If you got to pick when the Pistons would win the NBA draft lottery in any of the first three years of Troy Weaver’s restoration, 2021 was the year. And they did. In winning last year’s lottery and landing Cade Cunningham, the Pistons have taken the most critical step in a rebuilding process – getting not just a star, but a star who by virtue of being his team’s primary playmaker has the greatest chance to make maximum impact.
Nearly a year after making the decision to draft Cunningham first over a talented field of potential future All-NBA players, everything the Pistons hoped Cunningham would be is still in play. In itself, that’s a huge win.
You always hope for boundless possibility when you pick first. But as warts are exposed, reality usually falls short of potential. One year on, there are no more limitations on what Cunningham can become than there were on draft night last July. Nothing is safety beyond his reach – future MVP candidate, centerpiece of a title contender, multi-time All-NBA. There are no guarantees that’s his outcome, necessarily, but a rookie season is enough to discount the high end of possibilities in the vast majority of cases. Not Cunningham’s.
You can make every other right move while rebuilding and still have it go wrong if you can’t find that guy. The Pistons have to make other good decisions, to be sure, but landing Cunningham gives them a wider berth as they go about their business this off-season and going forward.
If it’s an exaggeration to say the results of the May 17 lottery in two weeks don’t matter to the Pistons, it’s in the ballpark. There might not be a transcendent player in this draft class, but there are a number of talented prospects – and because the Pistons already have their alpha dog, they all would be easy fits next to Cunningham. Having Cunningham in place liberates Weaver to broaden the definition of best fit for this year’s lottery pick.
The worst possible outcome for the Pistons in this year’s lottery is to pick seventh. There’s a 93 percent chance they’ll be in the top six and a 52 percent chance they’ll be in the top four. The best possible outcome for the Pistons would be to get a player who establishes himself – not immediately, but in fairly short order – as a worthy co-star just below Cunningham’s name on the marquee.
Weaver has put a lot of young talent in the pipeline in his two years on the job. It’s not appreciated enough the job Weaver did to acquire two additional first-round picks – remarkable given the lack of assets at his disposal – in his first draft and turn them into Isaiah Stewart and Saddiq Bey, players who in two years have morphed into pieces that help win games. Killian Hayes took steps toward that end in the last two months of his second season. Isaiah Livers, in less than 20 games after recovering from his foot injury, is trending in the same direction.
We’ll have a better idea of which prospects are most likely to be on their radar once their draft position is known in two weeks, but the names of the top six or seven are already pretty familiar and it’s not hard to see any of them (a) finding a niche and contributing and (b) benefiting from playing off of a creative 6-foot-7 scorer and playmaker.
That’s the thing with Cunningham. The unsolicited comments of Kevin Durant after Cunningham’s revelatory outing at Barclays Center late in the season keep echoing in my head.
“When you’ve got a 6-7 point guard, that’s a good start,” Durant said while Kyrie Irving, seated at his side, nodded along in agreement. “Somebody who can wreck a whole defensive game plan with his size, his talent, his skill.”
It’s a great start. It’s the best possible start. You can put all shapes and varieties of players next to someone like that and make it work. So if the Pistons get the No. 1 pick again, Weaver doesn’t have to worry about which of Jabari Smith or Chet Holmgren or Paolo Banchero has the best chance to be a playoff team’s offensive fulcrum because the Pistons already have that guy.
He can frame the debate by which of those players has the best chance to both complement Cunningham and have his potential drawn out by Cunningham. If the Pistons get the fourth pick and those three guys are all gone, he can look at Jaden Ivy differently than another team worried about Ivy’s decision-making might view him. Ivy’s athleticism would pair well with Cunningham and he could use it more judiciously as a secondary playmaker without having the burden of running the offense full-time.
If it’s Keegan Murray or Bennedict Mathurin or Shaedon Sharpe or A.J. Griffin, same thing – their strengths are going to be enhanced by playing next to Cunningham and their weaknesses are going to be more easily masked until they’re ready for broader responsibilities.
So, yeah, by all means rub your lucky rabbit’s foot or do whatever it is you do to reach the lottery gods when Adam Silver conducts ceremonies in two weeks. But soak it all in with the knowledge that the stakes for the Pistons future aren’t remotely the same as they were a year ago.