A look at what could have been if the Pistons drafted Justise Winslow

It’s a debate that has subsided in light of Justise Winslow’s season-ending injury, but what would have happened if the Detroit Pistons had drafted him instead of Stanley Johnson?

It’s a debate that raged for months after the 2015-16 draft. With Justise Winslow available and widely mocked to go to the Detroit Pistons with the 8th pick, Stan Van Gundy zigged when the NBA world expected a zag. Rather than drafting Winslow, the Pistons drafted Stanley Johnson, a 19-year-old forward out of Arizona.

Winslow went two picks later to the Miami Heat and was considered a steal. Both youngsters struggled in their rookie seasons, as all but the best of rookies do. Winslow was a touch better on offense and a little better defensively by most metrics. Winslow played about 5.5 more minutes per game than Johnson and had eight starts while Johnson had just six.

Pistons fans have argued collectively about which player is better and which might be better down the road, and if the organization should have made the chalk selection and gone with Winslow.

While this discussion has been sidelined in a 2016-17 season which hasn’t gone as expect for either (Johnson has struggled and Winslow is out for the season), these are still two young players with bright futures.

Piston Powered and our friends at Wolverine Studios have joined forces in the first of what we expect to be many regular features where we reimagine the NBA universe differently. For our debut collaboration, we’re going to take a look at the Johnson and Winslow debate, and we’ll see if a verdict can be reached after one season and a bit.

Wolverine Studios has created a basketball simulator called Draft Day Sports: Pro Basketball 2017 which recreates the NBA’s on and off-court environments precisely. We utilized this simulator to swap places between Johnson and Winslow.

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For a frame of reference to the accuracy this simulator can show, their 2016 version simulated the conference finals in both the East and West, and the Finals between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers and performed admirably right up until the Draymond Green suspension in game four.

The ground rules: The simulation does not allow for a redraft, so we made a straight swap between the Heat and the Pistons for the two players in question. We are simulating just 2016-17, and we decided to run this as a “perfect world” scenario and edit Reggie Jackson‘s virtual counterpart to remove his injury. This means that this full season was played with a healthy Jackson and a healthy Winslow.

We kept all other preseason injuries in place, such as Khris Middleton with the Milwaukee Bucks and Ben Simmons with the Philadelphia 76ers. In order to remove some of the random elements of chance, we turned new injuries off for the remainder of the season. While injuries are off, all CPU teams were permitted to make trades as they saw fit.

In order to give us a sample to work from, we ran five separate simulations. We’ll break them down one at a time.

Scenario 1

Draft day arrives and the Pistons select Justise Winslow with the 8th pick. It’s worth noting that the simulator sees the selection of Winslow over Johnson as a strongly positive move for the Pistons.

In the first running of this simulation, Winslow was a day one starter at the small forward position. That role didn’t last long, however. After nine games, Winslow was replaced by Marcus Morris. The Pistons went 5-4 in those nine games. Over the course of the season, the Pistons would go 44-38 and finish sixth in the Eastern Conference. They faced the Indiana Pacers in the first round and suffered a 4-0 sweep.

As for Johnson, he started 35 games for the Heat, who went 30-52. Johnson averaged six points per game.

Around the NBA, both the Denver Nuggets and Oklahoma City Thunder decided to go for it. The Nuggets traded a draft pick and acquired Derrick Rose, and the Thunder sent Andre Roberson, Cameron Payne and Anthony Morrow to the Dallas Mavericks for Dirk Nowitzki. The move worked as the Thunder made it to the Western Conference Finals before falling to the Warriors.

The Warriors defeated the surprising Milwaukee Bucks in the Finals.

Scenario 2

In this scenario the Pistons didn’t mess around with the starting lineup. Winslow started from day one and the starting lineup never deviated. After finishing 20th in defense in scenario 1, the Pistons took a big leap forward on the defensive end and finish 11th, allowing 100.8 points per game. Johnson also started every game for the Heat, but Winslow’s numbers were better across the board, finishing with 3.1 more points, 2.1 rebounds, 1.4 assists and 0.7 steals per game than Johnson.

The Pistons finished 42-40, good for fifth in the East, and they fell in five games to the surprising 76ers. Of note, the Warriors defended their title in the third straight Finals matchup with the Cavaliers and took it down.

Interesting trades: The Boston Celtics went all in and traded Marcus Smart, Kelly Olynyk and former Piston Amir Johnson to the Atlanta Hawks for Paul Millsap.

The Sixers had an unfair advantage in this simulation due to the fact that no new injuries could take place, lifting Joel Embiid‘s minutes restriction. They went 44-38.

Scenario 3

The Pistons once again wasted no time in making Winslow a starter, but the bottom dropped out quickly. The defense finished a dreadful 28th and the Pistons posted a 25-57 record on the season. Johnson remained a part-time starter with the Heat and not much was heard from him.

Thanks to the miserable start the Pistons got off to, they tanked pretty quickly and shipped out Marcus Morris to the Washington Wizards and Ish Smith to the Thunder for draft picks.

As for the rest of the NBA, the Boston Celtics appeared to be continuing a trend. They sent Jaylen Brown and picks and cash to the Sacramento Kings in exchange for Rudy Gay.

While the Warriors winning the championship again is no surprise, Gay was apparently the Celtics’ new secret weapon as he helped Boston reach the NBA Finals.

Scenario 4

In this scenario, the Pistons went 39-43 and finished 10th in the Eastern Conference. While the Pistons started Winslow all season again, the defense ranke in the 20s again as well.

The bench was a major drag on the team in this scenario with four of the five starters posting positive on/off splits (Winslow is the only negative) and every bench player being neutral or negative. This scenario is a damning indictment on the Pistons’ depth.

Once again the Celtics shoot their shot and trade Jaylen Brown, this time to the Orlando Magic for Serge Ibaka. This move didn’t resonate as well as the Gay move, and the Warriors beat the Cavs again for the title.

Scenario 5

Once again the Detroit Pistons disappointed and finished 37-45. Other than the starting lineup of Reggie Jackson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Winslow, Tobias Harris and Andre Drummond, none of the top 10 starting lineups post a positive +/-.

Once again, the bench was a pretty major problem for the team even with the benefit of greater contributions from Winslow than Johnson has been able to provide.

As for the rest of the NBA, the Boston Celtics made yet another splash and traded away Jaylen Brown and a future first round draft pick in exchange for Ibaka from the Magic and Gorgui Deng from the Minnesota Timberwolves. It did the trick as the Celtics managed to emerge from the East once again and were the sacrificial lamb for the Golden State Warriors juggernaut.

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In conclusion, at least as of this season, it looks like Winslow would be the superior player by some amount. This exercise also revealed the Pistons’ depth and defensive issues. Needless to say, much like the simulated Detroit Pistons, this team is at least a piece or two away.

This will be a continuing series, so if there are swaps or scenarios you’re curious about, post them in the comments section below.

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