Cade Cunningham’s surgery, shutdown for season leaves Detroit Pistons with 3 big questions

Detroit Free Press

The Detroit Pistons projected optimism at media day — and they had good reason to. Beyond their impressive 2022 draft and roster-improving trades, the biggest reason for optimism was the continued development of their No. 1 wearing No. 2: Cade Cunningham.

The 6-foot-6 point guard finished third in Rookie of the Year voting (and arguably had the production to finish first). No other rookie had to carry as big a load, both on the floor and as a leader off of it. Over the offseason, Cunningham hit the weight room and added muscle. He was drafted to be a franchise savior. Expectations from the fanbase were accordingly high, and general manager Troy Weaver declared the Pistons finally had the talent necessary to compete every night.

We likely won’t see that version of the Pistons this season. Cunningham opted Monday for season-ending surgery on his left shin to repair a stress fracture, a league source confirmed to the Free Press. The decision wasn’t exactly a surprise, as it was the most likely outcome and give him the best chance of putting his frequent issues with shin soreness behind him for good. The surgery usually has a four-to-six month recovery time, which would position Cunningham to return to full health during the offseason. He’ll end his sophomore season with just 12 games played, averaging 19.9 points, 6.2 rebounds and six assists a game.

PISTONS MAILBAG:What does Killian Hayes’ breakout mean for the future?

The good news for the Pistons is that despite Cunningham’s injury, all of their long-term goals remain ahead of them. They’ll have money to spend in free agency, another year of growth from their young players and, perhaps most importantly, a lottery pick in a draft that’s transformational at the top. It’s a good year to be bad, thanks to projected top picks Victor Wembanyama and Scoot Henderson. The organization remains confident that the team can make a leap next season, with a healthy Cunningham back and ready to lead the way.

But this season, regardless of the win-loss record — the Pistons are 7-22, worst in the NBA — was supposed to give the front office a lot of valuable information on where the “restoring,” to use Weaver’s term, stands. Some questions have been answered, or will be over the rest of the season, but Cunningham was a significant piece. In the short term, Cunningham’s absence has lowered this season’s stakes, and certainly for many fans, interest as well.

Here are three important questions that will go unanswered until next season.

How does Cunningham fit with the other guards?

If there’s a silver lining in Cunningham’s absence thus far, it’s that Killian Hayes has taken full advantage of the opportunity. Over his past 16 games, he has averaged 11 points, 6.6 assists and 1.3 steals a game while hitting 39% of his 3.7 3-point attempts per game. Hayes’ emergence as a credible outside threat, as well as his suddenly consistent midrange jumper, has changed the trajectory of his career. He has gone from a reluctant shot-taker to a willing, if not eager, shooter in the span of a month.

Jaden Ivey has hit a rookie wall, averaging 15.2 points while shooting 37.5% overall and 28.6% from 3 during his last 14 games. Last summer’s No. 5 overall pick has had to carry a heavier load since Cunningham’s injury. Teams are aware of his speed and preference to get to the rim and have devised defensive tactics to get him out of his comfort zone.

Detroit was an ideal landing spot for Ivey, who was a dangerous scorer at Purdue but not a consistently good shooter or passer. Cunningham was supposed to take pressure off of Ivey as a playmaker and allow him to play more to his strengths. Through Detroit’s first 12 games, Ivey averaged 15.4 points on 44.3% shooting. He’ll have to adapt to NBA coverages and being a focal point.

Can a healthy Pistons team compete in the Eastern Conference?

Even with Cunningham, the playoffs appeared to be a longshot for Detroit this season. They were just one of three teams in the Eastern Conference (the others: the Orlando Magic and Indiana Pacers) without a previous All-Star on their roster. Their postseason hopes rested on several keys — their improved roster depth raising the team’s floor and helping them withstand the usual bout of injuries, their young core taking a step forward, Bojan Bogdanovic giving the team a needed primary option and Cunningham making the leap from budding star to superstar.

The Pistons have gotten the first three so far. Alec Burks, Kevin Knox, Saddiq Bey and others have turned Detroit’s bench unit into one of the NBA’s most productive. Hayes is playing his best basketball, Isaiah Stewart has become one of the team’s most efficient outside shooters and Bey has rounded out his offensive game, averaging career-bests in 2-point percentage (49.4%), free throw attempts (4.3) and makes (3.8) and free throw percentage (87.9%). Bogdanovic is having his most efficient offensive season.

But Cunningham’s injury firmly caps their ceiling. This is Detroit’s deepest team in several years, but there’s still a talent gap between the Pistons and most of the rest of the NBA. The Pacers, who have an emerging superstar in Tyrese Haliburton and are getting a Rookie of the Year-worthy season from Bennedict Mathurin and a Most Improved Player-worthy season from Myles Turner, are having the season the Pistons could’ve had.

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

Is Cunningham a franchise player?

Despite his encouraging rookie season, Cunningham still had plenty of room to grow. He averaged 17.4 points, 5.6 rebounds and 5.5 assists last year, but his shooting efficiency (41.6% overall, 31.4% from 3) was well below what you’d want from a primary offensive option.

Cunningham still has his best basketball ahead of him, with injuries hampering each of his first two seasons. Last season, an ankle injury caused him to miss training camp, preseason and most of the first two weeks of the regular season, resulting in a slow start. He got better as it progressed. But he’ll have to eventually prove that he can handle more of the scoring load. If he can’t, it means the franchise will have to find someone who can.

This season could’ve been an ideal environment for Cunningham to thrive in, with a secondary option in Bogdanovic, talented scorers in Bagley, Bey and Burks and two ball-handlers (Hayes and Ivey) to help out. But Cunningham never experienced that version of the roster. Burks made his season debut on Nov. 11, two days after Cunningham played his final game. Bagley debuted on Nov. 12. Detroit’s second unit struggled early in the season, and an early slump from Cunningham exacerbated Detroit’s woes.

Cunningham underwhelmed in preseason, and then shot 38.6% from the field during Detroit’s first four regular-season games. He made up for it by averaging 20.1 points, 8.3 rebounds, 7.5 assists and a block on 49.5% overall shooting and 27.8% shooting from 3 during the Pistons’ next four games. But he went through another slump before playing his final game Nov. 9.

It’s unclear how much Cunningham’s left shin bothered him through his 12 games, but he had been experiencing soreness since last season. It appeared to visibly ail him during his final game against the Boston Celtics, in which he shot 1-for-11. His overall body of work suggests he has the talent to become one of the NBA’s best. His injury won’t change that. But the Pistons will have to wait until next season to get a better feel for his floor, and his ceiling.

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