Jalen Rose had gathered with basketball fans inside a bar for Game 2 of the N.B.A.’s Western Conference finals between the Phoenix Suns and the Los Angeles Clippers. It was also the night of the draft lottery, which Rose, the retired small forward, was covering in his role as an analyst for ESPN.
His Detroit Pistons, Rose decided, would win the lottery for the first time since it was implemented for the 1985 draft, receiving the right to make the first overall pick and an encouraging pathway to re-entering basketball relevancy.
Rose never played for the Pistons during his 13-year N.B.A. career, but he is a Detroit native and lifelong Pistons fan. He announced that he would buy shots for the dozens of fans at the bar should his draft lottery prophecy prove accurate.
As Mark Tatum, the N.B.A.’s deputy commissioner, revealed the draft order in reverse from pick No. 14 and Detroit remained on the board, Rose’s mind drifted. He thought of Jimmy Walker, the man who had given him half of the genes for his N.B.A. career and whom Detroit had selected first overall more than 50 years ago. He thought of Jeanne Rose, his mother, who nurtured and facilitated those dreams with Walker out of the picture and who had died from cancer four months earlier.
“And it kind of hit me in that moment that my mother and my biological father are going to storm the gates of heaven and get us the No. 1 pick,” Rose recalled during a phone interview.
The Pistons entered the lottery tied with the Houston Rockets and the Orlando Magic for the best chance (14 percent) to land the No. 1 pick. Rose’s fellow revelers quickly turned into transient Pistons fans when Ben Wallace, the organization’s representative at the lottery and a stalwart of its last championship team, claimed the top pick.
“Having the No. 1 pick, in a lot of ways, for the N.B.A. in particular, it’s symbolic,” Rose said. “We haven’t had the No. 1 pick since the Big Dobber, Bob Lanier, early ’70s. We haven’t taken a perimeter player No. 1 overall since my biological father, Jimmy Walker, in 1967. And the reason why it’s so symbolic is because when you make that choice, that should be a franchise-altering player, a generational changing player. And all No. 1 pick drafts aren’t created equal. In this one, there’s a unanimous choice.”
Rose’s presumptive choice for the Pistons to take on Thursday is Oklahoma State’s Cade Cunningham, a versatile playmaker and scorer. Pistons Coach Dwane Casey said he was excited to add Cunningham or any of the top prospects: the G league’s Jalen Green, Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs or Southern California’s Evan Mobley.
The addition of a player with Cunningham’s ability would offer Detroit a jump-start after the Pistons lagged for years as a middling Eastern Conference playoff team before bottoming out and undergoing a rebuild under Casey and General Manager Troy Weaver.
There was a reason Wallace, a rugged rebounder and defender who will soon be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, represented the team at the lottery.
The Pistons are long removed from the storied 1980s Bad Boys era that featured Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars and Bill Laimbeer, and they haven’t resembled Wallace’s unified, underdog team of the early 2000s that took down Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal’s Los Angeles Lakers for the title in 2004.
That last title team — with Wallace, Richard Hamilton, Chauncey Billups, Rasheed Wallace and Tayshaun Prince — played cohesively in an era before superstars regularly teamed up through free agency. They advanced to the Eastern Conference finals for six consecutive seasons, standing as a roadblock to a young LeBron James in Cleveland, reminiscent of how the Bad Boys denied a rising Michael Jordan in Chicago.
Those championship teams represented Detroit’s gritty work ethic, even if the 2004 squad did not play in city limits.
“I’m always going to be a Pistons fan,” Wallace told The New York Times. “I’m always going to be a Detroit fan, Michigan fan, so for me, it’s exciting because you always want to see the organization do well.”
Detroit has made the playoffs only twice since 2009 and was swept in the first round both times. The franchise suffered through a failed rebuilding effort after the championship core departed and misfired on lengthy contracts to players like Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva. In 2012, Detroit drafted center Andre Drummond during a period when the organization had gone from making deep runs in the playoffs to missing the postseason for three years straight. Drummond, a free agent this summer after a stint with the Lakers, played more than seven seasons in Detroit and rose to second on the Pistons’ career rebounds list and fifth in steals before they traded him to the Cleveland Cavaliers at the deadline in February 2020.
From 2008-9 to 2014-15, the Pistons cycled through five coaches: Michael Curry, John Kuester, Lawrence Frank, Maurice Cheeks and Stan Van Gundy. (John Loyer was the interim coach after Cheeks during the 2013-14 season.)
They made a splash by trading with the Los Angeles Clippers for the former All-Star Blake Griffin in January 2018, but injuries to Griffin and a weak roster around him limited the move’s impact.
Weaver joined the organization before the 2020-21 season and initiated a dizzying overhaul.
“People have asked me if I was surprised that Troy turned the roster around like he did. I’d say, I’m surprised how fast he did it,” said Tom Gores, the Pistons’ owner since 2015. “I’m not surprised he did it, because he has this great ability to evaluate talent and also understand the value in a player.”
Weaver’s moves have included drafting Killian Hayes; acquiring Isaiah Stewart and Saddiq Bey in draft-day deals; signing Denver’s Jerami Grant in free agency; trading Derrick Rose; and buying out Griffin.
“I said before that it doesn’t matter where you bat — you got to hit the ball, and we just happen to be batting leadoff,” Weaver said of his approach to this draft.
The Pistons finished the season an Eastern Conference-worst 20-52, but Casey said he saw enough from his young core to build off.
“We’re going to scratch and claw, but ultimately, that’s our goal, is to be a championship program, to get to the championship rounds,” said Casey, who won the Coach of the Year Award in 2018 with Toronto and is entering his fourth season with Detroit. “It’s going to take steps, and we’re not going to skip steps of the process to get there.”
As much as this No. 1 pick represents a necessary cog in the Pistons’ rebuild — or restoration, as Weaver has termed the process — it also symbolizes revitalization for the city of Detroit.
The Pistons moved to the Pontiac Silverdome in 1978 from Cobo Arena in downtown Detroit. They spent 10 years there before leaving for the Palace of Auburn Hills, about 30 miles north of Detroit. The Palace of Auburn Hills has perhaps become best known for being the site of the so-called Malice at the Palace brawl between Pistons and Indiana Pacers players in 2004, though the team also won its last championship there.
The relocation to Auburn Hills represented a “sore spot,” as Rose described it, that had bothered Detroiters and Pistons fans for nearly 40 years. The franchise had fled to the suburbs along with much of the city’s population and financial support.
“It was heartbreaking,” said Mike Duggan, Detroit’s mayor since 2014. He added: “The Pistons were never great. And just as they were getting good, they left town, and for Detroiters it was a long drive to Auburn Hills. And if you lived on the west side, in the Western suburbs, it was an even longer drive, but this is a basketball town. And we always felt like the Detroit Pistons belonged in Detroit.”
The Pistons stayed in Auburn Hills until Gores announced that the Pistons were moving back to the city to share Little Caesars Arena with the N.H.L.’s Red Wings for the 2017-18 season.
The organization has ingratiated itself back into the community since returning. The Pistons moved their headquarters and training facility to Detroit, built basketball courts in parks, aided in developing the surrounding neighborhood and sparked community discussion.
Gores, though, has been criticized for his private equity firm’s purchase of Securus Technologies, a company that sets expensive prices for phone calls made by prison inmates. He has said that he is seeking to make reforms to the industry.
“The Pistons have become a big part of the Detroit community and this is a very loyal city,” Duggan said. “The city is very emotionally attached to them coming back and would love to see the team win. So, it’s going to take the level of excitement toward the Pistons to a whole different level.”
That level would be the hope that Thursday returns a player who can elevate the franchise in the same way that Magic Johnson once did for the Lakers, Allen Iverson did for the Philadelphia 76ers and Tim Duncan did for the San Antonio Spurs.
They, of course, were all No. 1 picks who quickly breathed renewed life into their franchises.
“Nothing against any of our companies, but it would just mean the world to me, the most to me, if we could get a championship and get that stadium rocking and excited,” Gores said. “I don’t know that there’s — other than, you want your kids to thrive — I mean, it’s about as important as that.”