Pistons story lines: Difficult schedule, injuries and 3-point shooting

Detroit News

Detroit — Another season of NBA basketball is set to begin.

The Pistons have their season opener looming against the Orlando Magic to kick off the 2022-23 campaign, and there’s even more excitement around the team than in previous years.

Dwane Casey, who’s entering his fourth season as Pistons coach, doesn’t want the team to use their youth as an excuse not to compete, but the group should be fun to watch, thanks to their explosive duo of athletic lottery picks in Jaden Ivey and Jalen Duren. The team also has a few veterans to complement the young core, thanks to a few offseason trades by general manager Troy Weaver.

Here are five story lines to watch as the season begins Wednesday at Little Caesars Arena:

1. Setting reasonable expectations

It’s difficult to place lofty expectations on a team that won 23 games last season, so there shouldn’t be anyone thinking the Pistons will catapult to the top tier of the Eastern Conference now that they’ve added a bunch of new pieces.

However, the team should be significantly better than they were last season, which aligns with what Weaver and Casey expect for this year’s team. Before the team makes a jump to make the postseason, it might make a step toward the play-in tournament, similar to last year’s Cleveland Cavaliers.

Competing on a nightly basis will require a couple of things. Health is probably the main factor in determining how successful the Pistons will be. A roster with depth at every position gives Casey the best chance to choose his rotations and figure out how each player will contribute to the team.

The Pistons will also need a third scoring option to go alongside Cade Cunningham and Saddiq Bey, who are expected to carry most of the load. From the small sample size that the preseason offered, Jaden Ivey and Isaiah Stewart could be likely candidates. Ivey can manufacture his own shot by getting inside the paint and getting to the free-throw line, while Stewart is extending his range as teams leave him open on the perimeter.

It’s not easy to win in the NBA, especially in a loaded Eastern Conference, so Pistons fans shouldn’t expect immediate significant change, as the rebuild is still in the early stages. However, there should be noticeable growth for the Pistons.

2. Navigating a tough early schedule

The first 10 games of the Pistons’ schedule are vital in determining how the rest of the season will play out. After starting the season at Little Caesars Arena against No. 1 overall pick Paolo Banchero and the lengthy Orlando Magic, the team will hit the road for a three-game trip.

It’s a wacky road trip that has Detroit visiting the New York Knicks on Friday in the first of a back-to-back that ends with the Indiana Pacers on Saturday. The team will travel back east to Washington, D.C. to play the Wizards on Oct. 18 before returning home.

All three of those teams were on the outside of the play-in tournament last season, but jumping on a plane to play three games in five days can be a challenge for a young team.

It doesn’t get easier from there. The Wizards game is the first of a back-to-back that ends with a matchup against the Atlanta Hawks on Oct. 26. The Hawks made the playoffs last season before they were eliminated in the first round, but they’ve re-tooled their roster by adding former Spurs guard Dejounte Murray to pair with All-Star guard Trae Young. The Pistons will play the Hawks again two days later.

The Pistons’ biggest challenge to begin the season is a date with the defending-champion Golden State Warriors in the first of their third back-to-back in the first two weeks of the new NBA year. Detroit will then travel to Milwaukee the next day for two games against the Bucks.

Casey addressed the importance of starting the season on a good note.

“It’s very important, especially for a young team,” Casey said. “I sleep like a baby, but I wake up every two hours looking at our schedule. But it is what it is. We’ve got to come in and compete. Like I’ve always said, it’s not a cop-out because I’ve been in it too long on the other side with good teams.

“With young teams, it’s not about wins. It’s how we continue to grow these first few games. That’s my measuring stick, so the schedule is what it is, but we gotta come out and work to win. But, it’s not the end of the world if we don’t run off ten in a row.”

3. Establishing backcourt chemistry

Cade Cunningham and Jaden Ivey are equipped with the tools to become one of the most exciting young backcourts in the NBA. Proud Detroiter and NBA analyst Jalen Rose expects them to follow in the footsteps of the Pistons’ guard tandems of the past to become All-Stars.

Cunningham is calculated with his play, often looking to make the right decision before he passes or shoots. He often sees plays before they happen, and he can get to the free-throw line often. Ivey has shown that his athleticism will get easy shots and be an asset on both ends of the court.

Can these two fit together? That’s Weaver’s vision.

Both players are still learning to play with each other, but there were several moments in the preseason when Ivey was the main ball-handler and found Cunningham for wide-open 3-point attempts. Ivey, who might be a better passer than he was thought in the draft process, found Cunningham cutting to the basket for an open lay-up.

“I feel pretty good about us,” Cunningham said. “I’m excited to continue to grow our relationship and our chemistry. I think that we can eat a lot off each other and each other’s games and make things easier for each other.”

4. Improving the 3-point shooting

Last season, the Pistons ranked 29th in the NBA, shooting just 32.6% from the 3-point line.

It’s an area that desperately needed attention, so the Pistons traded for former Utah Jazz forward Bojan Bogdanovic and former Knicks guard Alec Burks.

Bogdanovic, a career 39% 3-point shooter, gives the Pistons the ability to stretch the floor when he’s in the game at power forward. Burks knocked down 40% of his triples last season. Once healthy, he should be able to add instant offense to the team.

Stewart is in the middle of a transition toward the perimeter and has the go-ahead to take 3-pointers, as long as they’re in the flow of the offense. Also, Killian Hayes has appeared more confident in his jump shot during the preseason, making 33% of his 3-point attempts.

With Cunningham and Ivey’s penetration, the Pistons are sure to get open looks from 3. It’s all about capitalizing on those opportunities.

5. Avoiding a slew of injuries

The annual injury bug has arrived to bite the Pistons once again.

When the team finished their preseason finale against the Grizzlies, six of their players were dealing with some sort of ailment and nine of their 15 guaranteed players missed at least one exhibition game due to injury.

The Pistons will miss Marvin Bagley III for three to four weeks due to a sprained MCL and bone bruise in his right knee. Burks has a foot injury and his status has yet to be re-evaluated, while Nerlens Noel has not participated in a live practice yet due to reconditioning/plantar fasciitis.

Isaiah Livers and Hayes missed time due to hip soreness, but both are back practicing, according to Casey. Hamidou Diallo is also back working with the rest of the team after missing the entire preseason due to a left quad strain.

Starting the year with injured players is becoming a routine for Detroit. Cunningham and Livers missed training camp and the preseason last year due to injuries. Hayes missed all but one preseason game last year due to nagging injuries, one year after a hip injury sidelined him for most of his rookie year.

It’s unfortunate to play catch-up, but the Pistons have to work with what they have.

“I don’t know how many teams in the league have everybody ready, so we gotta go with the guys that are ready to go,” Casey said, “and if they’re not, we just gotta compete and win without them until they come back. Our training staff is doing a good job of working their butts off to get them ready. We’ll just have to wait and see who’s going to be available and who’s not going to be available on Wednesday.”

mcurtis@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @MikeACurtis2

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