The Detroit Pistons are unsurprisingly headed back to the NBA Draft Lottery for the third consecutive year.
It was expected to be another transition year for the rebuilding Pistons and it has been just that as the losses piled up from the get-go. With only two games remaining this season, they sport a 23-57 record and have alternated with the Orlando Magic for last place in the Eastern Conference all year long.
By the numbers, it may seem like this was a lost year for this proud franchise that has won three NBA championships and once made six consecutive Eastern Conference Finals appearances in the mid-2000s. They have fallen off in dramatic fashion since those glory days, but hidden beneath all the losing this season are legitimate reasons for hope that better times are on the horizon.
At the center of it all is last year’s first overall pick Cade Cunningham. While the 6’6 guard may not win this year’s Rookie of the Year award given the impact that his rivals have made on playoff-bound teams, he has not disappointed.
Cunningham has shrugged off an injury-marred start to the season and is living up to the lofty expectations that come with his prestigious draft spot. He is at the heart of this team’s future and has proven to be a worthy centerpiece for them to build around moving forward with per-game averages of 17.3 points, 5.5 rebounds, 5.5 assists, and 1.2 steals.
These statistics, together with his deliberate style of play and ability to control the tempo as a big point guard, have inevitably led to comparisons with Luka Doncic.
The Dallas Mavericks’ fourth-year guard provides a glimpse of what Cunningham can become not too far down the road. The similarities in their game were strikingly evident when they faced one another in their most recent meeting at the Little Caesars Arena.
Doncic and the Mavericks convincingly blew out the Pistons, 131-113, for their 50th win in what has been their most successful campaign together so far. A major driver behind Dallas’ success is their all-in commitment to putting the ball in the hands of their 23-year-old wunderkind.
Instead of searching for another ball dominant scorer to theoretically alleviate his load, they have chosen to surround him with a low-maintenance supporting cast to spread the floor and compete on defense. They doubled down on this strategy by trading away Kristaps Porzingis to the Washington Wizards at this year’s trade deadline and it will be interesting to see how far Detroit goes in emulating this blueprint with Cunningham.
In the case of the Pistons, their version of Porzingis is Jerami Grant who has been the team’s leading scorer over the past two seasons. The 27-year-old forward initially made his name in the league as a versatile defensive specialist and has been miscast as a primary scorer since arriving in Detroit almost two years ago.
The version of Grant that played for the Oklahoma City Thunder and Denver Nuggets in previous seasons would be a fantastic fit alongside Cunningham. He could thrive in a similar role to that of Dorian Finney-Smith in Dallas–spacing the floor and taking on the opponent’s top perimeter scorer–though it may be difficult to bring him back to this line of work after he spent two years doing a mediocre Tracy McGrady impersonation.
Grant is much older than the rest of the team’s core and addition by subtracting him away may make the most sense for the Pistons at this point in time. This will establish Cunningham as their undisputed focal point and allow the youth movement to fully take over.
Detroit actually has the prospects in place to emulate Dallas beyond their star point guard. Killian Hayes, the seventh overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, seems to have finally found his stride late in his second year and could very well play the same role that Jalen Brunson does for the Mavericks down the road.
While the 20-year-old Hayes is not yet as refined offensively, he is much taller (6’5) than Brunson (6’1) and has a considerably higher ceiling given his physical tools. The potent mix of his length and quickness give him the potential to become a top notch defender as he has teased with his 1.2 steals average in only 25 minutes per game.
There is no doubt that he has the requisites to be the long-term partner of Cunningham in a tall and athletic backcourt that can wreak havoc on the rest of the league on either end of the floor. The key here will be patience as the Pistons will have to nurture Hayes in the same way that Dallas did with Brunson, their second round pick in the 2018 NBA Draft.
Over in the frontcourt, Saddiq Bey, the owner of this year’s most surprising 50-point game, has capitalized on the additional playing time in the recent absence of Grant. Bey can fill for Detroit either the role that Finney-Smith or the three-point specialist Reggie Bullock play for the Mavericks, especially if Grant is moved in the offseason.
The 24-year-old Isaiah Livers, a second round pick of the Nuggets last year, has also made his name known over the past month. Like Bey, he stands at 6’7 and may have found a long term home with the Pistons playing a similar role as a floor-spacing forward.
To complete the juxtaposition, Detroit’s sophomore center Isaiah Stewart, also only 20 years old, will most likely wind up better than Dallas’ Dwight Powell. Though he stands at just Stewart makes up for his lack of height with his strength and 250 lbs frame. He is extremely active and is adept at finishing around the rim which is more than enough when playing with a player of Cunningham’s caliber.
Furthermore, the Pistons have a chance to add a top prospect in the upcoming draft, given that they have one of the worst records in the league. Adding another frontcourt piece would be ideal although it remains to be seen how things will turn out over the next few months.
It has been more than a decade since Detroit has been relevant in the NBA, but the dog days may soon be over. With Cunningham running the show, they now have a potential superstar to carry them out of the cellar and back into the playoffs. They would do well to imitate what the Mavericks have with Doncic, though there are many ways to skin a cat and it will be interesting to see how they ultimately handle (or, unfortunately, mis-handle) their promising situation.