Detroit Pistons are better on paper, but will go only where Cade Cunningham takes them

Detroit Free Press

The Detroit Pistons have more talent than they did a season ago. By eye and by metric, this is indisputable.

They are quicker, more athletic and should be better shooters.

“We have a full complement of players,” Troy Weaver, the team’s general manager, said at Monday’s media day from Little Caesars Arena.

What does that mean?

“We can go compete every night now,” he said.

They couldn’t the past two seasons. The talent wasn’t there. Now, it is.

This isn’t to say the Pistons should be a top-6 seed in the deep and daunting Eastern Conference, though chasing a play-in spot is a fair and reasonable goal. As Weaver said, a team must “compete” before it can “contend,” and he isn’t interested in watching a team try to be something it is not.

Weaver extended Marvin Bagley, acquired Alec Burks and traded for Bojan Bogdanovic to give his young core more stability and, frankly, more firepower. And while the growth of Saddiq Bey, Isaiah Stewart, Killian Hayes, Isaiah Livers and Jaden Ivey are critical to this season, the team will go as Cade Cunningham goes.

This is his team. This is his time.

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No star player wins without talent around them. But no team wins big without a singular star.

The Pistons pulled it off a generation ago, true. Yet it hasn’t been done since. And so, as the former No. 1 overall pick begins his second season, he will start to reveal who he might become in this league.

When asked what he expected from Cunningham this season, Weaver said he wants to see more leadership and greater efficiency.

“He’s demonstrated that he can be a big-time player in spots,” Weaver said. “We need him to be consistent. Got to be really good before he can be great, and we don’t want him skipping steps to be great.”

If he’s really good this season, he will push this team to plenty of competitive nights this winter. Already, he has shown an ability to make shots late in games and make plays late in games.

The consistency needs to come before then, in turnover rate and in shooting percentage, in decision making and in defense. As Weaver mentioned, he showed moments of greatness as a rookie. His sophomore season should be about showing more of them.

Cunningham’s shooting percentage last season wasn’t helped by a horrendous start, in part because he missed most of training camp with an ankle injury. He is surely better than a 31% shooter from deep.

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If he raises that, he’ll raise his overall percentage, too, which was only 41%. That number should also be helped as Cunningham improves his finishing around the rim.

To do that, he added nearly 15 pounds of muscle this offseason, changing his diet and eating habits, and essentially living in the weight room. He said he can feel the difference from last spring, and that he’s already noticed he can get to his spots easier.

Along with adding strength, Cunningham needed to tighten up his handle. As a high-usage offensive instigator, he can’t turn the ball over as he did a year ago.

Those turnovers sometimes came because he was loose with the ball, and sometimes because he got stuck in untenable spots on the floor − often because he was adjusting to the speed of the game. The space he had in college was no longer there.

Still, by the end of the season, Cunningham was manipulating defenses and finding space in ways he hadn’t in the meat of the season. He adapted. Now he’s ready to adapt some more.

“I knew it was going to be a lot,” he said of his first go-round in the NBA, “but going through it and experiencing it kept me humble because it’s a tough grind. Going into the offseason, I knew I would need to prepare my body for it and prepare my mind.”

Weaver and head coach Dwane Casey emphasized that while they expect the team to compete at a higher level this season, the team is still in a growth mode, that player development is still central to the mission.


“I want guys to understand being young is not an excuse now,” said Casey. “We need to be ready to take that next step.”

That starts with Cunningham. Which is why he spent the summer leading group texts and initiating informal workouts and gatherings with his teammates. Why he changed the way he eats. Why he transformed his body to withstand the physicality he will continue to see as the leading man of the Pistons’ project.

“I feel great,” said Cunningham.

That’s the first step. The next step is taking that feeling to the court, and then taking the franchise with him.

Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.

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