Happy New Year’s, Detroit Pistons fans.
In 2021 they bought out Blake Griffin, traded Derrick Rose, won the lottery and drafted first overall for the first time in 50 years. Cade Cunningham could be the player who eventually brings the Pistons out of their decade-plus-long playoff slump. There’s still a lot of work to do, but the Pistons finally embraced a longer, and ideally, more sustainable path back to relevancy.
Now 2022 could be another year of meaningful progress for the organization. The Pistons will add another high lottery pick this summer and will also have significant cap space to flesh out the rest of their roster. Cunningham will enter his second NBA season, and their four 2020 draft picks will enter Year 3 . There’s a chance they take a legitimate step forward in 2022-23, if they play their cards correctly.
Things may feel bleak now. The organization is at the tail end of a COVID-19 outbreak that sidelined most of the rotation, as well as several staff members. The Pistons had lost 18 of their previous 19 games entering Saturday’s home game against the San Antonio Spurs. Jerami Grant has missed nearly a month of action with a thumb injury, and Kelly Olynyk is still out with a knee sprain.
Rebuilds are uneven. Not everything goes according to plan, and the ongoing health crisis has added more uncertainty and stress.
But there have been bright spots. Cunningham looked the part of a No. 1 pick before entering health and safety protocols. Saddiq Bey, Frank Jackson and other young players have made meaningful improvements this season.
Dwane Casey has preached the importance of focusing on the big picture this season. Losses are part of the retooling package. Casey, who missed Detroit’s last four road games due to personal reasons, also has incentive to remember that there’s more to life than basketball. He gave an insightful response when I asked him about his New Year’s Resolution last Friday.
“For these guys to grow up quick,” Casey said with a laugh. “No, just to be a good father, better father, better husband, a good citizen. Just trying to do the right thing. Because life is so precious and there’s a thin line between happiness and sorrow. The more you can give back to people, give back to your family, your friends, the more it’s going to come back to you. I’m a firm believer in that and I want to do a better job as a man to be that way, to give back to others, and most of all, my family.
“Going through my family situation gave me an awakening that hey, you’ve got to be a father first. All this basketball is going to be here when we’re gone. Your kids are going to be your kids, your friends are going to be your friends, your wife is going to be your wife. My New Year’s Resolution is to be a better man.”
Thanks to everyone who sent a question for the first mailbag of 2022.
Derrick Walton Jr. has been the best of the bunch by a wide margin. Of the seven G League players on Detroit’s roster last Wednesday, Walton was the only one who played consistent basketball against the New York Knicks. He dished a game-high nine assists and knocked down a pair of 3-pointers as well.
I don’t think any of the Pistons’ G League signees have a legitimate shot to sticking around in the NBA, based on what we saw last Sunday and Wednesday. But I think Deividas Sirvydis has the tools to do so. He’s 6-foot-8 and is knocking down 36.6% of his 7.2 3-point attempts per game with the Motor City Cruise this season. If he can put on weight, maintain a healthy 3-point percentage and add value on defense, he could find himself in an NBA rotation. Those are all big ifs, but he has the skillset to carve out a role somewhere.
The organization was overdue for a full rebuild. They have a young core featuring a potential star in Cunningham, four good rotation players in Bey, Jackson, Isaiah Stewart and Hamidou Diallo and a wild card in Killian Hayes who is strong defensively, but still finding his comfort level on offense. That’s a good starting point for a team that’s just 11 months removed from parting ways with Griffin and fully embracing their youth movement.
With a ton of cap space and another likely top-five pick coming up this offseason, the Pistons are well-positioned to make a leap next season. Will it be a big-enough leap to make the playoffs? The East is extremely deep, so I’m not ready to predict they’ll snap their playoff win drought next year. But I could certainly see them cracking the .500 mark next season.
Some regression is likely to happen. After all, Diallo scored a combined 59 points on 68.4% overall shooting in two games against the Spurs and Knicks last week. He takes a high percentage of his shots at the rim and has a very efficient style of play. But 68.4% is too high to sustain.
But I do think Diallo’s improved play is here to stay. He’s been Detroit’s most energetic player for almost a month. His perimeter defense and off-ball activity were already featured parts of his game. If he maintains his effort level, he should continue to be a key rotation player regardless of if he starts or comes off of the bench.
I don’t think Diallo’s breakout has had a significant impact on Jackson’s trade value. Diallo has become one of Detroit’s key rotation pieces this past month and is coming off of one of the best weeks of his career. But Diallo isn’t the sole reason why Jackson has fallen toward the bottom of the rotation. A large part of that is simply because Jackson hasn’t played well.
In the month of December, Jackson averaged just 14.4 minutes per game and was a healthy scratch in four games. His shooting percentages have declined from last season, as he’s making just 38.9% of his shots and 27.3% of his 3-pointers.
He’ll be a free agent this summer. How many teams are willing to give up an asset for him right now? Probably not many.
Jackson is making just $5 million and he’s on an expiring contract. If the Pistons need to include additional salary in a bigger trade, Jackson is a logical candidate. Diallo’s emergence does make it easier for the Pistons to part ways with Jackson, but they’ll need to find a market for him for it to happen. He could be moved, but I’m not sure if he’ll be the featured part of any trade he’s included in.
Jabari Smith Jr. would be my pick. The 6-10 Auburn forward has been one of college basketball’s biggest surprises this season and has emerged as a top-three lock in the 2022 NBA draft. Smith is averaging 16.2 points, 6.9 rebounds, 1.7 steals and nearly a block while shooting 42.9% from 3. There’s a lot to like about his game. He’s a sniper from outside with an unblockable shooting motion, an effective perimeter defender and has shown flashes of being able to handle the ball and make smart reads. He’s also won’t turn 19 until May 13.
Paolo Banchero is a great prospect as well, though. A walking bucket, Banchero is averaging 17.1 points on 48.7% shooting and 7.3 rebounds. He’s one of the best isolation players in college basketball while standing 6-10. His game has shades of Carmelo Anthony, and he looks like a guaranteed to be a 23-plus points per game scorer in the NBA for a long time.
The Pistons can’t go wrong either way. But Smith’s age and superior outside shooting and defense gives him the edge for now.
Contact Omari Sankofa II at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa. The Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here’s how you can gain access to our most exclusive Pistons content. Read more on the Detroit Pistons and sign up for our Pistons newsletter.