It wasn’t easy for the Pistons to get through a 20-win season. Not for the players, not for the coaching staff and certainly not for general manager Troy Weaver. The season started with some optimism that they could be a surprise team, but after another slow start with only three wins in their first 15 games, the writing was on the wall.
Blake Griffin didn’t return to the physical level he had hoped. Rookie Killian Hayes sustained a major hip injury and nothing seemed to be pointing toward a prosperous season. Weaver spoke of restoring the franchise to its past glory, but the signs didn’t appear to be there.
By the end of the season, the Pistons had developed several of their young players, unearthed some hidden gems and after they finished with 52 losses, they were guaranteed the best odds of getting the No. 1 pick in the draft.
Still, Weaver and coach Dwane Casey aren’t strutting around with smiles on their faces about this season. There’s more work to be done and although, they made strides, there’s still more struggle to go through before they can be content with anything.
Casey, who is under contract for three more years — after a one-year extension near the end of the season — lamented the losing season, but he knows it’s just part of the process of turning things around. He experienced something similar with the Raptors in 2011-12, when he began the turnaround there.
“It’s easy (to process the losses) because you see the big picture. I’ve been through it before: my first year in Toronto, we won 23 games,” Casey said. “So, everybody said get rid of Casey and he doesn’t know what he’s doing. If I hadn’t been through that and continued to grow and develop the program there, I would be ready to jump off the building, I would say.
“But I’m not because I see the big picture, I understand the big picture and I have a grasp of the big picture, and it takes time.”
Winning in the NBA takes talented players, and although the Pistons got a boost with their young core this season, they need more seasoning, which is simply going to take time. Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart likely will be all-rookie selections and they made some good additions in Jerami Grant, Hamidou Diallo and Frank Jackson, who could be long-term fits in the rebuild.
Weaver has said the biggest improvement will come from within the roster, with this summer being important in building on the foundation they started with his arrival last summer. He went through a similar transformation in his time with the Oklahoma City Thunder, where he was an assistant general manager.
“It’s kind of déjà vu because I’ve been here, at OKC when we won 23 games and we were very optimistic that we could continue to grow internally, and I have to same feelings here that I had back in the 2008-09 season there,” Weaver said. “Obviously, the optimism is not in the record — because the record stinks, but we’ll continue to bite, claw and scratch, fight — whatever we’ve got to do — to get out of this hole.
“We’re going to do it together. We’re going to be unwavering about getting it.”
No quick fix
The Pistons aren’t in a position to turn things around quickly. Even if they get Cade Cunningham, the presumptive No. 1 pick, they won’t be able to pencil themselves into the postseason for next year. They still probably need another top-tier piece, which likely won’t come until next summer, when the final year of Blake Griffin’s heft salary comes off the books.
There’s still more jelling to do and more learning about the nuances of the game. The Memphis Grizzlies are a good example of a young team that’s scratched and clawed its way to respectability and got in as the No. 8 seed this year, building on the addition of Ja Morant. That even took a couple of years to develop.
“Unless your name is Michael Jordan or Larry Bird and you walk in the league ready to dominate, it’s a process. In our case, we had a group of talented young men that have the individual talent, but collectively aren’t ready to win a lot of NBA games,” Casey said. “It’s a process and I’m patient in my age; I understand that. I see the big picture and I see potential in what these young men can be.
“This summer, it’s on all of us; it’s on them to commit to working, to commit to the program we’ve got laid out for them, and we’ll see if they continue to progress, and go through it and if they’re ready to go through the fire this summer to get to the other side, starting next year.”
There will be more work. There will be more losses. Probably not 50 losses next season, but there should be progress. Weaver took pride in assembling this group of young players and that culturally he had found the right fits of hard workers who were willing to put in the time and effort to reach their goals.
Most of them will stay in Detroit to work out together and will get a needed Summer League to build more chemistry and prepare for next season, something they were denied last summer because of the pandemic.
It’s the common element in the turnarounds in both Casey’s and Weaver’s experiences.
“Offseason is going be a lot of blood, sweat and tears — we’ve got to go to work. They used that (Goin’ to Work mantra) with the last (championship) group, but it’s a lot of work to be done,” Weaver said. “Twenty wins isn’t happening again. It’s going to be a group mentality to get us out of it. They’re going to be here working. Wherever they are, they’re going to be working.
“If they have on a Pistons uniform, they’re going to be working this summer.”
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