Detroit Pistons’ haunting mistakes show new GM Troy Weaver how to avoid failure

Tribune Content Agency

DETROIT — It’s safe to assume Troy Weaver, the Detroit Pistons’ new general manager, is comfortable with the task of remaking the long-dormant Pistons.

In 2017, Weaver told The Oklahoman’s Brett Dawson he was in no rush to leave the Oklahoma City Thunder. At the time, he had been recently promoted to vice president after nine seasons with the organization. As the second-in-command of a successful franchise he played a large role in building, he didn’t feel the need to abandon a good position.

“More often than not, you’re going (to a new job) because they haven’t had success,” Weaver said. “You want to feel good that you’re going into a situation where your vision matches up with the ownership and the city’s vision for success.”

“Whenever the opportunity comes up, I’ll be ready,” Weaver continued. “Now I’m really focused on getting this next iteration of the Thunder into a great spot. I don’t like to mess with happy. And right now, I’m happy.”

That Weaver left Oklahoma City to run a Pistons team that hasn’t won a playoff series since 2008, speaks to a number of things.

It speaks to his relationship with vice chairman Arn Tellem, who has known of Weaver since the 1990s. Weaver was responsible for the Thunder drafting two of Tellem’s former clients, Russell Westbrook and Steven Adams.

It speaks to Weaver’s experience in building contenders, and his confidence that he can do the same in Detroit. His role in the Thunder drafting Westbrook, Adams and his effort to recruit and re-sign Paul George helped the organization maintain a high level of success for more than a decade — despite the disadvantages of being a small-market team.

And it speaks to the flexible situation the Pistons are currently in. They have their best draft odds (fifth overall) since 1993 and significant cap space — somewhere in the neighborhood of $30 million, depending on how the coronavirus pandemic impacts the salary cap.

Weaver is coming into an advantageous situation, one that’ll allow him to make an immediate impact on the roster. But, this isn’t new territory for Detroit. They’ve had six lottery picks since 2008. They’ve had cap space, too. It has produced three playoff appearances with zero wins. At the start of a new decade, the Pistons are back at square one.

Yet, things seem different this time. After years of mediocrity, there’s nowhere to go but up, right?

Weaver’s resume inspires confidence that he knows what to do to get the Pistons back on a winning path. But in case he does not, he doesn’t have to look far to learn what not to do in this position. Recent Pistons history is littered with examples of how to improperly rebuild.


After trading Andre Drummond in February, Pistons senior adviser Ed Stefanski made it known the organization has little interest in being just good enough to compete for a playoff berth.

“We were always discussing that we were going to have to probably rebuild here,” Stefanski said. “We’re in the middle of the pack. To me, that’s not the place that we want to be in and where fans want to be in.”

Stefanski’s words were significant, because they dismissed the rebuild philosophy the Pistons have largely stuck to since the Goin’ To Work Pistons were dismantled. That philosophy led to the Pistons doubling-down on the same mistakes, rather than attempting to take the long route toward building a roster that can contend for a championship.

Joe Dumars’ decision to trade Chauncey Billups for a 33-year-old Allen Iverson at the start of the 2008-09 season was not, by itself, a terrible trade. Ok, it was pretty bad. But it had upside.

Iverson was a poor stylistic fit for the roster, and the Pistons stumbled to a 39-43 exit and first-round defeat to Cleveland. But the trade cleared significant cap space for Detroit, giving the Pistons’ president of basketball operations an opportunity to retool on the fly. Dumars was opposed to completely bottoming out, so using the cap space to land two key pieces was a priority.

He signed Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva to a total of $90 million over five years. Neither of them were on the roster when the Pistons finally made it back to the playoffs, seven years later in 2016.

In 2013, the Pistons had cap space again. Dumars unloaded Gordon and a first-round pick to the Charlotte Bobcats for Corey Maggette’s expiring contract. He also traded Austin Daye and Tayshaun Prince in a three-team deal that brought back Jose Calderon’s expiring deal.

On the first day of 2013 free agency, Dumars signed Josh Smith to a four-year, $54 million contract. His contact became so detrimental to Detroit’s ability to rebuild, that new coach/team president Stan Van Gundy resorted to stretching and waiving his contract in December of 2014. The remainder of Smith’s deal finally leaves the books after this season.

How did the Pistons bungle two free agency periods in four years?

By taking shortcuts. Dumars wanted to avoid a lengthy rebuild. He hedged his bets on players who could fill stat sheets but didn’t play winning basketball.

If Weaver wants the Pistons to contend during his watch, he should use patience in free agency, or forgo big-name free agents altogether, rather than throwing money at the first higher-tier free agents who don’t necessarily fit Detroit’s goals.

Not that Weaver is inclined to make such a mistake. OKC largely avoided making free agency signings outside of retaining its own players, so he deserves the benefit of the doubt.


Unlike Dumars, Van Gundy preferred to keep the Pistons outside of the free agency market — though he also overpaid role players, which left the Pistons’ cap constricted until this offseason. Van Gundy was a believer in “doing his shopping early,” acquiring talented players at the trade deadline.

While Dumars struggled to find players who fit his rosters, Van Gundy had a different problem: Big-name additions couldn’t stay healthy. Reggie Jackson was an above-average starting point guard when healthy, but missed large chunks of three seasons due to chronic injury issues.

And Blake Griffin, acquired ahead of the 2018 trade deadline, is rehabbing his knee after having surgery on it in January. Van Gundy had the right idea in trading for him. Players of Griffin’s caliber do not sign with the Pistons in free agency. But he was only available because of his health issues.

With two years remaining on his bloated contract, there’s no clear path for him and the Pistons to part ways.

Van Gundy made a lot of good trades, but perhaps made one trade too many.

The trade market can be good to the Pistons, especially if they use it as a means to acquire additional assets in the form of draft picks or young players. However, it probably won’t be their primary path back to contention. On Friday, Tellem said at least 75% of the Pistons’ future success will hinge on how well the Pistons daft.


Weaver comes from an organization that has avoided the pitfalls the Pistons have fallen for over the years. And the past two years have been encouraging.

The Pistons landed Bruce Brown, on pace to become a steady rotation guard, with a second-round pick.

They’ve developed Svi Mykhailiuk, acquired at the 2019 trade deadline, into a rotational wing.

They have Christian Wood, who is coming off of a big season and is due for a big raise this offseason as an unrestricted free agent, off waivers last summer.

They’ve learned how important it is to get the small moves right.

Now, they need Weaver to nail the big ones.


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