George W. Bush was President of the United States the last time the Detroit Pistons won a playoff game. It’s been more than 13 years since the last great era of Detroit basketball faded, replacing a dynasty typified by hard-nosed defense and physicality that reflected the city it called home with a series of stopgaps and failures. Players like Rodney Stuckey, Charlie Villaneuva, Greg Monroe, and Andre Drummond were purported saviors of the floundering franchise, but in the end, they were nothing more than false idols.
For more than a decade, the Pistons traded poorly, chased the wrong free agents, and seemingly always made the wrong pick in the Draft. In 2011, they picked Kentucky guard Brandon Knight eighth over Kemba Walker, who went one spot later. In 2013, it was Kentavious Caldwell-Pope—then seen as a reach—over another shooting guard, CJ McCollum. Two years after that, when faced with a choice between Justise Winslow, Stanley Johnson, and Devin Booker, Detroit opted for Johnson, whose most notable moment in the pros came when he said he was in LeBron James’s head. He said this after the Cleveland Cavaliers beat them in a playoff game in a series they would go on to sweep. And in 2017, needing a player he thought could contribute immediately, then-president of basketball operations and head coach Stan Van Gundy selected Luke Kennard over Donovan Mitchell.
Even when the Pistons did make the right choice—like in 2012 and 2014, when they snagged Khris Middleton and Spencer Dinwiddie, respectively, in the second round—the endings were still unhappy. Middleton was moved to Milwaukee in his second season as part of a package for Brandon Jennings. Dinwiddie was flipped to Chicago for Cameron Bairstow, who played 36 games in his NBA career, zero of which came with the Pistons. Each front office decision—dating back to the calamitous trade that sent Chauncey Billups to Denver in exchange for Allen Iverson, through the hiring of Troy Weaver as general manager last summer—painted Pistons executives as the kind of folks who shot themselves in the foot, stared at it for a while, then fired another bullet in there, just for good measure.
But in the midst of a pandemic, a regime change, and another lost season, some hope started to emerge. Weaver’s first Draft class—Killian Hayes (no. 7), Isaiah Stewart (16), and Saddiq Bey (19)—blossomed in its inaugural season, with the latter two prospects making the All-Rookie team. Hayes, saddled with injury, showed flashes of his potential in the closing weeks of the season. And free agent signings originally lambasted as reckless, like the 3-year, $60 million contract awarded to Jerami Grant and 3-year, $25 million deal gifted to Mason Plumlee, turned out well. Plumlee was one of the most efficient offensive big men in the league, and Grant was an All-Star and Most Improved Player candidate.
Sure, the Pistons limped their way to the second-worst record in the NBA. But for the first time in years, they seemed to be bad on purpose. It wasn’t The Process, but there was a plan in place. The pieces on the roster weren’t cobbled together with the goal of maybe reaching the first round, only to be swept by a far superior squad. There was logic behind the choices. Plumlee was here to give Hayes a consistent post presence to feed to facilitate his development. Grant was a high-potential veteran looking to make good on his first shot at the limelight after showing glimpses of it during his prior postseason run with the Denver Nuggets. And even Bey and Stewart were nothing more than fliers in the mid-first round. Blake Griffin, who very obviously didn’t want to be there, was bought out. Put another way: The Pistons, who’d so often seemed to build rosters with the same amount of foresight as people who decide what to order as a waiter approaches their table, had begun following a plan.
The thing about a plan is it’s theoretical. The pieces can fit in your head, but making it work on the court is another matter entirely. The 2004 championship team—itself a collection of misfit toys—was proof of what can happen when those gears interlock smoothly. The 2010s were an example of what happens when they don’t. While so much of this comes down to luck, there is an element of being in control of your own destiny, and the Pistons were masters of being their own worst enemy.
By selecting Cade Cunningham with the first pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, Detroit has a chance to make good on a decade of failure, and see through a rebuild in earnest. Cunningham is one of the best prospects that has come into the league in the last decade. In his lone season at Oklahoma State, Cunningham scored 20.1 points per night on 40 percent three-point shooting, despite often facing double teams and being surrounded by poor shooters. He carried the Cowboys to a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament and the Big 12 championship game.
Some scouts see him as a Ben Simmons with a jumper or a player with shades of guys like Luka Doncic, Grant Hill, and Paul George, the sort of jumbo creator—both for himself and others—that all 30 teams covet. Any of those outcomes would radically alter the Pistons’ future. After nearly a decade and a half of sub-mediocrity, there’s hope in Detroit. The rebuild has a centerpiece: one who could make a claim as the team’s most talented draft pick since Hill was taken in 1994.
What happens now is straightforward: Cunningham will don a Pistons hat, sign some paperwork, and smile for photos. He’ll travel to Detroit and eventually meet his teammates—the collection of players who will, for better or worse, have a greater impact on whether he reaches his sky-high potential than any other he’s ever shared a floor with. At some point, he’ll likely scan up to the rafters, and notice championship banners and retired numbers. And that’s when the real fun begins.