On the heels of a 17-65 season that marked the second-worst record in franchise history, the Detroit Pistons are approaching a crossroads this summer as general manager Troy Weaver prepares for his fourth season at the helm.
The Pistons have big decisions ahead, beginning with hiring a new coach, as Dwane Casey moves to the front office. There are playmakers in place — guards Cade Cunningham and Jaden Ivey form a promising backcourt — but it’s been four seasons since the Pistons’ last playoff trip, and Detroit hasn’t actually won a playoff game since 2008.
Historically speaking, the Pistons have been one of the NBA’s most depleted franchises since the end of their successful run in the 2000s, with high-profile draft misses (Greg Monroe over Paul George in 2010; Brandon Knight ahead of Kemba Walker, Klay Thompson and Kawhi Leonard in 2011; Stanley Johnson in 2015; and Luke Kennard over Donovan Mitchell in 2016) hamstringing their chances at sustaining success.
Although third-year guard Killian Hayes has largely been disappointing, the jury remains out on Weaver’s recent draftees, with Cunningham missing all but 12 games last season following left leg surgery, and the rookie Ivey flashing potential but shooting just 41% from the field and sitting among the league leaders in turnovers.
The best chance at a franchise revival lies in May’s draft lottery, in which the team holds a top-three chance at the No. 1 pick — and the opportunity to select the 7-foot-5 Victor Wembanyama. The Pistons have a 14% chance to win the lottery, tied with the San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets, and can draft no lower than fifth in any scenario. Jeremy Woo breaks down how winning the draft lottery and the chance to draft Wembanyama would impact the Pistons.
How does Wembanyama fit with the Pistons?
The Pistons have appealing young players, headlined by Cunningham and Ivey, but have yet to shift their rebuild into full gear. Drafting Wembanyama as a presumptive focal point of the team would enhance the immediacy of Detroit’s push toward competitiveness in the East. That hypothetical young trio would form the basis of those efforts and have skill sets that theoretically mesh, with Cunningham a methodical, unselfish playmaker and Ivey already a bolt of lightning getting into the paint and putting pressure on defenses.
Wembanyama’s presence as an offensive initiator, lob threat and super-sized floor spacer would immediately change the geometry of the offense for the Pistons’ guards: In addition to shouldering a possession load on his own, it’s easy to envision him doing damage as a screening outlet and opening up lanes to the rim.
Between Cunningham’s feel, Ivey’s sheer speed and Wembanyama’s versatile scoring, Detroit’s offense (third worst in offensive rating last season) could take an immediate leap. Hiring a creative coach to replace Casey would also go a long way.
On the defensive end, Wembanyama would be able to slot into his natural role as a roving shot deterrent right away. The Pistons have loaded up on young bigs, having drafted Jalen Duren (2022) and Isaiah Stewart (2020) and acquired former No. 2 picks James Wiseman (2020) and Marvin Bagley III (2018) as reclamation projects. The presence of Duren, Stewart and Wiseman would recuse Wembanyama from having to defend bulkier big men who can use their strength to attack his body. Limiting Wembanyama’s minutes defending centers, at least initially, should be the plan for whichever team winds up drafting him, but the Pistons wouldn’t have to shuffle much.
Which current Pistons player could benefit the most from the addition of Wembanyama?
The thought of syncing up Wembanyama and his myriad skills with Cunningham, a savant-like perimeter player who’s at his best when accentuating teammates, is certainly tantalizing. The No. 1 overall pick two years ago, Cunningham has gotten mixed results from a scoring standpoint in 76 career NBA games, shooting just 41.6% from the field and 30.9% from 3. Cunningham has always projected as an excellent pro prospect because of his size in the backcourt, perimeter versatility and intelligent, team-first style of play. Yet he’s never been all that efficient when cast as his team’s No. 1 scoring option. Throwing Wembanyama into the mix could change the calculus for Cunningham and make his job significantly easier.
The notion of building out an improved offense in which Cunningham doesn’t have to do everything himself conceptually applies for a brighter Pistons future. Whether it’s Wembanyama or someone else joining the roster, Detroit will have to lean quite a bit on Ivey as a creator, too. Cunningham will always be a reliable ball-screen operator and an excellent creator for teammates, but he’s not an isolation player by nature and isn’t an elite finisher in the paint, which can be limiting. Envisioning scenarios in which another star can probe, force a rotation, then reverse the ball to Cunningham to finish the play before the defense can reset might lead to easier opportunities, cover for his weaknesses, and help improve his individual shooting splits. And if that second star is Wembanyama, the two-man-game possibilities are endless.
Which current Pistons player could be hurt the most because of Wembanyama?
Drafting Wembanyama, who would slot into the bulk of minutes as a perimeter-oriented 4, could spell the eventual end of the Bagley experiment. The 24-year-old Bagley is a natural power forward who was drafted ahead of Luka Doncic by the Sacramento Kings in 2018, but he hasn’t added much to his game over the course of five seasons and has dealt with an array of injuries. He’s sprinkled in some productive moments, but he shoots 29% from 3 in his career and has never offered much defensive backbone, either, making him potentially expendable in the interest of freeing up minutes and cap flexibility.
Because Bagley’s deal is fully guaranteed for two more seasons, it’s possible the Pistons could experiment with supersized lineups in the short term, when Wembanyama would toggle up as more of a small forward next to Bagley and one of the nominal centers. However, the lack of shooting and versatility offered by those double-big combinations might be antithetical to optimizing Wembanyama, who will draw plenty of defensive attention. And with Wiseman having arrived from Golden State in February, Duren entering his second season, and Stewart’s rookie extension coming up, it’s Bagley who would likely see his role on the Pistons reduced the most.
You drafted Wembanyama, now what?
The Pistons have only their own second-rounder (No. 31) in addition to wherever in the top five their lottery pick falls in the 2023 NBA draft. Should they win the lottery and add Wembanyama, it would make sense to draft a wing at pick No. 31. Prospects such as Maxwell Lewis, Jaime Jaquez Jr. and Brandin Podziemski are potential names who could be on the board at the start of the second round. There’s also an argument for Detroit to swing on the best talent regardless of position or perhaps look to trade up from No. 31 into the 20s to target a specific prospect.
Detroit enters the offseason $30 million below the cap and can create additional space by declining player options and eliminating holds on its returners, giving it the flexibility to add talent. The Pistons haven’t exactly been a destination for high-profile players, but if they do land Wembanyama, it certainly enhances their situation. It probably doesn’t make sense for them to spend too big right away — their young core needs playing time, and they’ll want to assess the fit before tying up future flexibility — but at the very least, they should have some perimeter minutes available behind a presumptive starting trio of Ivey, Cunningham and Bojan Bogdanovic. There’s also some rationale in adding veterans to enhance the locker room environment and deepen the bench. Even in a Wembanyama hypothetical, this team is probably still too young to make a giant leap.
Can Wembanyama turn the Pistons into a playoff contender next season?
Realistically, Detroit probably needs to at least double its 17 wins to get into the mix for a play-in spot. Also consider the fact that the basic floor to accomplish that might be raised as young, talented teams like the Indiana Pacers and Orlando Magic begin to mature into that same tier of the Eastern Conference. It would take some shrewd additions and aggressive work from the Pistons’ front office to build a playoff-quality roster, considering how comparatively little experience their youngsters have sharing the floor.
A lot of other things would have to break right for the Pistons beyond a potential Wembanyama addition. Cunningham needs to hit the ground running returning from injury, Ivey needs to make an individual leap, the Duren/Stewart/Wiseman/Bagley minutes and roles have to get sorted out, and Detroit’s new coach has to get a pulse on the team quickly.
While it might already be safe to call Wembanyama the Rookie of the Year front-runner, in this particular situation, he likely won’t be able to do it all himself, at least not out of the gate. Wembanyama will have an individual adjustment of his own, as well, and landing in Detroit probably means a longer haul into the playoff mix.
Jeremy Woo is an NBA analyst specializing in prospect evaluation and the draft. He was previously a staff writer and draft insider at Sports Illustrated.