So much for that Detroit Pistons rebuild taking a step forward this season. And possibly next season.
The stress fracture in Cade Cunningham’s left shin, and the season-ending surgery he has elected to have on it, have hobbled any chance the Pistons had this season to make progress with promising young players Jalen Duren, Killian Hayes and Jaden Ivey.
Before we get in too deep on how this affects the team, let’s acknowledge the player and the person: It’s the right choice for Cunningham. He could have opted for rest, but that was only going to be a short-term solution — at best — and possibly lead to surgery anyway.
As coach Dwane Casey said Tuesday, “I told him if he were my son I’d advise him to do it.” Those aren’t empty words; Casey’s contract is up after next season, so his fate could be riding on how soon Cunningham returns.
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I would have advised Cunningham to get the surgery, too. He turned 21 in September and he’s the future of the franchise. The Pistons almost certainly weren’t going to make the playoffs this year, even with him. But if they’re going to climb out of their pit of despair and be a legitimate playoff contender any time soon, Cunningham has to be a big part of that, and a durable one at that.
As for how this affects the Pistons’ efforts to gain any traction this year, the outlook is dire. That starts with the uncertain nature of Cunningham’s return.
Sure, everyone hopes he’ll be back better than ever. But no one knows whether there will be setbacks. And even if there aren’t, he’ll still have missed almost his entire second season.
Ah, yes, but what about those famous mental reps? Surely those count for a lot with a smart guy like Cunningham, right?
Give Casey credit for telling like it is, because he didn’t shy away from saying there’s no substitute for the real thing.
“Nothing takes the place of reps,” he said. “You can be on that bike over there all day for two months, three months. It still doesn’t replace the actual live, on-court reps.”
That’s especially true with a young nucleus learning how to work together. Cunningham was clearly the reason Ivey got off to such a strong start and the rookie out of Purdue now appears to have regressed; opponents are keying on him more and countering his speed and desire to get to the rim. In his past 14 games, he’s shooting 37.5%. With Cunningham playing, Ivey shot 44.3% in the first 12 games.
Casey did offer some hope for the benefit Cunningham might get from watching and learning when he’s at least able to return to the sidelines.
“He’s a quarterback, he’s a thinker,” Casey said. “I think he’ll be able to see things a little bit clearer and a little bit more relaxed.
“I’ve had guys come back as smarter players, if he uses it properly, and I know Cade will do that. But there’s nothing that really takes the reps of live minutes in real time.”
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The Pistons expect Cunningham to be ready for training camp next summer. If he put all those smarts to work and doesn’t suffer any physical setbacks, there’s no reason he can’t be as sharp as he looked early this season, when his scoring (19.9) and assist (six) averages were up and he was working well with Ivey.
But isn’t it a little unfair to expect a young player, even one as talented as Cunningham, to not take any step back after missing almost his entire second season? Because NBA success isn’t just about ball skills and defense. It’s also about absorbing the game, its rhythms and culture and being part of a team.
“Older players can handle it,” Casey said of missing a long stretch. “As a younger player, you need to be around it, breathe it, smell it, be at practice, be on the plane with your teammates once he’s able to get up and get around, just to experience some of the situations and see.”
Casey made sure to note Cunningham “has been great, not good but great, at timeouts” in the huddle as a cheerleader while he was sidelined. He expects Cunningham’s return to be seamless, and there’s every reason to think it will be, based on his leadership skills. But it’s also no small task asking a 21-year-old who’s the face of the franchise to return from surgery and never miss a step. It could take some time.
That’s why you almost have to consider this a lost season. Bojan Bogdanovic has been a marvel and Hayes has been the direct beneficiary of Cunningham’s absence, becoming an eager shooter and an outside threat as he puts more distance between himself and a bust label.
Casey doesn’t want to concede that this is a lost season, and no coach would. He looks forward to seeing the improvement his players can make with the added minutes they’ll get and their expanded roles. He called it “a silver lining.”
“We’re not getting rewarded with W’s right now, which is very unfortunate,” he said, “but the growth is there and we’re seeing a lot of growth with our young guys.”
That’s what this season has turned into for the Pistons: Growth and a time to heal. In other words, more waiting for a rebuild struggling to take any meaningful steps.
Contact Carlos Monarrez: email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.