The Blake Griffin situation looms over the Detroit Pistons, but bright new GM Troy Weaver has a chance to rebuild the Pistons into a playoff team.
The moniker of a great talent-evaluator is a funny one in the NBA. It’s as if there is some way to be a general manager and not evaluate talent effectively. While reputations are clearly built upon what one does best, and it’s possible to be great at a lot of things to the point that talent evaluation is second or third on your resume, it seems as if hiring a great talent-evaluator should be the clear priority for any NBA team hiring a general manager. As long as that person isn’t a complete jerk, things should go well.
This week, the Detroit Pistons hired Troy Weaver — who, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, stood out because of his “strong history of player personnel decisions,” which is another way of saying he knows good players when he sees them — to be their new lead executive. The match seems to be strong, because, again, as obvious as this should be as a tactic for competing in the NBA, the Pistons are a team with a not-so-strong history of player personnel decisions.
Weaver’s career took off when he was credited as a key force behind the Oklahoma City Thunder drafting Russell Westbrook fourth overall back in 2008 (it bears mentioning why it took 12 years for a Black executive who helped build a perennial title contender to get this gig, but that’s for a different day). To change fortunes for the Pistons, Weaver will have to hit another few team-building home runs.
There’s not a whole lot to love about the current Pistons roster going forward. They’re caught in the dreaded NBA middle, but in the East, convincing oneself of competitiveness is more of a trick of the mind than a true accomplishment. Vying for the 8-seed has meant picking in the middle of the first round for several years — Detroit didn’t pick higher than eighth all last decade, but also didn’t win a playoff series the entire decade.
With that being said, Detroit has three interesting, modern players Weaver can build around.
Sekou Doumbouya is a perfect modern NBA forward, a player who can score from all three levels and use his athleticism for good despite his bulk. Most intriguing is Doumbouya’s post-up game, an area where he’s already comfortable despite rarely having the ball in his hands at Limoges before being drafted. It was just 11 tries, per Synergy play type data, but Doumbouya was in the 90th percentile among NBA players in post-up offense. Many of them came in this gem against Boston.
In the backcourt, Luke Kennard probably tops out as a third guard, but again, can create his own shot from the most efficient spots on the court. Kennard has a versatile pull-up 3 in his bag and flashed better playmaking in his third season, but rarely gets to the free-throw line and struggles to finish because of a lack of athleticism. Still, in the half-court overall, thanks to his sterling 2.7 assist-to-turnover ratio on a per play basis, Kennard was in the 88th percentile in playmaking efficiency.
The most urgent development project on the roster is Christian Wood, who, as a former second-round pick will be an unrestricted free agent after bouncing around the league the last four years. Wood finally broke out with more consistent playing time in 2019-20, playing in 62 games for Detroit and posting a 65.9 true shooting percentage to go with a 23 percent usage rate. That brings us to the offseason.
To cut to the chase, the Pistons can sign Wood to a new contract with an average annual value equal to the league average, which is just a hair below $10 million. Any team that wants to pry him away will have to swoop in above that number. Wood is already one of the most sought-after free agents in the league because he is young and appears to be a pretty nice small-ball center option, but he is still quite unproven. Will the league really trust 62 above-average games on an atrocious team?
The Pistons reportedly told Wood they would make it a priority to re-sign him earlier this season, but will Weaver’s presence change that? The biggest impediment is the other small-ball center looming on the roster.
Blake Griffin last week made it known he is not done in the NBA. Injuries have severely hampered him the past two seasons, dating back to the 2019 NBA Playoffs when he was hardly able to play. Next year is the last on his max contract, and the Pistons are on the hook for $36.8 million. That makes it difficult to improve the team.
Weaver also will have a difficult job finding a trade market for him. Without cap space or much in the way of trade chips, it would make no sense to attach anything to Griffin’s contract in a deal. The Pistons are stuck with Griffin for at least one more year (with a $39 million player option looming in 2021-22), so next season figures to center around development. What Weaver will be tasked with going forward is improving the future outlook in Detroit without the ability to sign players.
The situation in Detroit is not unlike the one Weaver faced in Oklahoma City after Kevin Durant left. At that point, Russell Westbrook was on a “super-max” contract and the team still had to find ways to stay in the playoffs and challenge for a championship. They were able to acquire key contributors like Victor Oladipo, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony and Dennis Schroder nevertheless.
Great front offices make it work. They outsmart their competitors, act fearlessly and get creative. Those are all hallmarks of Weaver’s career. It appears to be a strong hire by Detroit, and there is reason for optimism, even if the runway is quite long for the team to return to legitimacy.
It’s not hard to imagine Detroit returning to the playoffs in the next few years, with an exciting, modern team led by a modern frontcourt in Doumbouya and Wood. The rest of the roster is up to Weaver’s imagination and whether his reputation for identifying good basketball players extends to the Midwest.