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Someone is going to win the NBA championship this year, and it sure as heck isn’t going to be Detroit.
The Pistons are terrible, 20-49 on the season heading into Tuesday’s classic NBA, late-season, no-one-wants-to-emerge-victorious, Tank-A-Palooza against the 21-win Minnesota Timberwolves.
The loser of that one all but assures finishing in the bottom three of the league and securing the best odds to land the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NBA draft lottery. One team will win the game. The other will be celebrating afterward.
For Detroit in particular, this would mark more than just the traditional trek-to-the-basement season. It might place them second to whomever actually hoists the Larry O’Brien Trophy in accomplishing pretty much all of its reasonable objectives to the season.
All while rarely actually winning a game.
Consider that Detroit might execute the reverse perfect season by:
Losing enough games to secure the best possible odds to win the NBA draft lottery.
Clear out expensive veterans and develop a trio of impressive rookie talent and potential long-term starters … while still losing enough games to secure the best possible odds to win the NBA draft lottery.
Do it during a pandemic when almost no one was allowed to attend your games in the first place, yet in a fashion that actually excites fans for the future.
Simply put, this could be one of the all-time great tank jobs in NBA history. We’re not saying anyone should vote general manager Troy Weaver as executive of the year for fielding a team that could post a .278 winning percentage, but this isn’t easy to pull off. Usually, you are either too lousy to show any signs of progress, or you progress too fast and are no longer bad. It’s a balancing act.
Like a lot of teams, the Pistons are quite happy to “Fade for Cade (Cunningham)” or “Keep Failin’ for Jalen (Suggs/Green).”
Houston, for example, has just 16 victories and thus has done a better job of losing games in an effort to improve draft odds. The Rockets didn’t do it, however, while starting their rebuild the way Detroit has.
Weaver took over as general manager last offseason, inheriting a going-nowhere, veteran-laden roster. Rather than continue to tread water or wait to bottom out in the standings, he proceeded to trade away nearly everyone.
He’s has made 10 deals in just 11 months on the job. Whomever he couldn’t swap, he just waived (including Blake Griffin). Twenty-two players suited up for the 2019-20 Pistons. Only one is still around — Sekou Doumbouya, a 20-year-old reserve forward.
“I wasn’t going to be cautious; that’s not who I am,” Weaver said before last season.
A swirl of deals that netted him essentially three first-round draft picks in the 2020 draft — point guard Killian Hayes (seventh overall), center Isaiah Stewart (16th) and forward Saddiq Bey (19th).
All three look like keepers.
Stewart is arguably a top 10 rookie; Bey is top five. Hayes has battled through uncertainty and injuries to emerge as potentially the best of the lot — he’s averaging eight points and 6.9 assists in his last 10 games. While he’s no sure-thing superstar, he’s also trending closer to that than lottery bust.
If nothing else, the Pistons appear to have a point (Hayes), 3-point gunner (Bey) and mobile big man with an interest in rebounding (Stewart). And each has had a season to get acclimated to the league and grow through ups and downs with coach Dwane Casey ... all while continuing to lose games, of course.
Detroit might be able to add the kind of talent that a top-three pick usually provides to a roster that is prebuilt for them and their skill set. This could be a very nice setup for a Cunningham/Suggs/Green, with plenty of time for a young nucleus to grow together in the seasons to come.
Traditionally, this is done the opposite way — you get your star and then add around him. Weaver flipped the script and, as such, Detroit could be two years ahead of schedule.
All of this was accomplished during a season that was both delayed and shortened due to COVID-19 and took place in front of almost no fans. If there were ever a year that didn’t matter, this was it. No season ticket-holder had to sit (and spend) through the dregs of “the process.”
Of course, what looks good so far guarantees nothing. The rookies may excel on a team with few options, but prove incapable of leading a title contender. Some intriguing Weaver additions such as Jerami Grant and Josh Jackson have produced big stats, but even on bad teams, someone has to score. There are no shutouts in the NBA, after all.
And Detroit could make the mistake of beating Minnesota, finishing strong and ruining their draft positioning. Or their eventual pick may not pan out.
Who knows? Anything is possible.
In the bizarro world of the NBA though, sometimes the league’s winners aren’t always the teams that, you know, actually win.
If Detroit can pull this off, few will have done the losing-as-planned tank job better.
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