It could be some time before the “restoring” of the Detroit Pistons is complete. But another offseason of tinkering has brought the organization closer to accomplishing its goal of putting together a playoff-ready roster.
Cade Cunningham, the first No. 1 pick to arrive in Detroit in 51 years, is the biggest reason for optimism.
Cunningham was the consensus best overall prospect in a strong draft, and he gives the Pistons a superstar-level talent to build and market around. He joins a roster that already includes two 2020-21 All-Rookie selections in Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart. Jerami Grant made All-Star noise last year, and Killian Hayes has a chance to prove himself after an injury-marred rookie season.
Besides drafting Cunningham, the 2021 offseason was relatively quiet compared to 2020. The Pistons added two new free agents, Kelly Olynyk and Trey Lyles, and two second-round picks in Luka Garza and Isaiah Livers.
Sekou Doumbouya, the lone holdover from the 2019-20 roster, was traded earlier this month. The roster is now second-year general manager Troy Weaver’s creation from top to bottom. And though it’s still a young and inexperienced roster, it’s one that will also look to improve on a 20-52 finish.
Training camp opens next week, and the coaching staff will be tasked with blending the new pieces in with the old. The Pistons are embracing positionless basketball, and the roster’s versatility should give Dwane Casey the flexibility to toy with lineups.
I predicted how the rotation will look on opening night, Oct. 20 at home against the Chicago Bulls. Here, we’re analyzing the roster position-by-position. That doesn’t mean players will be pigeonholed based on where they appear below. The opposite is true. I expect Casey will play two point guards together often, and there will also be a lot of overlap between the wing, forward and big positions.
Since it’s unlikely we’ll see Casey going more than 11 deep on any given night, I listed the players who have the strongest odds of being rotation fixtures. That means the two-way signees (Garza and Chris Smith), along with Rodney McGruder, Saben Lee and Isaiah Livers, were left off. McGruder, like last season, will provide a strong locker room presence and should be an emergency option in case of injuries. The other four are candidates to spend time with the Motor City Cruise, though we could still see them play spot minutes in the NBA over the course of the season.
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Starter: Killian Hayes
Primary backup: Cory Joseph
Last season, the Pistons trusted Killian Hayes with the ball from the first day of training camp. The then-rookie point guard started all four preseason games and the first seven regular season games before suffering a hip injury. They initially brought him off of the bench after he returned in April, but he regained his job within a few weeks and was in the starting lineup for eight of their final nine games.
I don’t think the Pistons will deviate from that plan this season, despite the arrival of Cunningham. At least, not at the start of the season. Their two recent lottery picks are both at their best when the ball is in their respective hands, but Cunningham can also play off of the ball as a spot-up shooter.
Dwane Casey likes having multiple ball-handlers on the floor at the same time. Earlier this summer, he said Cunningham and Hayes are “1A and 1B” in the pecking order. There’s a chance they will start alongside each other.
Cory Joseph, who re-signed with the Pistons this offseason, should be a rotation player as well. He has a longstanding history with Casey and immediately became a fixture last season after arriving at the trade deadline. Given that Hayes and Cunningham are both 20 years old, it’s logical to think the Pistons will want some experience in the backcourt as well.
Starter: Cade Cunningham
Primary backups: Hamidou Diallo and Frank Jackson
There’s a lot of positional overlap up and down Detroit’s roster, so let’s put “shooting guard” in quotes here. Cunningham will be one of the primary initiators on offense, along with Hayes and Joseph. He’s a big lead ball-handler, standing 6 feet 6 inches tall, and a gifted passer, so he’ll certainly rack up his fair share of assists next season.
But Cunningham’s size and shooting qualifies him to be an off-guard. He knocked down 40% of his 3-pointers during his lone season at Oklahoma State, and his long wingspan should enable him to defend multiple positions. He shouldn’t have issues slotting in next to either Hayes or Joseph.
Outside of the Cunningham-Hayes-Joseph trio, Detroit’s backcourt situation becomes tougher to predict. Diallo and Jackson, who both re-signed this offseason, are deserving of minutes.
Diallo might be the most athletic player on the roster and his on-ball defense and ability near the rim makes him a valuable asset. He also shot 39% from 3 in 20 games with the Pistons last season, but he’ll have to prove he can maintain a good percentage from outside. Jackson doesn’t have Diallo’s size or athleticism, but he shot 40% from 3 last season and should be one of their best marksmen next season. In smaller lineups, Casey could play Diallo at small forward. But there are only so many minutes available, and Casey will have some difficult decisions to make.
Starter: Saddiq Bey
Primary backup: Josh Jackson
Bey was Detroit’s best rookie last season and he could make a leap as a sophomore. He’s already one of the NBA’s better 3-point shooters, knocking down 38% of his 231 attempts last year. His shooting percentages inside the arc improved as the season progressed and he has the size and strength to be one of the more versatile defenders on the roster. During summer league, Bey showed an improved ability to generate his own offense by using his footwork. After Jerami Grant, he could be the team’s best scorer.
Josh Jackson is one of the better defenders on the roster and is a competent scorer when he’s feeling it. But he also lacks consistency on offense and shot just 30% from 3. Cunningham, Diallo and Grant are all better shooters and can add similar value on defense. Jackson was third overall in total minutes played last year, but Detroit’s improved depth at the wing threatens his place in the rotation.
Starter: Jerami Grant
Primary backup: Trey Lyles
After receiving significant All-Star and Most Improved Player attention, Grant will look to build on his breakout campaign. He was Detroit’s best overall player by a wide margin and set a career high in points per game (22.3). Grant opened last season as Detroit’s starting small forward, but he’s a more natural fit at the four with the current roster.
Following Doumbouya’s departure, newcomer Trey Lyles has a clear path to playing time. Lyles is a capable outside shooter, and that could help him carve out a role early. The Pistons struggled to shoot the ball last season and they made it a priority to address that weakness this summer.
Isaiah Stewart and Kelly Olynyk can also both play the four, as can Bey. But Stewart and Olynyk will likely spend most of their time playing center due to the roster’s construction, so there’s a real opportunity for Lyles here.
Starter: Isaiah Stewart
Primary backup: Kelly Olynyk
Stewart was a revelation last season. His defense, rebounding and overall energy quickly turned him into a fan favorite and earned him second-team All-Rookie honors. Olynyk, who signed a $37-million contract this summer, can make a strong case to open the season as the starter. He’s a career 36.7% 3-point shooter, is more experienced and is the second-highest-paid player on the roster. But Stewart is the superior defender and rebounder, and is also Detroit’s longterm focus at the position. I believe Stewart will start, but both players will play substantial minutes. They also have complimenting skill sets, which will enable Casey to play them together at times.
Contact Omari Sankofa II at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa. The Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here’s how you can gain access to our most exclusive Pistons content.