What I like and dislike about Detroit Pistons one-third through NBA season

Detroit Free Press

The Detroit Pistons played their 27th game Wednesday, roughly a third of the games they’ll play this season.

At 7-20 overall, second-worst in the NBA, the Pistons appear headed toward their fourth straight NBA draft lottery finish. But it has been a season of growth as well, as the team has won four of its past nine games during the past three weeks, and has survived without Cade Cunningham, who could be facing season-ending stress fracture surgery for his left shin.

Here are five things I like and three things I don’t like at the one-third mark.

Jaden Ivey, Jalen Duren contributing immediately

The Pistons’ rookie duo has performed as advertised. Their athleticism has provided the offense new dimensions. Jalen Duren’s leaping ability and wide catch radius generate easy opportunities at the rim. Jaden Ivey has repeatedly manufactured transition opportunities for himself and his teammates by turning on the jets. He’s not only fast, but gets to his top speed quickly, posing a lot of problems for opponents.

There was little question that Ivey, the fifth overall pick of the 2022 draft, would immediately have a role. It was less certain for Duren, who appeared to have three players — Isaiah Stewart, Marvin Bagley III and Nerlens Noel — ahead of him in the rotation before training camp. But injuries to Bagley and Noel paved a path for Duren before opening night, and he has continued to play key minutes off the bench as Bagley and Noel have returned to the lineup. He’s already one of the best offensive rebounders in the league, and the Pistons can afford to be patient as he adjusts to the speed and physicality of NBA defenses.

Ivey started the season strong, but his efficiency has plummeted since Cade Cunningham went down with a shin injury. Through Detroit’s first 12 games, Ivey averaged 15.4 points, 5.4 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.5 steals and 2.2 turnovers while shooting 44.3% overall and 32% from 3. In the 12 games since Cunningham’s injury, Ivey has averaged 15.6 points, 4.3 assists, 3.9 rebounds, 0.8 steals and 3.2 turnovers while shooting 38.3% overall and 30.5% from 3. His accuracy at the rim was a strength early in the season, but he has shot 54% at the rim without Cunningham — the 28th percentile among combo guards in that span, according to Cleaning The Glass. With Cunningham, he shot 65% at the rim.

It could be a combination of bad attempts and smarter defenses anticipating his drives, but the bottom line is Ivey isn’t yet a go-to option for the Pistons. That’s not an uncommon problem for rookies; the silver lining is his free throws per game have gone up, averaging 5.2 attempts (up from 3.6) and making 72.6% of them since Cunningham’s injury.

Bojan Bogdanovic’s elite efficiency

The Pistons knew they were getting one of the best offensive forwards in the NBA when they traded for Bojan Bogdanovic in September. But even by his high standards, Bogdanovic has been fantastic.

After his 31-point outburst during the Pistons’ blowout win over the Heat on Tuesday, he averaged 21 points on 51.9% overall shooting, 44.1% shooting from 3 and 87.7% shooting at the line. Only four players averaged at least 20 points on 49% overall shooting and 40% shooting from 3 at the time — Bogdanovic, Stephen Curry, Donovan Mitchell and Lauri Markkanen. Bogdanovic’s points per game, field goal percentage and 3-point percentage are all career-highs.

The Pistons signed Bogdanovic, who turns 34 in April, to a two-year contract extension at Halloween. The move is paying off thus far.

Alec Burks lifting second unit

Bogdanovic and Alec Burks are showing why the Pistons have prioritized having talented veterans to help guide a young roster. Burks immediately established himself as a go-to option off of the bench after making his season debut in mid-November, and is averaging 14.2 points while shooting 42.9% overall and 38.6% from 3.

Detroit’s bench play has improved dramatically since Burks returned from left navicular fracture surgery. Prior to his return, the second unit was 23rd in the NBA averaging 41.8 points per 100 possessions, on a league-worst 44.8 true shooting percentage. Since Burks’ season debut Nov. 11, the bench is averaging 62.5 points per 100 possessions — second in the NBA — with a true shooting percentage of 57.8 — ninth in the NBA.

Isaiah Stewart’s emerging 3-ball

After a slow start, Stewart has become one of Detroit’s most reliable outside shooters. He only made four of his first 22 attempts through the Pistons’ first five games. Since then, he has made 25 of 58 attempts — 43.1%. Since Oct. 27, he’s Detroit’s leading shooter by percentage and seventh on the roster in total attempts.

FROM THE SUMMER:Why Isaiah Stewart holds key to unlocking the Pistons’ offense

Stewart’s 3-point percentage has climbed to a respectable 36.3% this season. Defenses are starting to close out when he shoots, which opens up even more offensive opportunity for the third-year big man. We’ve seen flashes of him attacking close-outs with surprisingly good footwork, and it could become a featured part of his game as he grows more comfortable with his new role. He has been one of the most improved players on the roster.

Killian Hayes, comfortable and contributing

Since Nov. 9, Killian Hayes is averaging 12.1 points, 6.3 assists and 1.4 steals while shooting 43.4% overall and 38.7% from 3. For nearly a month, Hayes has largely resembled a version of the player the Pistons projected as the seventh overall pick in the 2020 draft. His outside shot, once a weakness, has become a strength. His midrange shot has been reliable. And he has improved his efficiency while maintaining his status as the best passer and perimeter defender on the roster.

Hayes’ slow start, which saw him shoot 20% overall and 16.7% from 3 during Detroit’s first 11 games, is becoming a distant memory. He has become a reliable all-around role player and has stepped up since Cunningham’s injury.

“Guys are going to come at their own pace,” Pistons coach Dwane Casey said of Hayes before the loss to the Grizzlies on Sunday. “That’s why you have to have patience. I think he’s gotten enough on his resume that’s distinguishing he’s taking steps.”

More:Killian Hayes’ scoring surge for Detroit Pistons: What it means and why it matters

Saddiq Bey’s declining 3-ball

For the second straight season, Saddiq Bey is struggling to shoot though Detroit’s first 30 games. After Tuesday’s win over the Heat, he averaged 14.5 points on 40.4% overall shooting and a career-low 27% shooting from 3. He’s having his best season as an inside-the-arc scorer, but his overall game hasn’t progressed as much as one would hope in his third season.

Bey has been moved to the bench, where his scoring could make him a great fit for a unit that could use another go-to option alongside Burks. Bey chipped in 24 points against Memphis on Sunday and 14 against the Heat, but only hit two of his nine 3-point attempts in both games. He could eventually move back to the starting lineup, but the coaching staff is currently prioritizing the two-big lineup of Stewart and Marvin Bagley III and wants to see if Bey can thrive off of the bench first.

Wednesday’s loss to the Pelicans was a step in the right direction, as he scored 25 points and knocked down a season-high 5 of 10 3-pointers.

“I don’t look at him as a second unit guy, I look at him like a starter,” Casey said on Sunday. “That’s the only question we have as a staff, do we start Saddiq and keep going back-and-forth, and it’s not fair to him to do that because right now is what we were wanting to do before Isaiah got hurt. We’re still trying to make that decision. A lot of it is going to come on matchups.”

Defense is terrible

Tuesday was only the second time this season the Pistons held an opponent below 100 points. The Grizzlies and New York Knicks both cracked the 100-point threshold by the end of the third quarter in the past 10 days, and that has been closer to the norm for Detroit.

Through Thursday, the Pistons had the NBA’s second-worst defensive rating at 116.8. There are a multitude of reasons why, but the roster just isn’t constructed to be very good defensively. Stewart is the only rotation big man who is a plus defender. Bagley lacks the instincts, though the effort has been there recently, and Duren is a 19-year-old rookie who needs more reps.

Hayes is the only high-level perimeter defender. Isaiah Livers is a good team defender. Beyond that, most of the rest of the roster has just been bad. The Pistons have been less switch-happy than last season, but there’s only so much Casey can do schematically when coaching a young roster that lacks the personnel and execution to perform well on that end of the floor every night. Barring roster changes, the best thing the Pistons can do to get better is give their young players opportunities to improve.

Cade Cunningham’s injury robs season of stakes

Despite losing their franchise player to injury for an extended period of time, the Pistons have actually improved compared to their first 12 games this season. They’ve recently won on the road against the Heat, Utah Jazz and Denver Nuggets. Their win over Miami on Tuesday was their seventh this season. Last year, they didn’t win their seventh game until Jan. 9.

But Cunningham’s shin injury, which could lead to season-ending surgery, has hung over the season like a dark cloud. He was expected to make a sophomore leap after spending the offseason adding muscle and weight. His fit alongside Ivey and ability to step into a true leading role were dominant storylines during training camp.

The Pistons’ rebuild will be determined by Cunningham’s trajectory. A play-in tournament bid was unlikely regardless of Cunningham’s injury status, but his absence lowers the team’s ceiling and delays his development. If he has already played his final game this season, those questions will be put on hold until next season.

Contact Omari Sankofa II at osankofa@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa.

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