Cade Cunningham is accustomed to winning.
As a high school senior, he was the best player on a stacked Montverde Academy (Florida) team that won all 25 of its games. As a college freshman last year, he led Oklahoma State to a 21-9 record — the team’s best winning percentage since 2013 — and to the school’s first NCAA tournament appearance in four years. He was named Big 12 Player of the Year and Big 12 Freshman of the Year, and was a consensus first-team All-American.
In the NBA, success is harder to come by. Cunningham is in the midst of the best stretch of his young career, and is establishing himself as the Detroit Pistons‘ best player in his 18 games. Despite his efforts, the Pistons are not winning.
Cunningham played his best game of the season Monday at Little Caesars Arena during what was arguably the Pistons’ worst loss of the season, 114-103 to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
They led the lowly Thunder by 18 points in the first half, but were outscored 42-22 in the fourth quarter. The Thunder (7-16) shot an astounding 17-for-19 (89.5%) in the final period, and closed the game with a dominant 23-6 run.
Losing a lot early is the typical life of a No. 1 draft pick in the NBA. The first pick of the 2020 draft, Anthony Edwards, won 23 games last season (equivalent to 26 wins during an 82-game season) with the Minnesota Timberwolves. Zion Williamson won 30 games with the New Orleans Pelicans in 2019-20 (equivalent to 34 wins). Deandre Ayton won 19 games with the Phoenix Suns in 2018-19.
Just past the quarter mark of the season, the Pistons (4-19) have the NBA’s worst record.
Cunningham continued his offensive hot streak vs. OKC, scoring a career-high 28 points (11-for-24 overall, 6-for-11 from 3), grabbing 11 rebounds and dishing five assists opposite six turnovers. He didn’t have a perfect night, but played well enough for the Pistons to win.
They unraveled against a young, but more-experienced Thunder team desperate for a win after suffering a historic 73-point loss. Oklahoma City saw star guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who missed the previous game, score a game-high 30 points and dish 13 assists to end an eight-game skid.
The Pistons have now lost nine straight games. They’re learning how to maintain their spirit as losses pile up, and Cunningham is learning too.
“I think the most important thing is to keep that hate of losing,” Cunningham said postgame. “You can’t get used to it. I feel like that’s one thing that, I’m not going to let losing some games allow me to change my mindset on how much I hate losing. Just that feeling of winning, I feel like we need to go back to thinking more simply and just the fact that it’s a game of basketball. It’s us versus them. We have to score more points than them, at the end of the day. You can’t do that for three quarters and give up in the fourth quarter and win a game. Especially in the NBA, you have to do it for all four. That’s our next step.”
After a slow, injury marred start to the season, Cunningham is hitting his stride. In his past three games, he’s averaging 24.3 points, 6.7 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.3 blocks and 1.3 steals, shooting 55.8% overall and 60.9% from 3 (14-for-23).
He’s making an impact off the court as well. Cunningham was praised for his leadership both in high school and college, and he has shown it with the Pistons. He’s constantly in his teammates’ ears during timeouts, reviewing previous plays and giving words of affirmation. During interviews, he says the right things. He tried to protect Isaiah Stewart during an infamous tirade in November. He takes ownership after losses, and credits his teammates after wins.
“I feel like my voice is heard in the locker room,” Cunningham said. “I think I have a respected voice in the locker room. That hasn’t been a problem for me. I feel like we have a good group of guys. We have a bunch of guys that like each other, want to win for each other. It’s about us putting that into action.”
WHAT I LIKE AND DON’T LIKE: Debating what we’ve seen from the Pistons so far this season
The Pistons have learned tough lessons through the early portion of the season. Twelve of their 19 losses have been by double digits, and five have come by 20 points or more. Four of their top-seven players in minutes played have fewer than two seasons of NBA experience, and a fifth player in that group, Frank Jackson, was on a two-way contract last season.
Young teams typically lose a lot of games, but the nature of the losses this season have been worse than last season’s, which saw the Pistons play better than their 20-52 record suggested. They already have more 20-plus point losses this year than the four they tallied last year, and they have 59 games left to play.
Talking about executing better is important, Cunningham said. They have to learn how to actually do it.
“We’ve lost 19 games,” Cunningham said. “There’s been plenty of verbal guys telling each other ‘let’s do it this time,’ but eventually we have to put it into action. I think that’s the next step for us.”