Las Vegas — While most of the top teams around the league are taking a small mental break following the end of the playoffs, the Pistons have one of the few fanbases that is looking at the NBA Summer League with intense interest.
Who could blame them?
The Pistons haven’t won a playoff game since 2008, and though they’ve had some good wins in the regular season, they’re just that — wins in the regular season. There hasn’t been much that has fed into future optimism for what the Pistons could do moving forward.
That’s why this year’s Summer League is so important to the Pistons’ path forward.
To keep it completely in perspective, it’s still Summer League. It’s only a five-game sample size, but it’s something. There’s a trophy for the champion, and winning that would be something on which the Pistons can build.
The Pistons’ roster is loaded with their young core of players, including No. 1 overall pick Cade Cunningham; last year’s draft picks, Killian Hayes, Saddiq Bey and Saben Lee; and this year’s second-round picks, big men Luka Garza and Balsa Koprivica.
That’s three projected starters for next season, and if Isaiah Stewart hadn’t sustained an ankle injury in his play with the USA Select Team, it could have been four. The oddsmakers gave the Pistons the second-best chance to win the Summer League championship, and there’s good reason for it.
It’s not an easy path ahead, given that only the two teams with the best records — likely 4-0 or 3-1 in the preliminary games — will even have a chance to play in the championship. That’s a small margin of error for a young team that hasn’t jelled completely and has had a short time together to prepare for the challenge ahead of them.
For what it’s worth, the Pistons aren’t trying to protect their young players by cutting their playing time or taking things slowly. It should be a complete look at the healthy players on the roster, in regular minutes, with something to play for.
“I don’t see minutes restrictions on any of those guys; I don’t anticipate that,” coach Dwane Casey said this week. “We’ll want to see the other guys trying to make the team play, but not for the purpose of rest or anything like that in the summer — they’re only playing five games.”
On the other side of that is Stewart, who had been wearing a walking boot for the past couple of weeks, but when he arrived in Las Vegas, he didn’t have it on.
Casey said Stewart probably could play in Summer League, but they weren’t going to risk trying to play him, though he is listed on the roster.
Beyond Cunningham and Hayes, the player who could draw the most interest is Garza, who shockingly was available to the Pistons at No. 52 overall. At 6-foot-11, he has good skills on the offensive end, and the only question mark seems to be whether he’ll be a liability on defense.
Garza said he’s playing at almost 30 pounds below his weight in his senior season at Iowa, and if he is able to transfer that skill set to the NBA, he could be one of the biggest steals of the draft.
In some ways, Summer League — like spring training in baseball or training camp in football — is about possibilities. It’s the unexpected breakout star who shows a glimpse of being able to contribute a little more than originally thought when the season rolls around.
Maybe Sekou Doumbouya, who played sparingly in his first Summer League as a rookie, and not at all last year, starts to put things together. Maybe Hayes has an improved jump shot and shows that he and Cunningham will be a dynamic duo who can switch seamlessly between the guard spots.
Having an expectation the Pistons will win the championship might be a little farfetched — and it the big scheme of things, it really doesn’t matter. It’s more of the little things that most fans want to see, just to get excited about the regular season.
That’s an improvement in itself.
NBA Summer League
PISTONS VS. THUNDER
► Tipoff: 8:30 p.m. Sunday, Thomas & Mack Center, Las Vegas
► TV: ESPN2
► Outlook: Cade Cunningham makes his debut as the Pistons play the opener of their five-game Summer League schedule. The Pistons are one of the favorites to win Summer League, and they’ll get an early look at their young core, except Isaiah Stewart (ankle injury).