Beard: Pistons need right pieces to augment young core
The Pistons didn’t win a playoff game this season. Nor last season, nor the six years before that.
In fact, their last postseason win was May 26, 2008, over the Boston Celtics in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Since then, they missed the playoffs six straight years and were swept in 2009 and this year, both times by the Cleveland Cavaliers.
But unlike that ’09 season, they find themselves in a good position, on the ascent, coming off a competitive series with the Cavs — even more than the Atlanta Hawks, whom Cleveland swept in the conference semifinals this year.
With 44 wins, the Pistons are building something — and this offseason could be critical that they make the best moves toward ensuring everything doesn’t come tumbling down like Jenga blocks.
The Pistons have the No. 18 pick in the NBA draft on June 23, their lowest first-round pick since 2009, when they selected Austin Daye, who had a mediocre tenure of just under four seasons. With this year’s starting five pretty much returning intact plus Stanley Johnson’s good rookie season and strong role contributors Aron Baynes, Reggie Bullock and Darrun Hilliard, there aren’t many minutes left to go around.
Whomever the Pistons draft — if they even decide to keep the pick, rather than packaging it in a trade — there’s at best a backup role in the cards. Unlike the previous six drafts, there’s no sure-fire lottery pick, nor the need to stretch and try to get a difference-maker.
That’s one of the hidden benefits of making the playoffs.
In all likelihood, the Pistons trying to fill two holes — backup point guard and backup power forward — between both the draft and free agency. Although coach Stan Van Gundy has said those are the target positions, he also intimated that they weren’t excited about bringing another young player from the draft into a core in its mid-20s, which still needs development itself.
General manager Jeff Bower said Friday at the NBA draft combine in Chicago that there are still plenty of options for trying to improve the roster.
“You have to wait and see where you end up,” Bower said. “I would say it’s unlikely that the draft would have a big impact on free-agent plans.”
If the Pistons are lucky, they’d end up with a top-tier point guard in the draft, such as Tyler Ulis, Demetrius Jackson, Wade Baldwin IV or possibly even Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine, who could fill the bill as an all-around playmaker and scorer, potentially.
Michigan’s Caris LeVert would be a low-risk stretch if he’s still around at No. 49 in the second round, but there’s really no need to stretch to try to make a rookie fit on the roster — trying to force a square peg into a round hole.
“We don’t have a specific target or need we have to address with the draft; we’re just looking for the best way to try to help our team,” Bower said. “The history of the draft tells you you can find good players at 18 and they can grow to be productive, effective NBA players.
“We have to work the draft to see if that class has that potential depth to have such a strong performer at 18 — we don’t know that yet.”
Bower said the Pistons conducted 20 interviews of potential targets and from indications, the focus was on point guard and big men. But the better fit is in free agency, where they would be better served in adding a veteran presence — much like they did with Steve Blake this season — and aiming for a more athletic option.
The first-round pick could even be packaged with a current player to bring in either the stretch power forward they desire, or that backup point guard. The options are there and it’s up to Van Gundy and Bower to figure out which works best for their scenario, given the available players and price tags.
It’s still early in the offseason game, but at least the Pistons aren’t pressed into finding the right puzzle pieces both in the draft and free agency. They already have a young core — and with the experience gained this season, they should be set up well to compete to go further next year.