Cade Cunningham was drafted by the Detroit Pistons shortly after 8 p.m. July 29. By 8:40 p.m., Cunningham had already answered the first of many questions about how he would fit next to Killian Hayes.
His answer to the question is similar to the answers he, Hayes, coach Dwane Casey and the rest of the team have given in the months since the draft. It’s likely an answer he will give several times over the course of the season as well.
“I think me stepping in will help Killian a lot, and I think Killian will help me a whole lot,” Cunningham said then. “We’ll take a lot of pressure off of each other, and both of us are capable of being primary ball-handlers and both of us are capable of playing off of the ball and making things happen off the ball. I feel like it will be a good mix. I feel like it’ll bring a lot of versatility to our backcourt. We’re both big, we’re both strong and we’re both playing under control.”
Cunningham and Hayes are Detroit’s two most recent lottery picks, and in many ways, they’re similar players. Cunningham is unselfish with forward size and guard skills, and Hayes is a big, unselfish point guard. They both have the tools to run the offense and defend multiple positions. Given the amount of overlap in their games, it’s fair to wonder how the two players will look next to each other.
But if there’s any trepidation about their fit, it’s premature.
The Pistons are confident Cunningham and Hayes can thrive next to each other. But the Pistons are early in their rebuild. Cunningham hasn’t played an NBA game yet, and Hayes has 26 games under his belt after an injury marred rookie season. The main focus is ensuring Cunningham and Hayes can simply become productive basketball players.
If that happens, it’ll certainly ease any concerns about their fit together. Across the NBA, contending teams have multiple ball-handlers in their starting five. It’s nearly a requirement to be competitive today and the Pistons are pursuing a model that works.
To snap their 13-year playoff winless draught, they’ll need recent draft picks to become really good. The Milwaukee Bucks have Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday. The Brooklyn Nets have Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving. If Detroit’s young players can’t eventually win them enough games to compete with the upper echelon of the NBA, it won’t matter how well they fit.
Talent is a bigger priority than perfect fit.
It’s why the Los Angeles Lakers traded for Russell Westbrook this offseason, even though Westbrook will replicate much of what they’re getting from LeBron James without filling James’ weaknesses. The gamble may not work, but James has made it work with other primary ball-handlers in Irving and Dwyane Wade. Talent trumps fit, and smart players figure it out.
It’s too early to say how good Cunningham or Hayes will be. But the Pistons have every incentive to help them get to that tier. They had two major priorities in free agency this summer — bringing in more shooting to open the floor, and re-signing veteran free agents to maintain the locker room and bring experience to the court. Cunningham and Hayes stand to benefit from those moves.
And even though they’re both lottery picks, the Pistons aren’t handing them starring roles yet. At least, not publicly.
When asked about Cunningham’s expectations for next season, general manager Troy Weaver said it’s simply that he will work hard, along with the rest of the roster.
Neither Cunningham or Hayes has proven they can consistently perform at a starting level, and Casey wants to see that consistency before he sets his rotation.
The early signs have been good, but they have to maintain it.
“It’s who gets it done out there and over the summer, for me,” Casey said Friday. “I don’t look at a guy, ‘Oh, you’re drafted No. 1 and you’re drafted,’ if a guy isn’t getting it done on the court, there’s no — you’re disrespecting their teammates if you’re going to say you’re drafted high so you’re going to automatically get minutes. It’s going to be the same up and down the board.”
Cunningham will have the ball in his hands, but he may not dominate it to the extent Derrick Rose did with the Chicago Bulls in 2008, or John Wall with the Washington Wizards in 2010, or Irving with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2011.
But Cunningham is also a different player compared to his contemporaries. He’s 6 feet 6 with a long wingspan and was a strong spot-up shooter in college. Those skills enable him to effectively play off the ball. His vision and passing are two of his best attributes, but the Pistons intend to utilize his entire skill set.
Cunningham can’t, and won’t, win games by himself. We’ve seen stars team up with other ball-handlers to get over the hump.
Irving won his lone championship playing next to James, and is now attempting to replicate that with Durant and Harden. Harden started his career playing next to Durant and Westbrook, and is now teamed with Irving and Durant after eight seasons as the No. 1 option with the Houston Rockets. And even in Houston, Harden briefly played with another talented ball-handler in Chris Paul.
The question isn’t whether or not Cunningham can play with another primary ball-handler. History tells us he will have to if he wants to win in the NBA.
Hayes, too, will have to share the ball. His fit next to Cunningham, for now, is irrelevant. After a rocky rookie season, he first has to prove he can become a player worthy of the ball.
He knows he has to improve on last season’s poor shooting marks. He spent the offseason working on his mechanics with new assistant John Beilein, who produced his share of NBA-level shooters during his time coaching Michigan basketball. The coaching staff has tasked Hayes with making other adjustments, such as getting all the way to the rim on drives instead of settling for a runner. Hayes has received strong reviews in camp, and said he feels far more comfortable than he did last year.
He won’t have everything figured out by the time the season opens Oct. 20 vs. Chicago, but he doesn’t have to. The Pistons have something that contending teams don’t — time. They can let Hayes and Cunningham make mistakes and recognize each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Regardless who starts, they will spend time together on the floor and they will spend time apart. It’s a rebuilding season, and the Pistons don’t need to rush the process.
Detroit is banking on two big playmakers who play hard on defense and possess above-average vision and passing. One can shoot, and the other is working to figure it out. As far as backcourts go, there are duos that possess less upside.
We don’t know how the pairing will fair, but if they reach their potential, the Pistons should feel comfortable that their games will mesh.