Outside of winning a championship, few things seem to generate more excitement for fans than the beginning of a rebuild.
It’s one of the few times a franchise gets the benefit of the doubt and can fall back on selling promise and patience over performance and playoffs. Of course, for some Detroit Pistons fans, patience is running out after a decade without a playoff win.
But a scroll through Twitter on Tuesday, after the news of the Pistons’ GM search restarting, suggested a significant portion of the fan base is ready to buy back in.
“Chauncey Billups” became a trending topic in Detroit — the result of fans pitching the former point guard’s name online as a candidate.
While it isn’t yet known if Billups will be interviewed — or if he’s even interested — it shows how much excitement a front office hire can create. A strong hire can give fans something to latch on to, adding legitimacy to a rebuild.
The Pistons need to avoid making a hire just to make a “splash,” though. A familiar name may play well on social media, but it doesn’t mean that person will steer the franchise in the right direction. A big name may give the front office a reputation boost, but it won’t guarantee success.
Sometimes, the right hire is someone the average fan has never heard of. And as such, the fan base has to do its part by being patient. Rebuilds are tricky, and it could take months or years for certain decisions to pay off.
It requires some luck, too, Last spring, Memphis Grizzlies owner Robert Pera decided to retool their front office by promoting Jason Wexler and Zach Kleiman to the top two positions. Wexler now oversees the entire operation, and Kleiman leads the basketball side.
The Grizzlies finished the 2018-19 season with a 33-49 overall record and missed the playoffs. A year later, they’re 28-26 and holding the eighth seed in the West with a young core. They were lucky last summer to move up to the No. 2 overall draft pick and select Ja Morant, the is currently the Rookie of the Year favorite.
But the organization has also been aggressive in remaking the roster. They added young talent and draft picks through trades and maximized the return of their previous franchise stalwarts, Mike Conley and Marc Gasol. They’re still early in their rebuild, but Kleiman has established himself as a rising general manager.
Detroit’s situation isn’t directly comparable. Stefanski was hired mere months after Stan Van Gundy sacrificed draft picks and future cap flexibility for Blake Griffin. Instead of immediately blowing the roster up, the Pistons decided to chase the playoffs. It worked — for one season. But injuries to Griffin and various role players destroyed their chances of making the playoffs this year.
While the current regime couldn’t maximize the return on Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson, the upcoming summer gives Stefanski an opportunity to play catch-up. The Pistons are entering a pivotal summer, with (for now) the fifth-best odds at the No. 1 pick and potentially an excess of $30 million in cap space.
The general manager, whoever it may be, will enter a situation where they can have a major impact on reshaping the roster. The only question is, what direction should the Pistons pursue?
Poaching a rising executive from a different team appears likely. It has worked for other rebuilding teams. In 2016, the Brooklyn Nets poached Sean Marks from the Spurs, where he was an assistant general manager. Four years later, Brooklyn has a core led by Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving and is preparing to make a playoff run in 2021.
The Sixers hired Houston Rockets executive vice president Sam Hinkie in 2013. His extreme methods (i.e. tanking) might’ve been controversial, but they were ultimately successful in putting them in position to draft Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.
But a familiar name shouldn’t be completely ruled out, either. Joe Dumars, the architect of the Pistons’ last championship, was hired just two years after his 14-year playing career in Detroit ended in 1999. He was named Executive of the Year in 2003, and the Pistons won a championship in 2004.
It seems possible that other former players with Detroit ties will find their names in the rumor mill. Billups’ former teammate, Tayshaun Prince, is a logical candidate. Prince joined the Grizzlies’ front office in 2017 and was promoted to special advisor to the general manager last summer. Stefanski has ties to Memphis, where he was a front office executive from 2014-18.
The Pistons’ new GM will report to Stefanski, but it’s unclear how their responsibilities will be divided and how much power the GM will have. It largely depends on who is hired. But we can’t rule out the possibility of the new GM seizing a large role within the organization, either immediately or down the road.
This will be a defining offseason for the Pistons. It doesn’t matter if they hire a popular name or virtual unknown. They just have to get it right.
©2020 Detroit Free Press