Detroit — You’ve been waiting patiently, sort of politely. But you’re aching to know when a Detroit team will be in playoff contention again, so you can put it in on your calendar.
I expect it to happen this fall with the Lions, a statement that can’t be held against me in a court of law. For now, let’s focus on the Pistons and Red Wings, as the NBA and NHL are busily determining their champions. And the real question is not when they’ll win, but how?
In a lengthy rebuild, it’s mostly about drafting and developing. But it’s also about shrewd dealing, and there’s only one surefire accelerant — a superstar boost. The Pistons thought they might get one but fell to No. 5 in the lottery and will miss out on generational talent Victor Wembanyama. The Wings thought they might get one but were whitewashed in the lottery again and will miss out on potential star Connor Bedard.
It didn’t happen the easy way, so Steve Yzerman and Troy Weaver must try to make it happen some way, somehow. And that means we’re about to enter a summer of serious shopping. Both franchises are due — overdue — for a blockbuster trade. Detroit teams sorely lack superstars, which are difficult to find or grow. There’s potential here in Aidan Hutchinson, Amon-Ra St. Brown, Jared Goff, Cade Cunningham, Moritz Seider, Dylan Larkin, Riley Greene and others, but nothing bona fide.
Maybe lottery failure was a necessary wake-up call, because it should increase the incentive to trade the picks. I’d be fine if the Pistons and Wings (they have the 9 and 17 picks) dealt away all their first-rounders. Prospecting for prospects was fun for a few years, but it’s tedious now.
Maybe the Wings can take advantage of the disarray in Toronto and go big, trading for one of the Maple Leafs stars, Mitch Marner or William Nylander. Or go super big and use their extensive draft capital, a young talent in Lucas Raymond and other prime prospects to pry superstar Auston Matthews out of Toronto. He’s pretty darn close to untouchable, but the Leafs have tricky contract situations and just fired GM Kyle Dubas, who reportedly was close to Matthews. Maybe it’s a pipedream, but I’m willing to try the pipe at this stage.
Same thing with the Pistons. Both franchises have cap space (about $30 million each), draft capital and young players, but it’s hard to count on free-agent signings because most NBA and NHL stars don’t reach free agency. So how about a good ol’ fashioned value-for-value seismic trade? When was the last time a Detroit team pulled that off? When the Tigers got Miguel Cabrera from the Marlins in 2007? When the Wings landed Brendan Shanahan from the Whalers in 1996?
Party for 5?
The Pistons can’t just keep using high picks to add raw players. Shortly after the lottery shafting, Weaver said he’d look at all options, including trades. If that means giving up the No. 5 pick, plus one of his young big three — Cunningham, Jaden Ivey, Jalen Duren — for a star, leap now or forever hold your pieces.
You’re not going to land a flawless star. But some fascinating players are going to be available, guys who are too pricey to keep, or simply want out. Here’s a handful: Celtics’ Jaylen Brown, Raptors’ Pascal Siakam, Wizards’ Bradley Beal, Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns, Knicks’ RJ Barrett and Julius Randle.
It’s also fun to speculate about the Trail Blazers’ great Damian Lillard. But he’s 32 and expensive and unlikely to want to come to Detroit. If that’s shooting too high, aim lower for one of these: Bulls’ Zach LaVine, Hawks’ John Collins, Lakers’ Rui Hachimura, Raptors’ OG Anunoby, maybe even the Warriors’ Draymond Green.
For all the good role players in the NBA conference finals, the Heat are the surprise mainly because of the skill and alpha-doggedness of the fabulous Jimmy Butler. The Nuggets are there because of the incomparable Nikola Jokic (41st overall pick in 2014, by the way) and Jamal Murray. The Celtics’ rollercoaster ride is directed by Jayson Tatum and Brown. The Lakers were dragged along by the aging LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
This is not a push for some radical, risky move to generate false excitement. This is not a request to reprise the ill-fated Blake Griffin deal five years ago. The Pistons need a star, or potential star, near his prime. It would take a lot to land someone like Brown, who’s only 26 and averages 26.6 ppg, but he may be part of a Celtics shakeup.
Owner Tom Gores needs to set an aggressive tone. You’re already seeing the lack of organizational consensus with the aimless search for a coach. Three reported candidates — Bucks assistant Charles Lee, Pelicans assistant Jarron Collins, former Connecticut coach Kevin Ollie — are underwhelming, compared to more experienced coaches such as Mike Budenholzer, Nick Nurse and Monty Williams.
For the record, Brown would be my trade target and Williams would be my coach target, if he doesn’t take the year off. I acknowledge the timing might not work in many cases, but Weaver and Yzerman have hinted at heightened aggressiveness.
Both could be forced to wait a little longer, although playoff absences of seven years (Wings) and four years (Pistons) are distressing. After missing a year due to injury, Cunningham still could become that star. But almost every Piston of note is 22 or younger, which is untenable. That’s why Weaver kept solid veteran Bogdanovic, who’s 34 and an ideal shooting complement, but not a star.
Young talent in place
The Wings could still hope Larkin takes the next leap to stardom. Seider is almost there, but he’s not a scoring star who can carry a team. Raymond, 21, headlines a large group of young talented players and prospects.
Yzerman isn’t running out of time, not even close. But he’s running low on his own patience.
“I’m OK with where we’re at,” Yzerman said after the season. “Like all of you, I wish we were farther ahead.”
Yzerman was a masterful drafter and dealer in Tampa and has done a good job restocking here. The Wings’ farm system is loaded, but that can be a trap, valuing hope more than actual production. The Leafs are primed to be plucked, without the salary-cap means to keep their Core Four, and it makes the unthinkable — trading the 25-year-old Matthews — at least mildly thinkable. Nylander, 27, and Marner, 26, are also enticing.
Yzerman pledges prudence, and in four years as GM here, certainly has practiced it. His trading of Tyler Bertuzzi and Filip Hronek at the deadline landed two more first-rounders. The Wings also have three consecutive second-round choices — 41, 42, 43 — in the June 28-29 draft so perhaps it’s time to deal in the other direction, or at least package picks to move up.
The reigning example is the Florida Panthers, one victory from the Stanley Cup Finals. They had the league’s best record two years ago, fell back, and boldly traded top players to Calgary for Matthew Tkachuk, who has been the overwhelming star in the Panthers’ run. He joins his fellow South Floridian, Butler, in leading unexpected rebounds (amazingly, the Heat and Panthers both were eight seeds).
So where’s the Wings’ version of Tkachuk? They’re not primed to win like the Panthers were, but high-end players might be available: Ottawa center Alex DeBrincat, Arizona center Nick Schmaltz, Columbus forward Jack Roslovic, Winnipeg winger Kyle Connor, Calgary center Elias Lindholm, Vancouver’s Conor Garland.
There’s a chance none of these players get dealt, or the price becomes ridiculously high. There’s a chance the Wings and Pistons feel compelled to keep stockpiling. No one’s asking for a big deal just for show. But first-round picks are like trading cards, fun to collect and hold, more valuable when you actually cash them in.