Miami — The Pistons had avoided the spreading COVID issues that had decimated most of rosters around the NBA. Until this week.
With Cade Cunningham going into COVID health and safety protocols on Wednesday and then Killian Hayes, Isaiah Stewart, Saben Lee and Rodney McGruder joining him on the list just hours before the Thursday’s tipoff against the Heat, the Pistons were in scramble mode.
Down five players, plus the injured Jerami Grant and Kelly Olynyk, they cobbled together a revamped lineup, with only nine players available — and they gave the Heat a good run, until some late 3-pointers pushed the Heat to a 115-112 victory.
The Pistons can regroup and add a few more players to the roster on 10-day contracts through the NBA’s hardship exception. Their next scheduled game at San Antonio on Sunday.
A tough season with myriad injuries got tougher with the COVID issues, and this week’s mailbag looks at the some of the issues facing the team:
►Question: Everyone talks about the Pistons trading for a big man (4 or 5) but do you really think that is likely knowing the top 3 players in the draft are big guys? – @zachwillis125
►Answer: Anything is possible. But possible doesn’t mean likely. The Pistons have struggled with their rebounding since Kelly Olynyk’s knee injury early in November, and they’ve tried to make do with Trey Lyles in an expanded role as a backup center. I didn’t think that they’d push the panic button and move for a trade right after that — and they didn’t.
The Pistons have played the waiting game on Olynyk’s return, but having Isaiah Stewart in the COVID protocols doesn’t help their situation either. Stewart has been holding his own as the starting center, but they miss Olynyk’s playmaking ability with the second unit, and second big man with him playing alongside Lyles.
The problem with trying to trade for a center this year is that they presumably would have to give up an asset, and it’s not a pressing need if Olynyk is healthy. If there’s somehow a setback, they might rethink the possibilities here, but I don’t think so. For the long term, I would think they’re looking at the big men in the draft and figuring that they could be in position to get one of them if they maintain their lottery luck.
►Q: Is there a reason why it seems like Cade Cunningham is always passing and not being aggressive on the offensive end? – @Johnny_Zurc
A: Interesting question. Statistically, Cunningham has been getting his shots up. He’s had double-digit field-goal attempts in 18 of his last 19 games and he’s averaging 15.2 attempts per game in that span. The one outlier in that span is his four attempts in Sunday’s win over the Heat.
Coach Dwane Casey said in that game, the Heat were trapping Cunningham, and he found the right passes to get out of those traps. In a bigger sense, it feels like Cunningham is trying to find a good fit within the offense and not simply hunting for his shots. I’ve noticed that he’s been facilitating a bit more, but that’s a good thing, considering that was one of his best skills coming out of the draft.
It also seems that Cunningham realizes when his shot isn’t falling, and he makes a concerted effort to not try to force anything. He has a good feel for the game and when to set up his teammates as well.
►Q: With Cade Cunningham, Kelly Olynyk, and Jerami Grant out now, who are going to be the main scorers and starting lineups?
►A: Well, add a few more names to that list now too. From the past few games since Grant’s injury, Saddiq Bey has emerged as a go-to scorer. Hamidou Diallo also has picked up his production, along with Cory Joseph and Trey Lyles, who had a career-high 28 points on Thursday.
It’s going to be scoring by committee, because there isn’t a top-tier scorer remaining on the roster. But there are many more who are capable of having a big-time game here or there. Coaches don’t want any one player going rogue and trying to make up for all of the points himself, and that’s what Casey and acting coach Rex Kalamian have voiced.
The Pistons shot much better against the Heat, and they attributed it to playing more freely, which is something they should continue.
►Q: Any update on Kelly Olynyk? – @Ant15451
►A: Thursday marked the six-week mark since Kelly Olynyk suffered his knee injury, and that’s the timeline that the team set for him to be re-examined. There’s been no update so far, but one should be coming in the next week or so.
Olynyk has been rehabbing and doing some light shooting work at the Pistons’ practice facility, and there haven’t seemed to be any setbacks. One would think that if the knee is healed and he’s able to return, that he would need at least a couple of full-contact practices or possibly some games with the Motor City Cruise before he sees any game action with the Pistons. The COVID issues could factor into a quicker return as well.