(Editor’s note: With training camp approaching, Pistons.com continues a series that examines the questions they must confront in their quest to turn the corner on general manager Troy Weaver’s restoration of the franchise to greatness. Today’s question: Can the Pistons use their depth to help them overcome the inevitable trials that come with youth?)
When Troy Weaver spoke of emulating the blueprint that won the Pistons their first three NBA titles to power his restoration of the franchise, he wasn’t talking only about their defense, toughness and willpower.
He also had their depth foremost in mind.
And that’s why he’s paying as much attention to building out the back end of the roster as he did in exercising the draft picks that populated the top of it with burgeoning young stars Cade Cunningham, Jaden Ivey, Jalen Duren, Isaiah Stewart and now Ausar Thompson.
“We kind of got derailed last year. We had a lot of injuries,” Weaver said as Summer League came to a close in July. “Healthy group this year. I think the way to build a team is depth and defense. We’re going to make sure we stay on track with that.”
Weaver is confident the Pistons have a vast ceiling. Monty Williams bought in after studying the roster and hearing the general manager and Pistons owner Tom Gores espouse their vision of the future. That ceiling has everything to do with the bristling potential of Cunningham, Ivey, Duren, Stewart and Thompson.
But success this year, as those young players begin or continue to spread their wings, is also dependent on a floor that is greatly bolstered by veteran additions Monte Morris and Joe Harris to go with the return of veterans like Bojan Bogdanovic and Alec Burks to full health after missing the last several weeks of the 2022-23 season.
Add it all up and the Pistons go into training camp with a depth chart that looks stronger than any they’ve boasted in a generation.
There figures to be healthy competition for starting jobs when camp opens, but the real intrigue might come with the battle for rotation minutes off the bench. Injuries are an ever-present reality of NBA life, but on nights Williams is blessed with a full roster or close to it, there will be tough choices to make in building out his units.
And healthy competition for minutes in practice is a great breeding ground for honing the competitive edge Weaver and Williams desire from the Pistons. Talk to the Bad Boys and they’ll tell you that practices were often more intense than games. The ’89 championship Pistons fielded a second unit – Dennis Rodman, Vinnie Johnson, James Edwards, John Salley and John Long – that would have served as the foundation of a formidable playoff team all its own.
Cunningham, Ivey, Stewart and Duren are possible to likely starters along with Bogdanovic; of the first four, Stewart is the old man of the bunch at 22. Duren is still a teen until late November. If that starting group can hold its own, the Pistons can win a lot of nights by leaning on a bench unit that will have enviable versatility.
Morris, 28 and a Michigan native, has proven himself as one of the NBA’s best bench players, arguably the top point guard. His ability to control pace, limit turnovers, knock down 3-pointers and sink free throws make him an ideal candidate to lead the Pistons bench.
Burks has hit better than 40 percent from the 3-point line in four straight seasons. Williams can field a unit of lethal 3-point shooters between Morris, Burks, Harris and Isaiah Livers. Morris, Thompson, Livers and Killian Hayes would give the Pistons a terrific defensive perimeter.
James Wiseman and Marvin Bagley III, though each could press for a starting job, will give the Pistons great size in the frontcourt if Williams wants to go big off the bench. And lurking in the wings is rookie Marcus Sasser, who flashed his scoring versatility with a 40-point exclamation point to cap Summer League play.
There’s a little of everything available to Williams, who’ll use training camp and the preseason to get a sense of complementary two-, three-, four- and five-man playing groups. He’ll have a lot of decisions to make, which any coach would prefer to the alternative of not having enough in the toolbox.
The Pistons are going to field a first unit, in all likelihood, that needs a little more time and seasoning to hit its stride. They have a second unit deep and versatile enough to buy them that time.