Houston — The Pistons won’t have a slew of nationally televised games this season, but their one time in the limelight has arrived. They’ll face the Houston Rockets and No. 2 overall pick Jalen Green on Wednesday, and the focus will be on that matchup with Cade Cunningham.
In their head-to-head matchup in Summer League, each player had some nice highlights, but the Rockets won the game handily. This will be an opportunity for the Pistons (1-8) to make their mark — in a game that actually counts for something.
The Rockets (1-9) are struggling as much as the Pistons in the early part of the season. Both teams have young rosters and the focus is on rebuilding for the future. It’s more likely that both teams will end up back in the draft lottery with top-five picks than either one making the playoffs.
This week’s mailbag starts with a look at first-round picks and whether the Pistons might have some buyer’s remorse about Cunningham, as well as questions about the rotation and players returning from injury:
►Question: If you had a chance to pick again, would it be Cade? I realize it’s (way too) early, but some of the other rooks have been balling! (Evan Mobley/Scottie Barnes, specifically) — @IlirLajcaj
►Answer: It’s still very early, and it’s important to remember that Cade Cunningham has played in just four games, while the other rookies have had a full training camp and preseason, plus the first few games of the regular season. That’s a huge difference for rookies, in just getting his feet under him and starting the season with a good rhythm. Cunningham is starting to break out of his early shooting funk and seeing some of those shots fall will be good for his confidence.
That’s not to say that Mobley hasn’t had a good start for the Cavaliers, posting 14.9 points, 8 rebounds and 2.5 assists in 11 games. Barnes, whom the Raptors surprisingly picked at No. 4, also has been good, leading all rookies in scoring at 16.6 points and adding 8.7 rebounds and 2.4 assists. The Rockets’ Jalen Green has had a bit of a slower start, but still has respectable numbers: 13.6 points and 3.1 rebounds.
This week will see Cunningham play against each of those rookies, with games at Houston on Wednesday, at Cleveland on Friday and at Toronto on Saturday.
I still believe that Cunningham fits what the Pistons need right now, with his ballhandling and ability to get his own shot. I know that there were some in the Pistons organization who really liked Mobley and he was a strong consideration for the pick, but when it all came down to it, Cunningham was the safer selection.
This is going to be a hot-button question for this season and probably longer, but it won’t be fair to try to answer it fully for at least another year or two.
►Q: I understand we need a vet or two on the team but why is Cory Joseph our backup and not Saben Lee, well at least transition to Lee? — @Johnny_Zurc
►A: That’s been a popular question among fans on social media for most of the season, and it’s not an easy answer that many of them will agree with. You pointed out the biggest issue, which is having a veteran in the rotation who can help guide the point guards, especially. The Pistons have an exciting group of ball-handlers, with Cade Cunningham, Killian Hayes and Lee.
It just makes sense to me to have Joseph in the rotation. He’s been up and down in games this season, but he has Dwane Casey’s trust, which is worth more than Lee’s potential or his production up to this point. Lee has been better this year, and it’s been clear that he’s worked on his game in the offseason. The big improvement has to come with his perimeter shooting and his decision-making with the ball.
Of course, Lee had a big debut in the G League, with 42 points, eight rebounds, eight assists and four steals with the Motor City Cruise, which opened some eyes. If he can translate that production to NBA games, there’s a chance that he could start to get more minutes, but Casey will be the first to say that it’s hard to play so many point guards in the same game without disrupting the rhythm of at least one of them.
Lee’s time is coming, but he, like the fans, will need to be patient.
►Q: What is Isaiah Livers’ status? Is he practicing? When might he see game action with the Cruise? — @malewie
►A: Livers has been working his way back from foot surgery and he’s been ramping up his return slowly. He initially had said that he’d be cleared for full-contact practice by Nov. 1, but Casey said Monday that he wasn’t sure whether Livers has reached that point yet or if he was just doing non-contact 5-on-0 work.
However the timeline works out, Livers will likely start the season with the Cruise in the G League and try to work his way into some playing time with the Pistons. It’s a little dicey there too, because there are so many wings in front of him, including Saddiq Bey, Josh Jackson, and Hamidou Diallo, so the playing time doesn’t look to be plentiful.
►Q: Any NBA team surprising you so far? Better than you thought? — @JohnRumery
►A: I don’t think I’m surprised by any team yet. It’s still only about a 10-game sample size, but I like what the Warriors are doing so far with their 9-1 start — and that’s without Klay Thompson or James Wiseman. They’ve been solid offensively, leading the league in scoring (115.1), 3-pointers (16.2), and assists (30.3).
Jordan Poole (Michigan) has been a pleasant surprise, scoring 18.2 points per game. It looks real, and it looks sustainable. The only real question mark could be how they mesh together when Thompson and Wiseman return later in the season.
Pistons at Rockets
►Tipoff: 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, Toyota Center, Houston
►Outlook: The marquee matchup is the top two picks in last year’s draft, Cade Cunningham and the Rockets’ Jalen Green. Former Piston Christian Wood (17.5 points and 11.8 rebounds) is having another good season for Houston.
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