PHOENIX — Dwane Casey often preaches patience with this young Detroit Pistons roster.
On Thursday, they faced a team that was where the Pistons currently are not long ago, and saw its patience pay off.
During Devin Booker’s rookie season in 2015-16, the Phoenix Suns won 23 games. Twenty-four, 21 and 19-win seasons followed right after. He played under four head coaches, and saw the Suns add four lottery picks during that stretch.
Phoenix finally experienced a breakthrough at the end of Booker’s fifth NBA season. Under Monty Williams’ guidance, the Suns went 8-0 in the Orlando bubble in August 2020. Booker, a Grand Rapids native, continued his ascent to stardom by averaging 30.5 points and six assists during the eight-game run. Deandre Ayton, the No. 1 pick of the 2018 NBA draft, made significant strides as a rim protector. Recent first-round picks Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson further established themselves as versatile role players.
Things finally clicked last season, after the Suns acquired Chris Paul from the Oklahoma City Thunder. They won 51 games and fell to the Milwaukee Bucks in the 2021 NBA Finals — the franchise’s third championship appearance. The Suns (19-3) appear to be even more formidable this season. Their 114-103 win over the Pistons on Thursday was their 18th-straight, a franchise record.
They own the NBA’s best record. And their draft picks — Booker, Ayton, Johnson and Bridges — are all top-six on the roster in total minutes played this season.
The Suns provide a blueprint for what the Pistons are hoping to accomplish. Detroit won 20 games last season, and currently has the NBA’s worst record (4-18). But the Pistons are playing the long game, banking on their young core eventually learning how to win, and snapping the franchise’s now-13-year playoff game winless streak.
Cade Cunningham, this year’s No. 1 overall pick, has had some bright moments and flashes of stardom. The hope is that Killian Hayes, Isaiah Stewart, Saddiq Bey and Saben Lee, along with veteran Jerami Grant, can form the backbone of a roster capable of competing. They’re not there yet, but the Suns are among a handful of teams showing the Pistons that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.
“Patience is the key, and then like you said, adding the veteran pieces to the young guys that you already have after they grow up and take their butt-whoppings around the league and everything,” Casey said on Thursday. “Phoenix is a great template for a lot of us young teams. Atlanta is also a template.”
Thursday’s game highlighted the disparity in talent and experience between the two franchises, but also the level this Pistons team can reach when they play up to their potential. Detroit fell behind by 18 points at halftime, and again midway through the third quarter.
A 17-0 third-quarter Pistons run followed. Grant (34 points) and Cunningham (19 points, five assists) scored 12 points each during the quarter, and Cunningham was responsible for scoring 10 of their 17 points during the pivotal run, which cut the Suns’ lead to 80-79 with 2:20 on the clock.
Ultimately, Phoenix was too good and too hungry to keep its streak alive. Casey alluded to mistakes made by young players after the game — mistakes that cost the Pistons an upset win.
The Pistons will have avenues to improve next summer. More than $40 million in dead money will come off of the books, giving them a healthy chunk of cap space. They will add another high lottery pick to their young cast of players. And ideally, they’ll see continued improvement from Cunningham and everyone else.
There’s no guarantee these moves will pay off, and that the Pistons will find themselves making a deep playoff run soon. But for now, they understand the best remedy for their woes is time.
“Again, we’ll have a lot of resources next year, certain contracts come off the books,” Casey said. “I have all the patience in the world, and we went into this understanding that things got blown up. It doesn’t flip overnight. It takes time. Patience is very short in the NBA, but it’s something that’s necessary when you’re rebuilding. Phoenix is an excellent, excellent example of what you can have if you do it the right way.”
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