(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: How will new coach Monty Williams deploy the four young big men on the Pistons roster?)
Troy Weaver believes there is more than one way to build a basketball team, though he wouldn’t attempt to do it without players who exude the ability to play defense, sacrifice for the greater good and get their knees bloodied in the pursuit of winning.
He also wants to stock the roster with as much talent as it can hold, which was the driving force behind last winter’s trade-deadline acquisition of James Wiseman. Wiseman, the No. 2 pick in the 2020 draft, saw his career stall in Golden State due to a confluence of factors that included injuries and a franchise rightly more focused on maximizing a championship window than developing its next generation of stars.
That the trade left the Pistons with four young big men ranging in age from Marvin Bagley III’s 23 at the time of the trade to Jalen Duren’s 19 in an age when few teams play two at a time didn’t give Weaver pause.
He looked at the Eastern Conference standings at the time of the trade and saw heavyweights Boston (Robert Williams, Al Horford), Milwaukee (Brook Lopez, Giannis Antetokounmpo) and Cleveland (Eric Mobley, Jarrett Allen) all presenting overwhelming size challenges to the Pistons and made his move.
Figuring out how the pieces fit was for another day.
And, now, for another coach.
“You really don’t know until you pull back the onion, pull back the layers,” Weaver said in February. “How it’s going to work, how it’s going to fit. But you have to be willing to try and come up with schemes and solutions to maximize those guys.”
It falls to incoming coach Monty Williams, won over by owner Tom Gores’ persistence despite having multiple remaining years coming from the Phoenix Suns, to sort out the frontcourt and maximize the array of skills held by Bagley, Duren, Wiseman and Isaiah Stewart.
Stewart made an encouraging transition over the course of the 2022-23 season to power forward, enabled by Duren’s surprising readiness to handle a major role despite coming to the NBA as an 18-year-old. But for a mid-season shooting slump likely exacerbated by a shoulder injury, Stewart would have shot 3-pointers at or near league average on relatively heavy volume despite never having played away from the basket previously.
How rapidly he can accelerate that transition at both ends of the floor is one of the keys to how much of a leap the Pistons can take after posting 17 wins in an injury-plagued 2022-23 season.
Stewart will remain an option to play center should Williams choose smaller lineups for matchup purposes, but it’s likely he’ll spend the bulk of his minutes at power forward while Duren, Bagley and Wiseman vie for minutes at center and, then, to establish a foothold in the rotation that could have room for three of them but might not accommodate all four.
Duren goes to camp as the slight favorite to win the starting center job based on his surprising rookie performance – 9.1 points and 8.9 rebounds a game despite nagging ankle injuries – and a strong summer. He opened eyes in Las Vegas when Duren, along with Cade Cunningham, helped the USA Basketball Select Team give the national team all it could handle in scrimmages ahead of World Cup participation.
Neither Bagley or Wiseman has shown Stewart’s potential as a 3-point threat to date. Bagley is a career 29 percent 3-point shooter who hit 28.8 percent a season ago while taking 17 percent of his shots from the 3-point line. Wiseman, 22, has taken 58 triples in his NBA career and hit at a 27.6 percent clip. Bagley went into the off-season focused on proving himself a viable candidate to step outside.
“I was playing the five the majority of the time before J-Wise came to the team, but when I started spacing it out, getting back in the rhythm of shooting the three, I work on it all summer. It’s nothing I don’t have confidence in. That’s really what I’m going to work on this summer, being back in the flow of being out on the wing, cutting, playmaking, whatever it is – just being comfortable out on that wing.”
Weaver, though, would push back on the idea that the only way for the Pistons to make use of their cohort of young big men is for one or more of them to become a proficient 3-point shooter.
“I don’t know who steps away (from the paint) in Cleveland,” he said in February. “Which one of those guys? I don’t know.”
Indeed, the Cavaliers won 51 games with Mobley (21.6 percent on 1.3 attempts per game) and Allen (10 percent on 10 attempts for the season) representing almost no 3-point threat.
The Cavaliers’ blueprint included dynamic backcourt scoring (Donovan Mitchell and Darius Garland) and elite interior defense from Mobley and Allen. With Cade Cunningham and Jaden Ivey emerging as one of the NBA’s top young backcourts and Williams bringing with him the magic that took Phoenix from 19 wins to the NBA Finals in a two-season span, who’s to say the Pistons can’t make a similar leap?
“When the Yankees traded for (Alex Rodriguez), A-Rod was a shortstop,” Weaver said. “He played third with the Yankees. You’ve got to figure it out. When you get this kind of talent, you figure it out. And that’s what we’re going to have to do – figure it out – and get this to work.”