The Detroit Pistons find themselves with familiar needs heading up to this year's NBA Draft on June 26, but face more uncertainty than at any point in recent years. With losses in the Eastern Conference Finals in three consecutive seasons, the news that Michael Curry will take the reins from Flip Saunders as head coach, and the strong words from GM Joe Dumars that the team will undergo major changes, fans may see a very unfamiliar team on the court in the 2008-2009 season.
This potential variability makes it difficult to pinpoint just what the Pistons will do with the #29 and #59 picks in this year's draft. Therefore we'll focus on the team's biggest needs regarding its roster as-is, with some perspective on what got them here. Doing so reveals two recurring deficiencies for those who have been following Detroit over the last few seasons: 1. No true starting center and 2. No viable back-up at the small-forward position.
1. Need at center
The Pistons have lacked a dominating inside presence since the departure of Ben Wallace via free-agency after the 2005-06 season. Too often, Rasheed Wallace has preferred to float out around the perimeter to take 3-pointers at the expense of offensive rebounding and creating second chances for teammates.
Also, as seen most recently in the playoff series against the Boston Celtics, true centers like Kendrick Perkins have found ways to have atypically impressive showings against Detroit (though for some reason the team continues to shut down a guy like Dwight Howard). This could be attributed to a lack of depth in imposing big men in the middle.
While the drafting of versatile, attacking back court player Rodney Stuckey with the Pistons' first of three picks (two first-rounders) last year was not much of a surprise, the fact that the team passed on taking a center with each of its latter picks was a little bit of a shock.
It was clear that Joe Dumars wanted to shore up his back court and was comfortable sliding Rasheed Wallace over to the five position. But it is also notable that there weren't many players that could fill the team's need in the middle that had talent projected as worthy of a late first-round selection (Detroit settled on Arron Afflalo, SG/SF). They could have taken a chance on Glen Davis (probably should have in hindsight) or perhaps Tiago Splitter out of Brazil, though both play more as forwards anyway.
Looking ahead, this draft appears to be abnormally deep in talent at the center position. Unfortunately, most of the known commodities are projected to be taken in the middle of the first round, before the Pistons get a shot.
What I mean by this is that as many as seven or eight top NCAA prospects who can play the five position in the NBA may be drafted before Detroit picks at 29. This includes players such as the Lopez brothers out of Stanford, DeAndre Jordan, Kosta Koufos, and Roy Hibbert. What the Pistons could be left choosing from are untested international players or someone like DeVon Hardin from Cal, who many believed has consistently underachieved.
If the Pistons decide that it is more a need of rebounding and defense, than actual size, the team may decide to take a shot at a forward that tends to play bigger than his measurements, not unlike current Piston Jason Maxiell. This would steer the team towards a guy like D.J. White out of Indiana, a proven rebounder at the collegiate level. In general, teams tend to swing toward "best talent available" as a rule this late in the first round, and that may not lead Detroit toward filling its need at the five position at all.
2. Need at small forward
Tayshaun Prince has been a cornerstone at SF for the Pistons since they began their run of six straight ECF appearances. However, he has been without a viable backup for many years, and has been forced to play extended minutes in the regular season and throughout the playoffs. Joe Dumars signed Jarvis Hayes last offseason to try to give Prince a rest, but former coach Flip Saunders was wary of Hayes' inconsistency and lackluster defensive abilities, and left him on the bench for virtually the entire playoffs.
The Pistons could look to fill the void behind Tayshaun as well as add scoring punch to the second unit by drafting a small forward. Bill Walker from Kansas State has been rumored, though his draft stock is currently rising so he may not be available once the Pistons select at #29. He is an athletic scorer who could give the second unit another offensive option alongside Stuckey.
One bright spot for Detroit is that the team has youth in the pipeline that may give them added versatility with their draft picks. It's undecided where players such as Amir Johnson and Walter Hermann fit best in the rotation. Johnson has a lot of height and length, but his frame is still on the thin side.
Still, he is a proven shot-blocker and rebounder, and he should see a lot more action under the new coaching staff next season, perhaps even at center. Hermann, if he returns (he is a free agent) could be given a larger opportunity to play behind Prince. He has a unique way of scoring the ball, but may be a step or two too slow to stop penetration by the league's many talented small forwards.
A wild card is the development of Cheick Samb, the fifteenth man on the this season's Pistons roster. The 23-year-old Senegalese player measures in at 7-1 has shown a lot of raw athletic ability, and can be a great shot blocker in this league.
Samb spent most of his time this season in the D-league, and performed well there. Like Johnson, he could stand to add some additional bulk to help his post defense. If his development progresses, it's possible that Samb could provide more help at center than anyone drafted from the very late first round.
Another possibility for the team would be to improve its prospects by trading up earlier into the first round.
Overall, the Pistons could see a lot of changes and Joe Dumars holds the keys to what lies ahead for the franchise. The roster as-is is already elite by NBA standards, but to get over the conference finals hump and back playing in June for it all will require some alterations to both mentality (see coaching change) and make-up (see draft, trades, free agency).