Detroit Pistons have young, exciting core. Is that enough for playoffs? Our 7 predictions

Detroit Free Press

The Detroit Pistons kick off their regular season against the Chicago Bulls on Wednesday. It will represent the start of a new era for the franchise, though it will be without No. 1 pick Cade Cunningham, whose ankle injury will prevent him from playing.

But there’s still plenty of intrigue around last year’s core of rookies — Killian Hayes, Isaiah Stewart, Saddiq Bey and Saben Lee — as well as Jerami Grant, who received All-Start consideration during a breakout season.

So how will this pivotal season play out? Here are seven Pistons predictions for the 2021-22 season:

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1. Cunningham will win NBA Rookie of the Year

Despite being the No. 1 overall pick, Cunningham isn’t the favorite for the Rookie of the Year Award. Oddsshark.com gives Jalen Green (+250) the edge over Cunningham (+325). NBA general managers appear to agree, as Green received 47% of the vote in the 2021-22 GM survey. Cunningham was second at 40%.

It’s an award that favors scoring, and Green averaged an efficient 17.9 points as an 18-year old in the G League. He’ll almost certainly lead all rookies in points. And he’ll also be a regular on SportsCenter Top 10, as he’s arguably the best athlete in the rookie class.

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But Cunningham is no slouch as a scorer either. Cunningham is also a better all-round player than Green, with better vision, defensive instincts, size and length. Cunningham can do everything, and he’ll impact winning for the Pistons even when his shot isn’t falling. I wouldn’t be surprised if he averages 15 points, five rebounds, five assists and a combined two blocks and steals this season with solid efficiency. The advanced stats will favor him over Green. I think that will tip the scale in Cunningham’s favor.

2. The Pistons will boast a top-15 defensive rating

The Pistons were better defensively last season than their 20-52 overall record suggested. They had the NBA’s 19th-best defensive rating — higher than the Brooklyn Nets, Portland Trail Blazers and Dallas Mavericks, who all made the playoffs. Dwane Casey has long been regarded a strong defensive coach, and he got a young and inexperienced Pistons team to punch slightly above its weight class.

They could be even better defensively this season. Stewart showed promise as a switchable rim protector and Cunningham and Hayes have the size, length and effort to make life tough for opposing backcourts. Grant, Bey, Josh Jackson and Hamidou Diallo will give the Pistons size and athleticism along the perimeter. The defensive drop-off from Stewart to Olynyk (and on occasion, Garza) could keep them out of the top half of the NBA”s defensive ranking. But I think they have a genuine chance.

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3. Hayes will lead the Pistons in assists and steals

This one isn’t much of a stretch. Hayes was third on the roster in assists per 100 possessions with 10.1. The two players above him, Lee and Cory Joseph, likely won’t play as many minutes as Hayes. Only counting returning players, Hayes was tied for second on the roster in steals per 100 possessions (2.0) with Lee and Rodney McGruder, just behind Joseph (2.1).

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Hayes showcased strong court vision and solid defensive chops as a rookie last season. He uses his hands to create pressure and force turnovers. It may take him some time to settle in as a scorer, but his passing and defense will keep him in the rotation.

4. Grant may not score more, but he’ll be more efficient

Grant is coming off a breakout season in which he averaged a career-high 22.3 points. The Pistons believe he can reach another tier as a scorer. And he certainly can, but I don’t think it’ll be reflected in the number of points he scores next season.

After a strong start, Grant began to taper off as the season progressed and the toll of having to carry a young, lottery-bound team on offense began to set in. His efficiency slipped, and the Pistons eventually shut him down before the end of the season. Cunningham and Hayes will ease the playmaking load, and Cunningham and Saddiq Bey’s ability to score should take defensive attention off of Grant. He may not increase his scoring average much, since there could be fewer shots available. But his field goal percentage (42.9%) and 3-point percentage (35%) could both go up.

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5. Stewart will average a double-double

Like my Hayes prediction, this one isn’t much of a stretch either. Stewart averaged 13.3 points and 11.2 rebounds per 36 minutes as a rookie, and his scoring increased to 15.3 points after All-Star weekend. Stewart might be top-three in minutes played among Pistons next season, simply because he’s the best rebounder and post defender on the roster. The Pistons may have a tough time sitting him for long stretches. At least 10 points and 10 rebounds per game, as well as close to two blocks, is well within Stewart’s range.

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6. Bey will receive attention for Most Improved Player

From almost Day 1, Bey was one of the team’s best shooters last season. He knocked down 38% of his shots from outside, and likely would’ve broke the rookie record for made 3-pointers if the Pistons played a normal 82-game slate.

He’ll chuck 3s at a high rate again this season, and could get better looks playing alongside Cunningham. He will also likely play more minutes than the 27.3 he averaged last year. If he averages more than 16 points per game on efficient outside shooting, he’ll be noticed by voters.

7. Pistons won’t qualify for the play-in tournament (or playoffs)

Only one team with a top-14 defensive rating missed both the playoffs and the play-in tournament last season — the Chicago Bulls, who were 12th. But the Pistons were one of the worst offensive teams in the NBA last year, and they have much to prove on that end. Their two lead playmakers this season, Hayes and Cunningham, have 26 and zero NBA games under their belts, respectively. They will make rookie mistakes. Hayes and Stewart have to prove they can consistently make open 3-pointers. Bey has to prove he can handle a larger offensive role. Olynyk, Lyles and Joseph can all shoot and have chemistry in the second unit, but in an improved Eastern Conference, it’s tough to see the Pistons improving enough to significantly move the needle in a positive direction. Maybe the season after next.

Contact Omari Sankofa II at osankofa@freepress.com. 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. Read more on the Detroit Pistons and sign up for our Pistons newsletter.

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