The dog days of the season have arrived for the rebuilding Detroit Pistons.
The team enjoyed its weekend off because of the All-Star break, and Cade Cunningham, Isaiah Stewart and Saddiq Bey delivered noteworthy performances during the Rising Stars Challenge.
The Pistons (13-45) have the league’s second-worst record, and Dwane Casey’s staff will focus on evaluating its young group of players until the season concludes on April 10. The team had its first post-break practice on Wednesday, and Casey said the team is still trying to cut down on sloppy passes and improve its defensive technique.
“Getting locked in, getting back in the fold and back in the concentration,” Casey said. “I thought we had a good practice at the beginning, kinda faded as we went. Just getting everybody locked in and getting ready to go back because everybody should’ve had fun, should’ve relaxed a little bit. But now it’s time to get back to work and finish these last 26, 25 games.
“We still have a lot to work on, to improve on, and that’s what we’re doing. Doing a lot of fundamental stuff, a lot of individual stuff to help guys to finish out the season.”
Here’s what else the Pistons will focus on accomplishing during its final 24 games:
Carry momentum from Celtics win forward
The Pistons’ final game before All-Star weekend was one of their best performances of the season. They traveled to Boston to take on a red-hot Celtics team that had won nine straight games and left with a 112-111 victory that snapped an eight-game losing streak.
It isn’t coincidental that Cade Cunningham (20 points and eight rebounds), Jerami Grant (a team-high 24 points) and Kelly Olynyk (led all bench scorers) had key performances in the victory. Due to injuries and trips to the NBA’s health and safety protocols, the trio has played just nine games together this season, and shared the court together for five games.
The two highest-played players on the roster have had little time to develop chemistry with the No. 1 pick. But Olynyk played a strong game against the Celtics, uplifting the second unit with 15 points and six rebounds in 17 minutes. And Cunningham and Grant both made clutch plays down the stretch.
“I thought that was the best Kelly had played since the Sacramento and Utah games because of all the stuff he’d been through,” Casey said. “I was really happy to see that, especially back in Boston. I thought that was one of Jerami’s better games of making sure he handled the ball. When they came to help, he kicked it out, made the right decisions. And when he had to go score and get a bucket, he did that.
“A lot of those things all come together at one point, but like you said, it centers around our veteran play, our veteran players whether it’s Cory (Joseph), Jerami, Kelly, in that situation.”
It remains to be seen if Grant and Olynyk will play every game to close the season out, as the Pistons shut their veterans down at the end of last season and opened more minutes for their young players. Olynyk has appeared in 21 games this year, and Grant has played 33. But the Pistons are currently only awaiting the return of Frank Jackson, who has missed two consecutive games with a back injury.
The coaching staff hasn’t had a healthy roster all season. Now that the Pistons nearly have a clean bill of health, it gives the staff a chance to tinker and see what the team looks like at full power.
“Just to have the entire team healthy is something that we pray for and that we want,” Saddiq Bey said. “When everybody is healthy and you add continuity and flow, I think we’re a very good team and it showed in the last game, and we were still missing Frank. It was good to see everybody on the same page and take what was given to us and just focus on the defensive end. I think that was good for us.”
Get Marvin Bagley III up to speed
Bagley, who arrived from the Sacramento Kings a couple of hours ahead of the Feb. 10 trade deadline, played two games with the Pistons before All-Star break. He so far has produced mixed results. He made impactful plays as an athletic near-7 footer, but only had a cursory understanding of the playbook. Casey acknowledged after Bagley’s debut against the Washington Wizards last week that he mistakenly called a play that Bagley wasn’t yet familiar with.
The Pistons assigned Bagley homework over the weekend, giving him a video playbook to acclimate himself with Detroit’s terminology and actions. Bagley will be a featured part of the rotation during the final 24 games, and getting him up to speed has been a priority for the coaching staff.
“That’s the biggest difference, terminology,” Casey said. “Probably the same actions he had at Sacramento but different terminology. That split second, you gotta recognize it. We’re adding more things to his plate from that standpoint. He’s a smart, young man, sharp kid. Really like what he brings to the table. His length, playing above the rim. That was his charge going into the break and it’s going to be that these last 25, 26 games.”
Get an extended look at Isaiah Livers, Chris Smith
Luka Garza, Saben Lee and Jamorko Pickett have all thrived in starting roles with the Cruise, and Lee and Garza have each logged at least 340 minutes with the Pistons. Pickett has appeared in six games, logging mostly garbage time minutes.
But we haven’t seen much of Isaiah Livers and Chris Smith, who were both still recovering from injuries when they signed with the Pistons last summer. Livers, the 2021 42nd overall pick, suffered a foot injury with Michigan during the Big Ten Tournament last March. Smith, who signed a two-way contract after going undrafted, tore his ACL while at UCLA on New Year’s Eve in 2020.
Livers made his Pistons debut against the Pacers on Dec. 16, but only logged 4 minutes and 41 seconds. He hasn’t played for the Pistons since and has only played four games with the Cruise due to foot soreness. Smith made his G League debut Jan. 16 and has since appeared in 13 games with the Cruise, but has yet to play a game with the Pistons.
Both players could be featured during the Pistons’ home stretch, Casey said.
“He’s one guy who hasn’t really got a true opportunity from the G League group,” Casey said of Livers. “I think Pickett has and definitely Saben and Garza has been in, but Livers is a guy that we want to see and evaluate, see where he fits in, how he fits. He definitely has a skill that we need, his 3-point shooting and his basketball IQ. We definitely want to see what he brings to the table on the varsity level.”