Luka Garza
(Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

Pistons close out 2021-22, waste no time in shifting focus to future

Dwane Casey was looking at the nuances, subtleties and intangibles for much of the 82-game season that concluded for the Pistons in a 118-106 loss at Philadelphia on Sunday. The most important tangible outcome that resulted from the finale was the Pistons knowing their fate for the May 17 draft lottery – the last one they hope to participate in for the foreseeable future.

The loss made the Pistons 23-59 and cemented them into the No. 3 position for the May 17 draft lottery. Under the format adopted in 2019, that means the Pistons will join Houston and Orlando, which had the NBA’s two worst records, with the best odds at drawing one of the top four picks the lottery determines.

The Pistons were 0-for-13 on moving up in the lottery – never mind landing the No. 1 pick – when they won it last year and added Cade Cunningham. Cunningham sat out the finale with hip soreness after affirming with a sensational final two months his place at the heart of general manager Troy Weaver’s restoration of the Pistons.

The three 2020 first-rounders – Isaiah Stewart, Saddiq Bey and Killian Hayes – played modest first-half minutes and joined Cunningham on the bench in the second half as Casey auditioned players like Luka Garza, Saben Lee, Carsen Edwards, Braxton Key and Jamorko Pickett for complementary roles in the season ahead.

Their frequent use over the final two weeks of the season might skew the perception of the Pistons’ second-half surge, but Dwane Casey saw what he wanted to see since mid-February.

“The growth is there. It’s going to be evident in the future,” Casey said. “But I’m really proud of the way the guys stepped up and played close to .500 basketball after the All-Star break. That’s the momentum we have to have going into the summer with a lot of work to do with our roster and with the draft.”

The Pistons will have a 14.0 percent chance to land the No. 1 pick again with 13.4, 12.7 and 12.0 percent chances at picks 2-3-4. They’ll have a 14.8 percent chance to draft fifth, a 26.0 percent chance to draft sixth and a 7.0 percent chance to pick seventh.

Cunningham’s rare combination of playmaking and scoring ability at his size gives the Pistons wide latitude in the type of player they could add, allowing Weaver the freedom to take whomever he sees as the most likely to have the greatest NBA impact. The consensus top-three prospects are all freshman big men with perimeter skills in Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren, Auburn’s Jabari Smith and Duke’s Paulo Banchero. Big Ten stars Jaden Ivy, a guard, and Keegan Murray, a forward, are others who figure to go in the top half of the lottery.

The Pistons will also have as much or more cap space as any team in the NBA, though another high lottery pick will require them to set aside a chunk of it for the draft. In any case, the Pistons will be in position to add two impact talents to a young roster that includes nine players 23 or younger.

In addition to Cunningham, Stewart, Bey and Hayes, the Pistons have several other key contributors under team control for next season: Jerami Grant, Kelly Olynyk, Hamidou Diallo and Frank Jackson, plus rookies Isaiah Livers and Garza. Marvin Bagley III could be a restricted or unrestricted free agent, depending on the extension of a qualifying offer, but the Pistons are in the driver’s seat to retain him – and both sides have expressed their desire to stay together – in any case.

When the Pistons conduct exit interviews with their players this week, Casey will reiterate what he’s preached often over the course of the season – the need for an arduous and productive off-season so internal improvement is as much a factor in next season’s expected surge as draft, free agent or trade additions.

“I’m proud of the way they grew,” Casey said. “Kept working, put in the work in practice, pre-practice, post-practice, stayed serious about their craft. We started connecting offensively and defensively right after the All-Star break and played like a team. We want to go into the summer with that mentality. Also, to continue to get better individually and everybody in that locker room has an area they can get better in, including the coaching staff. I told the staff, we have to come back better. Everybody’s got to take a step forward, from top to bottom.”