Will The #1 Pick In NBA Draft Return Pistons To The Playoffs?

The ping pong balls bounced the right way, and the Detroit Pistons won the overall first selection in the NBA Draft after the NBA Draft Lottery was held on Tuesday.

First, let’s admit that the NBA Draft Lottery is about as riveting as watching a late-season game between the Pistons and Cavaliers.

But not anymore! The Pistons will be markedly better and quite a bit more interesting to watch in the 2021-22 season because they hold the keys to the kingdom: the NBA’s #1 pick.

This hasn’t happened often, in fact it’s the first time since Tricky Dick Nixon was in office that the Pistons have had the #1 pick.

#1 Overall Picks By The Detroit Pistons

The Pistons have only held the #1 overall selection in the NBA Draft twice:

  • 1967: Detroit picked guard Jimmy Walker, who led the NCAA in scoring as a senior at Providence. Walker was a quick, high-jumping ball handler and instinctive scorer. He played nine seasons in the NBA, five in Detroit, where he was an All-Star twice. Many years later, Walker’s son Jalen Rose was a member of the famed Fab Five at the University of Michigan.
  • 1970: The Pistons chose center Bob Lanier out of St. Bonaventure University. Lanier was a physical force in the paint, and in his senior year he led tiny St. Bonaventure to the Final Four. He played ten seasons for Detroit, leading the Pistons to the playoffs four times. He was an eight-time All-Star, and he averaged 20.1 points and 10.1 rebounds per game in a Hall of Fame career.

Neither of those #1 picks led to the Pistons winning a championship, but it was hardly the fault of Lanier and Walker. Rather, the Pistons were a second-class franchise in the late 1960s and 1970s, despite the presence of a few outstanding players.

Who Will The Pistons Select With the #1 NBA Draft Pick?

The NBA Draft is designed to give the worst teams a chance to retool their roster and compete. The top three teams with the most losses are given the best chance of winning the top pick. This year those teams were the Pistons, Rockets, and Magic. The Pistons had a 14 percent chance that their ping pong ball would drift to the top of the hopper. And it did, sending their fans into a frenzy over the possibilities.

But there’s not much drama in this year’s NBA Draft, which will be held in Brooklyn on July 29th. The consensus overall first pick is believed to be Cade Cunningham, a 19-year old 6-foot-8 guard (forward? swingman?) who played at Oklahoma State.

Cunningham is long, tall, and lanky, with narrow shoulders and a 7-foot wingspan. This means his arms stretch seven feet wide, that’s not an indication that he can fly. But he might be expected to soar through the Detroit skies after he comes to Detroit. The Pistons are stuck in the mud of four losing seasons in the last five years, and only two playoff appearances in the last 12. And nearly every team makes the NBA Playoffs, so…that means the Pistons have been not firing on all cylinders. They’ve been chugging along low on gas. The franchise is missing a few spark plugs. Is that enough automotive references? Yes, I know it is.

Cunningham is a ball-handler who often served as a point forward in college. He loves to get his teammates involved, and he is a good passer. But his best asset is his scorer mentality. No one is saying he’s a Kevin Durant level player (because he’s not), but Cunningham has some similarities: the long wingspan, the slender build, the quick, spinning offensive moves, and a strong mid-range and long-range jump shot. He will be able to step right in and play the three-ball game that the NBA has become.

Once the Pistons get Cunningham into the red-white-and-blue, the team will instantly be better. But there will be some adjustments needed. The Pistons picked Killian Hayes, a tall high school point guard in last year’s NBA Draft, Hayes is still only 19 years old, and Detroit will need to figure out how to get the basketball into his hands and also keep Cunningham fed.

Chances The Pistons Make The NBA Playoffs In 2021-22

Detroit had the worst record in the NBA’s eastern conference, and they will have to leapfrog seven teams to make the playoffs next season. There is some precedent for such an improvement:

  • 1995-96 Pistons: The team improved by 18 wins under first-year head coach Doug Collins. The primary reason was the inspirational leadership of Collins, who could make a Big Gulp taste like vintage wine, as well as the young All-Star talent of second-year man Grant Hill.
  • 1981-82 Season: Coming off a miserable 21-win season, Detroit soared to 39 wins and an 18-game improvement, though they failed to make the playoffs. The surge can be assigned to Thing #1 and Thing #2: rookies Isiah Thomas and Kelly Tripucka, who kickstarted the Pistons to an era of playoffs and championships.

There are no odds yet on the 2021-22 NBA Playoffs, but you’ll probably see them at your favorite Michigan sportsbooks after the NBA Draft in July. With Cunningham in a Motor City jersey, the Pistons are sure to be better than the 20 wins they just put up in an abbreviated season. The playoffs will be asking a lot, but a big improvement is possible, and with their first #1 pick in more than 50 years, the Pistons will be hosting playoff games in downtown Detroit soon.

About the Author

Dan Holmes

Dan Holmes has written three books about sports. He previously worked for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Major League Baseball. He enjoys writing, running, and lemon bars. He lives near Lake Michigan with his daughters and usually has an orange cream soda nearby.