The first half of the 2021-22 season brought adversity to the Detroit Pistons.
Their two highest-paid players, Jerami Grant and Kelly Olynyk, have been out since mid-December and mid-November, respectively.
Nine players and multiple staff members entered the NBA’s health and safety protocols.
But since the new year, the Pistons have won five of eight, matching their total number of wins during their first 33 games. Grant and Olynyk are inching closer toward returning. And all nine players who have entered protocols have now cleared them.
Friday was the Pistons’ 41st game, and they crossed the official midway point of the season with a season-best 16-point win over the Raptors.
“Going into the season with as much youth as we had, no, we didn’t expect to win only five games,” Pistons coach Dwane Casey said after practice Saturday. “I think we put ourselves in position to win a few of those first few games in the first half. I think that’s where our youthfulness and inexperience comes in to close those games out.
“I think we have grown. I don’t want to knock on wood and curse ourselves, but I think we’ve grown from that standpoint, of understanding what it takes in the possession, what it takes to close games, like the 3-point shot that Cade (Cunningham) made in the corner. Understanding that’s a backbreaker. That shot broke their back and took their spirit, and a month ago, we probably wouldn’t have completed a play like that.”
Sunday marks the start of the second half of the season, as the Pistons (10-31) enter with rare momentum against the team with the best record in the NBA, the 32-9 Suns. Here are five Pistons predictions for the back half of the season.
Killian Hayes will take at least 55 free throws
Hayes has been one of Detroit’s best passers and perimeter defenders this season. His scoring, however, has been a work in progress. He’s averaging 6.3 points in 26 minutes per game, a tick under the 6.8 he averaged last season in roughly the same amount of minutes. His usage rate is lower than last season, largely because he now shares a backcourt with Cunningham. But the reality is he doesn’t take a lot of shots, and he doesn’t make many. He’s shooting 34.3% overall this season, the worst percentage in the league among players with at least 800 total minutes played.
Among guards who have played between 800 and 1,000 minutes this season, Hayes is last in field goal percentage (34.3%) and third-last in field goal attempts (207).
There are small steps Hayes can take to improve his efficiency. One is by getting to the line more. Guards who don’t take many free throws are typically high-volume 3-point shooters. With 88 3-point attempts, Hayes isn’t that, either. He is one of 19 guards with more than 800 minutes played, and fewer than 45 free throws attempted. Sixteen have taken at least 110 3s. Thirteen have at least 160 attempts, nearly double the amount Hayes has taken. Seven players on the list are north of 200 3-point attempts, and two — Malik Beasley and Patty Mills — have attempted more than 300. Hayes, George Hill and Matisse Thybulle are the three players on the list who have yet to launch 100.
Hayes’ shooting is a work in progress. He started the season strong from outside, but has slumped since spraining his left thumb early in the season. Improving his outside touch was a focus last offseason and will certainly be one this summer. But initiating contact at the rim is something he has shown he can do. We saw it Friday, when he grabbed a rebound midway through the second quarter and kept it, drove to the hoop and drew a foul on his former teammate, Svi Mykhailiuk. This past week, it appears Hayes has grown more comfortable driving to the rim. His four remaining points against the Raptors were scored at the rim, including a clutch finish through Toronto’s defense late in the fourth quarter to help Detroit ice the game.
Fifty-five free throw attempts in 41 games isn’t a lofty goal. Hayes played 31 games through the first half of the season, and averaged exactly one free throw per game. Bumping that closer to 1.5 attempts per game is attainable.
Two Pistons will be traded
Last week’s since-voided trade for Nuggets forward Bol Bol signaled the Pistons will be sellers at the trade deadline. Rodney McGruder, a respected vet in Detroit’s front office, was flipped along with a late second-round pick so the Pistons could get a long look at a former five-star recruit who hasn’t had much NBA opportunity. McGruder is now back with the Pistons, but don’t expect them to shift their mindset as the Feb. 10 deadline approaches.
Grant is the hottest name on Detroit’s roster. The front office has been receiving calls for him, and will continue to. He’s a versatile veteran who can help any contending team in the NBA, and a glimpse at the standings reveals there are a large number of contenders this season. This is a prime opportunity for outside teams to gear up for a playoff run, and for the Pistons to maximize the value of their best asset.
The Pistons also have Josh Jackson on an expiring contract, and several other veterans on team-friendly deals. Because the Pistons’ roster is full with 15 players, they’re in position to include at least one other player in any potential Grant deals to avoid roster cuts.
One Piston will make Rising Stars Challenge
Even though Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart were named first and second-team All-Rookie last season, respectively, neither made the Rising Stars Challenge. The “Team World” vs. “Team USA” format requires 10 American-born players and 10 international players to make the game, rather than simply picking the best rookies and sophomores like in past All-Star weekends. Only four American rookies — LaMelo Ball, Anthony Edwards, Tyrese Haliburton and James Wiseman — qualified for the game last year.
It’ll be tough once again this year. Ball, Edwards and Haliburton are enjoying strong sophomore seasons and will certainly be back. Tyrese Maxey, Cole Anthony and Desmond Bane are all in the midst of breakout seasons. Bey and Stewart have been full-time starters this season, but if the rosters consist of 10 players again, it’s tough to see making the game considering how strong the 2021 rookie class has been.
My guess is Cunningham will join Evan Mobley and Scottie Barnes as the lone American-born rookies in the game this season. Cunningham has been one of the Pistons’ best players and is better than his shooting averages suggest.
Cade Cunningham will close Rookie of the Year gap (and maybe win it)
I don’t think there’s a big gap between Cunningham and Mobley, the No. 3 pick and presumptive best rookie of the first half. The Cavaliers are firmly in the playoff race and Mobley is a big reason why. He’s averaging 14.8 points, 8.1 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.7 blocks while shooting just north of 50% from the field. He’s already a monstrous defender and his shooting touch, ball-handling and vision indicate he could soon be a monstrous offensive weapon as well.
Cunningham has had a strong rookie season, averaging 15.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 1.3 steals. His shooting splits aren’t good at 39% overall and 32.1% from 3. That’s largely because he missed all of training camp and the first four games of the season with an ankle sprain, and it took time to acclimate.
During his first four games, Cunningham shot 13-for-56 (23.2%) and 4-for-28 (14.3%) from 3. Remove those games, and his scoring this season improves to 16.2 points on 40.9% overall and 35% from 3.
He has been better since Nov. 30, averaging 17.7 points on 43.5%/39.8%. Cunningham could continue to improve as the season progresses. Despite the disparity between the Pistons and Cavaliers (25-18) records, a rookie averaging nearly 18 points and six assists on efficient shooting would have a strong claim for the Rookie of the Year award.
Pistons will win 15 more games
It’s tough to see them maintaining their winning record since Jan. 1, but they have a good chance to finish with more wins than the 20 they won last season in 72 games. They have the NBA’s seventh-hardest remaining schedule, according to Tankathon.com, but recent wins over the Bucks and Jazz suggest the Pistons are competing at a higher level compared to earlier in the season.
Their remaining 41 games include two games against the Pacers, who they’ve defeated once this season, two games against the Magic, who they’ve defeated twice, and another game against the Raptors, who they’ve beaten twice this season. They also have rematches against Pelicans, Kings and Thunder, though they lost to each this season.
Going 15-26 is admittedly a stab in the dark, and other than their current burst of momentum to start 2022, there aren’t any numbers suggesting the Pistons will close the season stronger than they started it. But the team is growing more confident and has shown an improved ability to close out games — which previously cost them wins against the Thunder, Pelicans, Wizards and several other teams. Bey is playing some of the best basketball of his career, and Olynyk, who has missed 31 games with a left knee sprain, will eventually return. Winning 15 more games would put the Pistons at 25 wins for the season, which feels about right for this squad.