Detroit Pistons’ rebuild may feel like it has stalled, but a deeper look shows small wins

Detroit Free Press

Detroit Pistons coach Dwane Casey doesn’t have a true big man, a shooting guard with a consistent shot and a second starter who has been in the NBA more than a year and a half – the veterans come off the bench.

He has a small forward who showed promise as a spot-up shooter and defender in his rookie year. The player spent this offseason working on his handle, his footwork, his pull-up jumper, his secondary playmaking, but the added parts to Saddiq Bey’s game aren’t embedded in his muscle memory yet, and it has hurt his 3-point shot.

Two steps forward. One step back.

This is how it can be with rebuilds, too.

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And how it was Wednesday night at Little Caesar’s Arena against the Washington Wizards. Even for three quarters. A bad stretch for a few minutes. A 13-point hole. A late comeback. A stirring overtime effort.

A loss.

It was the Pistons’ 10th straight.

And no matter how promising No. 1 pick Cade Cunningham has looked the last few weeks, including his effort Wednesday night when he scored eight straight in overtime, all attacking the paint, the Pistons had the top draft pick for a reason.

OK, yeah, the won the lottery. Don’t get cute.

They also finished with the second-worst record in the NBA last season and lost nine of their last 10 games. Something they’d done entering Wednesday night’s game against the Washington Wizards at Little Caesars Arena.

So why does it feel so different eight months later?

Expectation, of course.

Not so much of winning, but of fun, of some electricity, of a budding identity that was supposed to tap into the franchise’s competitive soul. And while this year’s team has pushed plenty of playoff teams lately, the youth, lack of depth and lack of shooting makes for long, hard-to-watch stretches.

[ Cade Cunningham starting to sizzle, but maintains hate for losing ]

Like on Wednesday night, when Casey rolled out reserves Frank Jackson, Hamidou Diallo, Corey Joseph, Josh Jackson and Trey Lyles to begin the fourth quarter. The bench played well in the first half and helped give the Pistons a lead at the break.

But asking this group to do it again is tough, even with Frank Jackson’s stellar shooting — he finished with 19 points. The Wizards took advantage and quickly increased their lead to nine in less than three minutes.

Casey called a timeout. He inserted Cunningham and Stewart for Joseph and Lyles. They were playing catchup from there.

The Wizards are a better team and should be a playoff team and there is nothing wrong with losing to them, even at home. The issue is development. At times, it doesn’t look like there is much of it.

Bey’s shooting dip is part of it. So are Stewart’s inconsistencies defending — and finishing — and Killian Hayes’ struggles scoring, though Hayes is shooting the ball better lately.

On this roster, Hayes isn’t going to be the primary ballhandler and playmaker, and considering that has been his role on most basketball courts he has ever played on, he has done a solid job adjusting to the off-ball guard next to Cunningham.

He still plays the best on-ball defense on the team and he can make the occasional highlight pass. Yes, he gets lost at the rim, and did again Tuesday night, using his left hand when he should’ve used his right and then did the opposite a little later.

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The uneven play is why he doesn’t always finish games, particularly when Frank Jackson is rolling, as he was against Washington — he hit a late 3 to cut the lead to two with a little over a minute left in the game.

On the one hand, it’s understandable that some want to see Hayes out there to learn. After all, the Pistons are headed for the lottery again.

On the other?

Part of rebuilding and development is getting reps down the stretch of close games. Which is to say: learning how to win.

Jackson was a better option than Hayes Wednesday. The Pistons came back in part because of his energy, along with Diallo’s, who was on the floor late instead of Bey.

You could argue that Bey needs the late-game opportunities, too, and he does, but Casey has a responsibility to try to win as well. This is how a locker room works.

Casey already proved he can lead a young team and a proper developmental program. His teams in Toronto got better most years.

This year’s roster isn’t as good or deep as it was a year ago — that’s relative, I realize. But there are some improving pieces.

Hayes is relaxing a little with his jumper. Bey has shown a deeper bag of tricks, and it’s reasonable to assume his 3-point shot will get back to its level — he shot well in college, too, not just his rookie year.

Grant continues to play well, as he did against the Wizards. He scored 28.

And then there is Cunningham, who struggled in the second half, but not in overtime. He needs to tighten his handle and add a little weight and keep learning the geometry of an NBA floor.

What he doesn’t need to learn is when his team needs him to run the offense and create shots for others and when he needs to shoot himself. His takeover down the stretch was his best few minutes of his season.

He is progressing. So is the rebuild, even if it’s in fits and starts on most nights.

Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or swindsor@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.       

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