roster except Oladipo and everyone on Denver’s except Aaron Gordon, the fourth pick in 2014.

Let’s step back for a minute and look at a different column from those two rosters: experience. Denver’s starters have a cumulative 38 years of NBA experience or an average of 7.6 apiece. Miami’s starters have 41, an average of 8.2.

If the Pistons line up with a starting five of Cade Cunningham, Jaden Ivey, Jalen Duren, Isaiah Stewart and Bojan Bogdanovic next season, they’ll have a combined 16 seasons – and more than half of them, nine, will belong to Bogdanovic. If you swap in the No. 5 pick for Bogdanovic, they’ll go into the regular season with a combined seven years of NBA experience under their belts.

That doesn’t mean patience is the only ingredient needed for the Pistons to blossom into an NBA finalist. But it does imply that patience is absolutely one of the ingredients required. Talent is an absolutely essential element of a championship-worthy roster, but talent alone puts you on a treadmill, not a conveyor belt.

You probably don’t need both hands to count the number of players this century who came to the NBA and had immediate impact on winning at a high level. It took LeBron James, unquestionably the most accomplished player drafted this century, until his third season to even make the playoffs. It wasn’t until his fourth season that two-time MVP Nikola Jokic – drafted 41st, don’t forget – made an All-Star roster.

The Pistons have time on their side, but it’s not lost on Weaver – and won’t be on whomever he chooses to succeed Dwane Casey as coach – that time only works in their favor if they maximize its use. The passage of time by itself will net the Pistons nothing. But go back to what Weaver said last month when he mused about the qualities he would seek in Casey’s successor.

“I know what this team needs,” he said. “It’s simple. Discipline, development and defense. That’s going to be the call for the next coach. That’s our marching orders.”

Those things are all intertwined, too. A rigorous development program requires discipline. A coherent defense requires development and discipline. All of them require time, which the Pistons have in spades, and patience, which requires its own brand of discipline in exercising.

The Pistons will line up with six lottery picks from the past four drafts, five of them top-seven picks, when they open the 2023-24 season, a cohort that doesn’t include other young players such as Isaiah Stewart, Marvin Bagley III and Isaiah Livers. That’s a lot of young talent – and both halves of that descriptive are doing a lot of work. The right mix of time and patience, of discipline and development will be needed to make it come to life as Weaver and Pistons fans desire. They might not yet have 100 percent of the necessary ingredients in place, either. But the means to get there, to a far greater extent than they could say at any point in recent memory, are within their reach.