There is a vicious cycle into which NBA teams can sink out of which seemingly no amount of optimism can lift a franchise. The Detroit Pistons amassed the second-fewest wins in the NBA over the past five years, the third-fewest over the past 10, and the fourth-fewest over the past 15. Losing can beget losing. Their playoff record over those 15 years? 0-12, three first-round sweeps. Ever since Chauncey Billups was traded to Denver in 2008, the Pistons have stunk. High draft picks like Stanley Johnson or Brandon Knight have failed to lift the team out of its misery.
While such stagnation can seem to last forever, there will always come a spring. And for Detroit, fun should be the cure to such woe. The 2022-23 Pistons are about to rediscover the meaning of the word.
The “Motor Cade”
The fun starts with Cade Cunningham. Detroit’s first top-five draft selection since Darko Miličić in 2003 (and second since Grant Hill in 1994), the expectations for Cunningham have been higher than for perhaps any Piston in decades. Yet in his rookie season he was closer to exceeding them than coming up short.
At 6-foot-6, Cunningham is a gigantic point guard built in the mold of Luka Dončić or Ben Simmons. And like the former (and not the latter), he’s a competent and willing shooter, keeping the defense unaware of his intent. His foundational talent might be putting the ball on the floor, as he finished 16th in the league in drives per game while shooting a fantastic 49.4 percent on such shots. He doesn’t usually burst past opponents, but he uses his strength and perfect choice of angles to create practically anything he desires out of the pick and roll. He can seal the ballhandler defender and throw his body into the screener defender, creating uncontested layups out of thin air.
Thanks to his full-court vision, he is as aware of weak-side defenders as he is of those guarding the ball.
New rookies in town
Success in the pick and roll may be important in the NBA, but it’s not necessarily the most fun thing in the world. Good thing the Pistons paired the slower-paced Cunningham with a contender for fastest player in the league: rookie Jaden Ivey. He’s a speed demon in the open court, a capable shooter, and a highflying dunker. And in his first Summer League game he threw multiple alley-oops. Doesn’t get much more fun than that.
It’s not just the guards that will capture SportsCenter Top 10 moments next season. Rookie center Jalen Duren is a highflying dunker who was a frequent recipient of lob passes in Memphis. He’s a rim-running big who’ll protect the rim on one end, rebound on both, and throw the ball in the net with force every time he touches it. When Cunningham bullies his way past perimeter defenders or Ivey speeds past them, if the opposing big steps up to take away layups, Duren will be available for easy lobs. Hamidou Diallo led the Pistons last season in dunks with 54; if he stays healthy, Duren will blow that total out of the water. With Ivey and Duren on board, the Pistons are sure to improve on their bottom-10 ranking for lob dunks last year.
Bey and Bagley
Saddiq Bey led the team last year in total points scored, and he’ll remain a gigantic wing who knocks down triples and scores out of the post and isolation. Jerami Grant is now a Portland Trail Blazer, so there will be minutes to fill at the power forward position. Bey could start in the frontcourt for the Pistons alongside Duren, but so too could bulldozer big Isaiah Stewart or even highflying forward Marvin Bagley III. Stewart’s range extends to the 3-point arc now, and he’s an excellent defender. Bagley is a gifted scorer who never put the pieces together with Sacramento. But he was hyper-efficient with Cunningham setting the tables for him in Detroit to end the season, shooting 76.2 percent within 5 feet of the rim. (As a point of comparison, that’s more efficient than Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, or Nikola Jokic last season from that distance.)
Duren will likely lead the team in slams, but Bagley will challenge him for the title of most exciting dunker on the team.
What about Killian Hayes?
Killian Hayes hasn’t popped as a starter, as he’s an inefficient scorer. But he’s roadrunner fast and makes flashy passes. With Cunningham and Ivey initiating plays, Hayes should be able to attack more gaps as a second-side attacker and find easier buckets. For Hayes — perhaps even more than for any other Piston — passing is an art form. His aesthetic flair in hunting assists is equaled only by a handful of other virtuosos across the league.
Hayes may not yet be a player who helps his team win, as his on/off rankings and advanced stats metrics were among the worst on the Pistons last season. There’s room to improve, and he’ll have a simpler role this season than in his first two. Furthermore, he’s an athletic 21-year-old guard who delights in sorcerous passing, which is another way of saying “doling out heaping portions of fun to his teammates.”
In fact, of all the core players — Cunningham, Ivey, Duren, Bey, Stewart, Bagley, and Hayes — only Bagley and Hayes were born in the 20th century. (Both were born in 1999.) The Pistons will be as young as teams get in the NBA while still capable of winning games. That isn’t always a good thing, but it does mean there are plenty of prospects capable of improving. And it means there should be a whole lot of fun to be had when the kids start running in transition, throwing down dunks, and playing the most stylish game in Detroit since, well, ever. If all breaks right, these Pistons could be a cross between their Bad Boy heritage and their spiritual Lob City predecessors.
Of course, the most fun thing in the NBA is winning. The Pistons might not quite be ready for that. But that could come sooner than expected.
Detroit has done an impressive job assembling veteran players to complement the prospects. Alec Burks and Rodney McGruder aren’t stars, nor will they ever be, but they can play winning basketball in a variety of roles. Nerlens Noel is a proven commodity as a defender. If Kemba Walker doesn’t see his contract bought out, he’d be a valuable mentor for the guards — he has seen it all, including All-Star games. The Canadians Cory Joseph and Kelly Olynyk have been good vets on young teams in the past.
For a team with seven prospects looking to improve and figure out their games, the rest of the roster has to be solid and undemanding. Detroit has made sure that there’s less flash and more substance among the players who likely won’t be around for the future — but still need to herald it in.
Primed for success
As a result, the roles required for winning basketball are filled. Cunningham is the heliocentric offensive leader, the pick-and-roll maestro who can give you a bucket in isolation whenever required. Ivey is the off-speed second star who will catch the ball after Cunningham forces rotations and be at the rim before defenders blink. He’ll feast in open space, whether attacking gaps or in transition. Duren will own the rim on both ends, setting screens, doing grunt work, and finishing everything in the paint with high efficiency. Stewart is the small-ball big who can space the floor. Bey and Bagley are the behemoth, score-first wings. Hayes is the pass-first guard off the bench.
The roles are there for a winning team. The players aren’t quite optimized yet — Cunningham, for example, was neither efficient in the pick and roll nor isolation last season. But he had plenty of practice in both, and he has incredible tools in all areas of the game. His growth sets the ceiling for the team. Ivey and Duren of course haven’t yet played a second in the league, so whether they’ll fill out the Big Three era in Detroit is uncertain.
But it is certain that there’s more to be excited about in Detroit than there has been for a long time. It’s possible they’ll continue to float around the bottom of the league for a long time yet. But that would require a whole number of disasters to take place at the same time. More likely is that they’re just starting a meteoric rise. Their vicious cycle is likely done. This season we’ll start to see the potential of these young, brash, and talented Pistons. And fun will be the vehicle they’ll ride out of the basement of the NBA.