Pistons fans come in all shapes and sizes. They populate every corner of the globe, confirmed by social media interactions every week. So taking the temperature of the fan base isn’t often an easy thing. On most subjects, at most points in time, it’s never one reading.
But it’s safe to say that at some point over the past decade there came a consensus among fans that the Pistons were chasing their tails and needed to do what half or more of the league had done: tear it down and start anew.
There’s nothing close to that sort of groundswell going on today. Even in the face of a 4-18 start to the season after becoming the 18th consecutive notch on Phoenix’s belt Thursday to wrap up a winless road trip.
I don’t know how much overlap there is in the Venn diagram of fans who wanted the rebuild to launch two years ago and those who today yearn for a 35-win season. There is restlessness out there, for sure, but most fans are on board with the direction the Pistons declared in February 2020 and accelerated with the hiring of Troy Weaver as general manager four months later.
For those who aren’t or those new to the party or only vaguely aware of how we got here, this is for you.
Not a single player remains from the roster Weaver inherited. By the time the belated 2020-21 season tipped off six months after Pistons owner Tom Gores hired a guy who’d turned down other chances to lead NBA franchises, Weaver had retained only four players from that roster. Only one of them, Sekou Doumbouya, would finish the season. And he’s not here any longer.
Instead, the Pistons have a starting lineup that includes three 20-year-olds – Cade Cunningham, Killian Hayes and Isaiah Stewart – and a fourth player who made his NBA debut less than a year ago, Saddiq Bey. Those four would still have four seasons of college eligibility remaining collectively beyond this season if they’d never come to the NBA.
So to almost any question you have about why the Pistons aren’t succeeding at this or that – winning games, foremost – there’s your answer. They’d have a great team if they were playing in the Big Ten. Instead, they’re playing against an NBA that has never fielded a deeper slate of legitimate playoff teams and title contenders. Never.
Take the most recent opponent, Phoenix. The Suns began to rebuild about six years ago. They drafted Devin Booker, now their leading man, in 2015. Here are Suns win totals for Booker’s first five seasons: 23, 24, 21, 19, 34. They made the leap last season – after drafting Deandre Ayton with 2018’s No. 1 overall pick and Mikhal Bridges and Cameron Johnson and, when that talent pool had been filled, trading for Chris Paul – and got to the NBA Finals.
That’s another way of saying the Pistons aren’t very far down a path that has no guaranteed destinations. We can also cite many examples of teams that went this route over the past decade and haven’t sniffed the Finals yet. Most of them would gladly trade places with the Pistons today.
Why? Well, start with Cunningham. Even amid the shooting struggles – before his past two games, where Cunningham is shooting 64 percent overall, 67 percent from three – you see the validation for expectations of stardom at some point virtually every time out. He solidifies those expectations every time he’s asked to assess himself or his team, where the traits that led Weaver to define him as “a human connector” shine through.
“I love where I’m at,” he said this week. “We’re going through some adversity right now, trying to find ways to win games. But I love the guys I’m with. I love my job. I love what I’m doing every day. Just trying to get better each and every day and stack good days together to keep building and get better.”
The Pistons are beyond thrilled that the decision made less than two years ago has led them to Cunningham. You should be, too.
They’re ecstatic to have Stewart, who embodies everything Detroit fans want in one of their own and everything Weaver and Dwane Casey told us they sought in players who pull the Pistons uniform over their shoulders.
Ditto for Bey, as pure of intent as they come, and Hayes, beginning to flower as someone who will look like a very different player in two years, and Saben Lee, another made of the fiber common to so many heroes of Pistons fans who celebrated NBA championships. They’ve cast the net for others of similar makeup and Hamidou Diallo, Frank Jackson, Josh Jackson, Luka Garza, Isaiah Livers, Jamorko Pickett and Chris Smith – none older than 24 – all have opportunities to help push their shared experience forward.
In Casey, they have a guy Weaver called “the best coach in the world for what we’re going through” last spring and, yeah, exactly that. Casey went through this in Toronto when he was hired there a decade ago, winning 23 games in his first season and a franchise-record 59 six years later.
Six years. Same arc as Phoenix. Weaver has made clear he’s not resigned to an extended transition phase and he makes moves completely absent the fear that paralyzes many of his peers. That could bend the arc. But it’s not an overnight thing, either. The history of the NBA is rife with examples of young teams absorbing massive amounts of punishment, especially those that put the ball in the hands of 20-year-old guards.
“It’s hard to win in this league being young,” Casey said last week when asked about the breadth of his coaching experience. “You don’t want to develop losing habits. Same thing in Toronto. You’ve got to approach every game in a positive way. Getting whupped up on every once in a while weighs on you. You’re going to learn as a rookie every night. At the same time, it’s difficult to win because you’re probably going to make enough mistakes not to win.”
That’s where the Pistons are. That – and a brutal early schedule – explains 4 and 18. It’s why franchises take this path reluctantly. Beyond the obvious – losing is never fun – it’s tough to sell and almost impossible to explain to fans with busy lives who only hear about another loss and move on.
But if you’ve stuck with the Pistons this long and gotten this far into the story, you should know. There’s a really good chance this is going to be worth your while.