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When Troy Weaver joined the Oklahoma City Thunder as assistant general manager in 2008, he endured a season of losing before the team emerged as an annual playoff contender.
In 2008-09, the Thunder won just 23 games. The following season, they won 50 games and took the eventual NBA champion-Los Angeles Lakers to six games in their first-round playoff series. In Weaver’s fourth season, the Thunder made the NBA Finals.
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Weaver recalled feeling optimistic about the future of the team after that first season. They had a talented young core with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Jeff Green and Serge Ibaka. The Thunder added James Harden to the group in 2009. With their foundational pieces already on the roster, they knew that they just needed time to improve in order to take the next step.
Weaver just completed his first season as general manager of the Detroit Pistons, and the feeling is similar. Detroit went 20-52 this year, but Weaver believes the franchise is due for an upswing. While they don't have a Kevin Durant-type player yet, there's optimism that the franchise can follow a similar blueprint for success.
All four 2020 draft picks — Killian Hayes, Isaiah Stewart, Saddiq Bey and Saben Lee — showed enough to give the Pistons confidence that they can build a winning team with them. And Jerami Grant, last offseason's big splash in free agency, delivered the best year of his career by averaging 22.3 points, 4.6 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.1 blocks per game.
With a developmental season now in the rearview, Weaver is ready to win. If he has his way, there won’t be any more 20-win seasons while he’s in charge.
“Twenty wins don’t sit well with me, at all,” Weaver said on Monday, one day after the Pistons' season ended with a home loss to the Heat. “I don’t like anything about it, I don’t like the way it looks, I don’t like the way it smells, I don’t like anything about it. The only way to improve that is I gotta come back better. I’m looking forward to coming back better.”
When he was hired last June, Weaver laid out his vision to “restore” the Pistons back to their past glory. Phase 1 of that plan involved tearing the roster down to the studs and bringing in an almost entirely-new cast. Only Sekou Doumbouya remains from the 2019-20 season.
Many of Weaver’s gambles have paid off. Grant, who surprised many analysts by signing a three-year, $60 million contract with the Pistons, is a candidate for the Most Improved Player award and received votes to make the All-Star game. Weaver traded for Stewart, Bey and Lee on draft night, and all three outplayed their respective draft positions. Frank Jackson emerged as one of the best shooters on the roster. Josh Jackson, on his third stop in his four-year career, was a consistent contributor.
Phase 2 of Weaver’s plan appears to be to stay the course. Outside of four draft picks this summer (a top-six pick depending on how the lottery falls, and three in the second round), the Pistons don’t have as many avenues to remake the roster as they did last summer, when they had $30 million in cap space.
But with most of the core roster already in place, the Pistons won’t need to do as much tinkering this time around. Stewart and Bey are both strong All-Rookie team candidates. Hayes only played 26 games due to a torn labrum, but averaged 7.6 points, 5.9 assists and 1.3 steals after returning in April. During his final five games, he averaged 4.6 3-point attempts per game and hit them at a 34.8% clip.
"All of the rookies know what to expect with the league, what they can do in the league so they can go into the summer now to work on those weaknesses and also improve their strengths as they go into next year," Casey said. "We want to keep everybody hungry."
Lee, Frank Jackson, Hamidou Diallo and Dennis Smith Jr. are all entering restricted free agency. Wayne Ellington will be an unrestricted free agent.
“We’re going to continue to bring in like-minded people that fit what we’re trying to do," Weaver said. "Won’t get cute. When you lay the foundation, then you waver or go astray or look toward popular or what’s cute, we won’t do that. We’ll double down on our foundation, believe in what we’re doing and continue to bring in players and people that fit where we’re trying to go.”
The Pistons are banking that internal development will deliver success next season, and beyond. The top of this year’s draft is expected to be stacked, but Weaver isn’t expecting to find a franchise savior wherever the pick lands. Many draft analysts believe Oklahoma State star Cade Cunningham is a generational talent. USC big man Evan Mobley, Gonzaga guard Jalen Suggs and G League Ignite wing Jalen Green could all bring star power as well.
Weaver said he doesn't see a Shaquille O’Neal or LeBron James-level franchise changer in the draft, but he sees several talented players who can help move the franchise forward.
“We like our group and are excited about the guys that are under contract and even our own free agents,” Weaver said. “I don’t anticipate much turnover at all. I would say maybe one or two additions from the outside. The answers for the Pistons moving forward are all in-house. This is about internal development and growth, and that will be our focus this summer.”
Contact Omari Sankofa II at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: After Detroit Pistons' 20-win season, Troy Weaver is ready to win