Denver — Cade Cunningham was the first big injury, missing most of training camp, then the first few games of the regular season. In November, Kelly Olynyk sustained a knee injury that kept him out for more than two months. Then, it was leading scorer Jerami Grant, who missed more than a month and had thumb surgery.
Add in a slew of COVID issues — almost all within a two-week period — and the Pistons have had their share of issues in the first half of the season. They’ve only had a handful of games with their full roster intact. Not that it would have resulted in significantly more wins, but it probably would be more than just 11.
That makes it hard to gauge much from their 11-35 record in the first part of the season.
“It is very difficult (to gauge). You can see some things, but our overall performance and overall growth as a team, I can see individual growth more than the team growth, just because it’s been so disjointed and out of rhythm,” coach Dwane Casey said Sunday. “Starting out the season with Cade missing training camp and all those games early, it’s been tough…
“Everything, all together, has been a triple-whammy, with injuries, youth, and also the COVID situation. You have a lot of different reasons to not understand who you are and what you have, but I have a pretty good feel for individuals that have grown.
Cunningham has been everything that they’ve expected in taking him No. 1 overall, and they have several players who are set up to succeed in the next couple of years, as the rebuild continues. At least for now, it’s not about wins and losses as much as it is about the eye test of figuring out who will stick around beyond this season.
In the midst of their rebuild, the Pistons are looking for glimmers of improvement from their young players as they’ve stepped into more prominent roles, in the absence of two of their best players.
Here are five things to watch in the second half of the season:
Help is on the way
Grant and Frank Jackson were recalled from the Motor City Cruise on Monday, in preparation for rejoining the team, potentially this week. Olynyk played two games after returning from his knee injury, and he could exit COVID protocols this week as well. That’s a big shot in the arm for the offense, and an overall improvement in the rotation and depth.
“It’s been the next-man-up mentality,” veteran guard Cory Joseph said. “We’re all trying to bond together and get wins. Whether that’s from the outside looking in, and how you guys gauge if we’re getting better or not, I mean, that’s kind of on people on the outside looking in.
The Pistons have missed Grant’s scoring acumen, and his ability to make baskets in situations where the shot clock was running down, or they had mismatches on defense. As Grant settles back into his spot at power forward, Saddiq Bey can move to power forward and Hamidou Diallo likely moves back to the second unit. Among the reserves, Olynyk can play with Trey Lyles in a bigger frontcourt, which should be better matched.
Jackson’s scoring has been missed, though Rodney McGruder has filled in nicely in the interim.
One unintended benefit from the injuries is that the movement has put Bey in a role as a primary scorer. He’s responded well, with 18.5 points, 5.9 rebounds and shooting 36% on 3-pointers in the 21 games since Grant’s injury. If the Pistons decide to trade Grant, they have seen Bey can handle that lead role, but more than that, it’s a step forward in his progression after an encouraging rookie season.
“(Bey’s) benefited from some of the chaos and the disjointed team that we’ve had because he’s had to step up, and we put him in that role,” Casey said. “He’s embraced it and he’s taken advantage of it.”
Add Diallo to that list. He went from being out of the rotation to becoming a productive starter after Grant’s injury. He had three straight games of 28, 31 and 34 points, and in his 21 starts, he’s posted 14.1 points and 5.9 rebounds, which would be career-high numbers for him.
“Those guys have taken advantage of the opportunity — and that’s what this league is about,” Casey said. “They did their job, so they’ve benefited from some of the negative situations we’ve been in.”
Lyles also deserves a mention as a breakout player during that injury span. He’s been playing as a smaller center, but he’s raised his level of production and has shown he can be an option as a small-ball center, if needed.
Building winning habits
In notching six wins in January, the Pistons have begun to figure out how they need to play in order to stay competitive in games for longer. Two prime examples came during the four-game western road trip, with a come-from-behind win in Sacramento, erasing a 10-point deficit in the final few minutes, and then overcoming a 16-point lead in the fourth quarter against the Nuggets.
If they’re not wins, they may not mean much, but Casey has harped on building winning habits as part of their growth.
“Internally, we feel like we’re getting better. We still obviously feel like we have steps to go and we’re taking steps in the right direction, but we still have stuff to do that we can get better at,” Joseph said. “The stuff that we’ve got to grow at, we’re just continuing to focus on that.”
The trade deadline
The Pistons have a few weeks before the deadline, and they have one of the most coveted and attainable pieces in Grant. There’s no pressure for them to make a deal at this point; they could just as easily wait until the offseason if they don’t get an offer that’s to their liking.
It’s really about finding more young players who fit the timeline of the rebuild. That was the thinking in the Bol Bol deal with the Nuggets that was rescinded. If there are any other high-upside players they like, they could make similar deals for some of their veteran players who might benefit a contending team for a playoff run.
The upcoming draft
The Pistons are on a collision course for another top-five pick. With their 11 wins, they have the second-worst record in the league — just as they did last season before they leapfrogged Houston for the top pick — and they are in line to add another top prospect to their roster.
At that spot, they have a 52.1% chance of getting a top-four pick and a 14% chance of getting the No. 1 pick, for the second straight season. They’re not going to be able to make it to the play-in tournament, so adding more talent is the most likely outcome for this season.
They’ll win more games, but unless they get on a big win streak, they’ll likely stay in the same range of potential draft picks.
Nuggets at Pistons
► Tipoff: 7 p.m. Tuesday, Little Caesars Arena, Detroit
► TV/radio: BSD/97.1 FM
► Outlook: The Pistons (11-35) had a furious fourth-quarter comeback that fell short in Sunday’s 117-111 loss in Denver. Nikola Jokic is averaging 33.5 points, 12.3 rebounds and 11 assists in his last four games for the Nuggets (24-21).