Beard: Pistons’ progress this season won’t be measured in victories

Detroit News

The Pistons finished their disappointing western road trip with another close, but not-so-close loss in Phoenix. Their eighth-straight defeat was another exhibit in the difference between good teams and rebuilding teams in the NBA

Of the eight losses, seven came against teams with a record of .500 or better. Each of the Pistons’ four victories has come against a team with a losing record.

That’s the mark of a team in the starting stages of a rebuild — beat the bad teams and give the good teams a run for a while.

Nobody ever said the Pistons’ reconstruction was going to be pretty. Rebuilds rarely are. As it stands, the Pistons, who have the worst record in the league, are hurtling toward another lottery pick, potentially in the top three selections, for the second straight season.

Many Pistons fans are getting acquainted with highlights of Paolo Banchero, Chet Holmgren, Jabari Smith and some of the other top prospects in the 2022 draft. It’s been that type of year, through just the first quarter of games.

This season isn’t about wins — or at least it shouldn’t be. It’s more about finding out who the potential fits are for the long term, who is on a steady track of improvement and who plays well together.

The past two drafts have been about assembling as much talent as possible and then separating the wheat from the chaff. That process will continue for a couple more years, at least.

For a template, simply look at the Suns (19-4), who are tied for the league’s best record. Phoenix drafted Devin Booker in 2015 and added Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges in ’18 to solidify their core.

More: Casey, Pistons focus on long-term development, not currently coming up short

They only won 23, 24 and 21 games, respectively, in Booker’s first three seasons and after adding Ayton and Bridges, they won just 19 games in 2019. The Suns had to revamp their roster and pivoted from draft picks, including Dragan Bender and current Piston Josh Jackson.

There are going to be hits and misses in the draft. The important piece is knowing when to strike when there’s an opportunity.

That’s what the Suns did after an encouraging finish in the NBA bubble, where they reached 34-39 in 2020. Seizing on the momentum and timing of their young core, they fleeced the Oklahoma City Thunder and acquired veteran Chris Paul as the finishing piece to their rebuild.

All the moves paid off, with a trip to the NBA Finals last season, along with another good start to this season. The Suns are built to make a few more deep runs in a stacked Western Conference field, after being an NBA doormat for a few years.

That’s the upshot for the Pistons.

They have some pieces with Cade Cunningham, the No. 1 overall pick, along with Saddiq Bey, Isaiah Stewart and Killian Hayes as their core, with some other complementary building blocks to evaluate. They’ll need more pieces and more time.

And it won’t be pretty — at least not right now.

Schedule softens

This week could provide something of a reprieve for the Pistons, with games against the teams with losing records: home against the Thunder (6-16) on Monday and at the New Orleans Pelicans (7-18) on Friday.

Even through their struggles, the Pistons can hold their heads high with a couple of wins and some strong showings against teams with comparable records. Cunningham has been improving over the last couple of weeks, as has Hayes. Bey has been up and down in his shooting and scoring, but they could find some good footing against other struggling teams, too.

It’s not so much that the Pistons are going to turn things around this season and put together enough wins to contend for a play-in spot. The key will be forging some consistency on the offensive end and getting off to better starts in the first and third quarters.

On guard

Coach Dwane Casey said Sunday that he’s entrusting Cunningham with ball-handling responsibilities more because the rookie is adjusting to the speed of the NBA and the length of defenders. Cunningham leads the team in assists (4.6), but also leads in turnovers (3.7), and as he gets more acclimated to becoming the offensive hub, those numbers will move accordingly.

That seems to be the future trajectory of the rebuild, with Hayes playing off the ball more and possibly playing some more minutes in the middle quarters separate from Cunningham, to provide more ballhandling opportunities when needed.

It’s important to remember Hayes isn’t specifically a point guard; he’s just a guard. His strength is facilitating, but this season has shown that he can be a good shooter off the ball and a good set-up man with either the starters or the second unit. He’s still developing, having just surpassed the 41-game mark after an injury-riddled start to his career.

The Pistons are still in the evaluation phase, and trying to take too much from what the Pistons are doing — at least right now — is foolhardy.

Thunder at Pistons

Tipoff: 7 p.m. Monday, Little Caesars Arena, Detroit

TV/radio: BSD, NBATV/97.1

Outlook: The Pistons (4-18) have lost their last eight games overall, including a miserable five-game western road trip. The Thunder (6-16) have lost eight of their last 10 games, including a 73-point shellacking at Memphis on Thursday.

Twitter: @detnewsRodBeard

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