Wojo: Pistons, Wings get their chance to make a crucial splash
Detroit — Summer is about to start. Seriously, look it up on the calendar.
And this is it, the moment Detroit sports fans have been hotly anticipating. This is the chance for the Pistons and Red Wings to make their big move, perhaps their only significant moves of the offseason.
This is the first chance to see the new guy running the Wings, kid by the name of Steve Yzerman, whose team-building acumen is well-established. This is the latest chance to see if the Pistons, stuck on a treadmill, have the guts to be bold.
Two teams with similar uncertainties but different directions will make uber-important first-round picks — Thursday in the NBA Draft, Friday and Saturday in the NHL Draft. How important is this for Yzerman and Pistons senior adviser Ed Stefanski? Well, since neither team is poised to make a splash in free-agency, and neither has made a splash in the playoffs, it’s the most important decision of the year for both.
It’s understandable if the Wings aren’t interested in risk, not yet. They have the No. 6 overall pick, three more in the second round and five of the first 66. They have a chance to shake it up — Yzerman was a willing draft-day dealer with the Lightning and could be so Friday — but they don’t need to, not with plenty of talent available at No. 6. They like the direction of their rebuild and Yzerman has time and leeway.
The Pistons don’t have much of a chance to shake it up, but they should try mightily. They’ve hit an impasse, limited by the hefty contracts of the “big three” — Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond, Reggie Jackson — but that doesn’t give them license to stand pat. The only way they’ll make a leap out of the 41-41 bog is to trade one, or more, of the threesome. Problem is, finding a suitor is difficult, and owner Tom Gores isn’t particularly interested in looking for one.
That’s too bad, because with the 15th and 45th picks, the Pistons seemingly are out of reach of expected impact players. Stefanski made one strong move late Wednesday, trading Jon Leuer to the Bucks for Tony Snell and a first-round pick, No. 30 overall. Mildly aggressive and completely prudent, giving the Pistons two first-rounders.
Stefanski has indicated he’ll play it safe in the draft, citing “grit” and character as key attributes.
“We can’t strike out,” Stefanski said. “We could take a swing for the fences, and if we have to sit on the bench because we struck out, that’s not going to help our franchise. We’ve got to make nice, little moves that help us.”
Sorry, safe doesn’t work for the Pistons now. Heck, safe doesn’t work for most teams in the NBA. Toronto won the championship after trading franchise stalwart DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard — the 15th pick in 2011, by the way — on the last year of his contract. Huge gamble, huge payoff. They also fired Coach of the Year Dwane Casey and promoted unproven Nick Nurse.
The Pistons aren’t close to the Raptors situation, but if a high-risk, high-reward talent is available at 15 – someone like Indiana freshman guard Romeo Langford, USC freshman guard Kevin Porter Jr., or even Gonzaga forward Rui Hachimura – go ahead and shake it up. It’s not like they have a proven roster just in need of a nice-fitting piece.
Second-rounders Bruce Brown and Khyri Thomas were decent additions last year, but not difference-makers. Luke Kennard could develop into a top shooter. Drummond has improved but remains an offense-clogger. And can the Pistons really expect Griffin to stay healthy for another career year?
At some point soon — within the next year — the Pistons have to go all in or all out. There are experienced guards on the market that would give the current core a boost. But it makes more sense to break the core up, either surrounding Griffin with shooters and creators, or trading him and starting over. Free-agency isn’t much of an option with only $9 million in cap space.
“The philosophy right now is we have those three and we’re going with them,” Stefanski said. “But I have no idea what’s going to happen.”
In other words, open for suggestions? I’m afraid the Pistons won’t get a suggestion they like, or won’t hunt hard to find one.
The Wings are in a difference place, flush with talented young forwards such as Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha, Andreas Athanasiou and Tyler Bertuzzi. They need a goalie for the future and they definitely need defensemen, via the draft or free-agency starting July 1.
The Wings didn’t hit the lottery with their draft position, sitting outside the consensus top two (Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko) and probably too low to nab top defenseman Bowen Byram. Yzerman had a history of sharp picks in nine seasons in Tampa Bay, highlighted by the 2011 second-round selection of Nikita Kucherov. And with three second-rounders now — thanks to key trades by Ken Holland — their draft won’t just be defined by the first-rounder.
They also have more cap flexibility than the Pistons, and although Yzerman isn’t promising major signings or trades, he’s prone to the occasional gamble.
“We have spots on the roster available, but before doing it through trade, I’d look at free-agency to fill those spots,” Yzerman said. “I also want to have some opportunity for our younger players. I’m not gonna sign a free-agent just to sign a free-agent.”
The Wings should get a very good prospect at No. 6, as they did a year ago when Filip Zadina fell to them. It’s unclear if Yzerman will go bold or safe, and there are intriguing possibilities.
Russian winger Vasily Podkolzin might be the third-best prospect overall, but he’s under contract in the KHL. An NHL team could take him, let him develop, then have a seasoned player in two years, as long as he’s willing to leave Russia. Another fascinating player is winger Cole Caufield, the most-prolific goal-scorer in the draft, although he’s only 5-7.
Things are more uncertain for the Pistons. I’ve said it before — they gave it a go, got blasted by Milwaukee in the playoffs, and now it’s time for a shakeup. Still not sure if they’re listening.
In the next three days, futures of the two franchises could be enhanced, or stalled, and Yzerman and Stefanski have stuck to variations of the best-player-available mantra. To help them out, I’m offering advice and predictions, free of charge.
Who the Pistons should take: Langford, a 6-6 scorer with superior talent who struggled shooting his one season at Indiana partly because of a torn thumb ligament.
Who the Pistons will take: If available, they’ll be tempted by Virginia Tech guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Kentucky forward P.J. Washington and Kentucky guard Tyler Herro. Ultimately, I think they’ll step outside their comfort zone and wisely take Langford.
Who the Wings should take: Center Dylan Cozens, a big, skilled, low-risk two-way player. If he’s not available, I’d consider Podkolzin and wait patiently for two years.
Who the Wings will take: They probably can’t go wrong here, and I think they’ll land Trevor Zegras, a creative, play-making forward. Eventually, put Zegras and Zadina together and the offense could go from zzzz to ZZ.
Sounds like a reasonable plan. For the Wings and Pistons, no sleeping now.