The Detroit Pistons made history on June 23, 2021, but it wasn’t the kind of history any team wants to make. For the first time in franchise history, the Pistons won the NBA Draft Lottery. That put them in line to make the first pick in the draft for the first time in more than a half-century.
In the lottery era, which began in 1985, the Pistons haven’t had the best luck. Detroit finished second one time with another team’s pick. In 2003, the infamous Darko Miličić pick came with a selection acquired from the then-Vancouver Grizzlies for Otis Thorpe. The trade didn’t go all that well for the Grizzlies, either. Thorpe played 47 games for Vancouver as a 35-year-old in 1997–98. The Grizzlies were grisly that season, going 19–63.
However, in the common draft era, the Detroit Pistons have held the No. 1 overall pick twice before. They also had some bad luck with flipped coins, but some turned into pretty good fortune.
The common NBA draft began in 1966
Before 1966, NBA teams were allowed to make “territorial selections” to start the NBA draft. That allowed teams to take one player with ties to the local market (however tenuous those might be) without interference from any other franchises. From 1949, the first year of the merged NBA, through 1965, there were 23 territorial picks made.
The Detroit Pistons made two of those, taking University of Detroit forward Dave DeBusschere in 1962 and University of Michigan center Bill Buntin in 1965. One of those picks worked better than the other; DeBusschere was a Hall of Famer for the Pistons and New York Knicks. Buntin played one season in Detroit, got into a dispute with the coach (player-coach Dave DeBusschere because the world is funny like that). He also had a weight problem the Pistons wanted him to address. When he didn’t, they suspended him before cutting him loose before the 1966–67 season.
Detroit was involved in the first coin flip for the top pick in the draft after finishing last in the Western Division in 1965–66. They lost the flip to the Knicks, who took Michigan star Cazzie Russell. The Pistons consoled themselves with future Hall of Famer Dave Bing. So that worked out well.
Moving forward, the Detroit Pistons were involved in the coin flip only once more. In 1981, they lost the toss to the Dallas Mavericks, who had just finished their first season. Dallas went for DePaul standout Mark Aguirre. The Pistons took Indiana All-American Isiah Thomas. Again, it worked out for Detroit. They also ended up with both Aguirre and Thomas on their two championship teams in 1989 and 1990.
The Detroit Pistons won the toss twice
In 1967, the Detroit Pistons were involved in the coin toss for the top pick in the NBA draft. It was the second straight year for the Pistons in the flip. They couldn’t even finish ahead of the expansion Chicago Bulls the previous season, finishing last in the Western Division at 30–51. Perhaps this was another case, however, of losing by winning and winning by losing.
The Pistons took Providence standout Jimmy Walker (the father of future NBA player Jalen Rose) with the first pick. The Baltimore Bullets went for Earl Monroe, a Hall of Famer with two championship rings. But, hey, Walker was a two-time All-Star, so it wasn’t a total loss.
Three years later, Detroit won the toss from the San Diego Rockets. St. Bonaventure center Bob Lanier turned into one of the best players in franchise history. The Rockets took Michigan’s Rudy Tomjanovich, a multiple-time All-Star who wound up a Hall of Fame coach for the Rockets.
The NBA Draft Lottery has produced some value for the Pistons
The Detroit Pistons first participated in the NBA Draft Lottery in 1993. With the 10th-best odds of getting the first overall pick, they wound up sliding when the Orlando Magic won the lottery despite only a 1.52% chance of doing so. Detroit took Allan Houston.
The following year, Detroit had the second-best odds of winning but slid to third overall when the Milwaukee Bucks moved up from fourth. Grant Hill was a very nice consolation prize.
Since 2010, the Pistons have been a lottery team 10 times, missing only after playoff berths in 2016 and 2019. But until this year, Detroit had never picked higher than seventh overall in that span. In 2010, the Pistons took Georgetown center Greg Monroe at No. 7. Last year at that spot, Detroit selected French guard Killian Hayes.
The Detroit Pistons will likely take Oklahoma State guard Cade Cunningham to start the July 29 NBA draft. But nothing is sure until draft night.
Historical information courtesy of Basketball-Reference and RealGM.