Detroit — In the final minute Saturday’s loss to the New York Knicks, the Pistons’ lineup on the floor was Reggie Jackson, Bruce Brown, Tony Snell, Christian Wood and Thon Maker.
No Blake Griffin. No Andre Drummond. No Luke Kennard.
That wasn’t exactly the plan going into the season.
In the aftermath of Thursday’s surprising trade that sent Drummond to the Cleveland Cavaliers and their myriad injuries, the Pistons’ roster has been depleted. Beyond the long-term injuries to Griffin, Kennard and Khyri Thomas, they’re dealing with some short-term issues with Derrick Rose, Svi Mykhailiuk and Markieff Morris.
It’s what they’ve become after 55 games — they’re a team in rebuild mode.
With only 19 wins, they’ve veered off the path of trying to squeeze into the playoffs as a seventh or eighth seed and into the murky waters of trying to be competitive while leaning toward a solid draft pick.
Pistons senior adviser Ed Stefanski declared the direction that many fans had been longing to hear for years.
“With the trade of Andre, we are looking to rebuild,” Stefanski said Friday in a conference call with media members. “What the future holds is going to be interesting.”
That short-term future looks to be a struggle through the final 27 games of the season, with a good look at the young prospects on the roster. It presumably means Wood will be in the starting lineup, as will Kennard when he’s healthy, and it likely means significant minutes for the developing pieces such as Mykhailiuk and rookie Sekou Doumbouya.
That’s how rebuilds work.
No free time
But the Pistons will have stipulations on it; they won’t just gift playing time without hard work and effort. Coach Dwane Casey has said as much repeatedly — and Stefanski echoed the sentiment.
“Sekou is a roller coaster. Sekou just turned 19 and he's playing exactly how I thought. He's played at times and you go, ‘Wow,’ and the other times go, ‘Where the hell is he?’” Stefanski said. “So, I feel good that what Sekou has shown and if Sekou is what we think he is — where he'll focus and try to become the best player possible — then maybe we have something there.”
Rebuilds aren’t pretty. They entail down-to-the-wire games against struggling teams like the Knicks and a subset of fans being happy that Jackson’s potential tying 3-pointer was off the mark. It’s seeing teams like the Memphis Grizzlies run away in the final minutes, leaning on young pieces like Jaren Jackson Jr. (Michigan State) and Ja Morant, whom they’ve picked up during the years of their own rebuild.
The Pistons haven’t been in true rebuild mode in years — and maybe they should have been.
Trading Drummond — even for a paltry return of two expiring contracts and a 2023 second-round pick — is an admission that he was a high-priced luxury. If he opted-in for his $28.8 million next season, Drummond would have curtailed the Pistons’ rebuilding plans.
In an alternate universe, that number would have been something like $15 million to $20 million, more in line with centers such as Clint Capela or Nikola Vucevic. In a perfect world, Drummond would be the third-best player on a good team, with a more digestible contract.
The Pistons don’t live in that world.
He was their highest-paid player until Griffin arrived, and though he was the most durable, his production didn’t impact winning as much as they needed it to. With reports that Drummond will opt-in to his contract now that he’s in Cleveland, the Pistons and their cap situation likely dodged a bullet.
They’ll have about $35 million in cap space available next year, which bodes well for their rebuilding plans. Much like the remodels on HGTV, they can take a look at some of the premium cabinetry or features and not be in the budget-friendly, bargain-basement section, seeking a rock-bottom deal such as their pure luck with Rose last summer.
They’re in position to get a top-10 — and maybe even top-5 — pick if they continue on the losing trajectory they’re on. It doesn’t have to be a complete tank job, like so many teams have done, both successfully and unsuccessfully, in recent years to try to get the best possible draft pick.
The Pistons only need to get in the top four to have a 12.5 percent chance of getting the No. 1 pick. They’re only 1½ games behind the Charlotte Hornets — Monday night’s opponent — in getting to that spot.
Playing the young pieces will be tough to watch in terms of wins and losses, especially with their tough schedule remaining, but it’ll speed the process of getting the help they need.
Pistons vs. Hornets
Tip-off: 7 Monday, Little Caesars Arena
Outlook: The Hornets (16-36) have begun their transformation with a big statement: 13 losses in the last 14 games. The Pistons (19-36) have lost all three games by a total of seven points in the head-to-head matchup this season.