Detroit — Jaden Ivey sat with his head down in the interview room Tuesday night, absorbing both the question and everything that led to it.
How had the Pistons — losers of 10 consecutive games and 21 of their last 22, following a late-fourth-quarter collapse against the Miami Heat — let another one slip away?
After a long pause, Ivey raised his chin and did his best to answer.
“I feel like it came down to the little things again,” Ivey said as he talked about, among other things, the poor defensive execution down the stretch that allowed Miami’s Jimmy Butler to take control and turn a slim Detroit margin into another double-digit defeat.
And under a microscope, that’s absolutely true. The little things do go a long way in the NBA, particularly at crunch time. But, as the clock winds down on another dismal season of pro basketball in the Motor City, there’s also the macro view to consider here.
Heading into Wednesday night’s home finale against Brooklyn, the Pistons (16-63) still needed a victory in one of their final three games to avoid matching their franchise-worst record, set in 1979-80. But, they did lock up the NBA’s worst record this season with Tuesday’s loss, guaranteeing general manager Troy Weaver another top-five draft pick in June and as good a shot as anybody (14%) at landing 7-foot-4 French phenom Victor Wembanyama with the No. 1 overall selection.
More tangibly, though, they’ve accomplished another goal. The most important one, really, once it became clear this 2022-23 campaign likely would be a lost cause in the standings. After Cade Cunningham was sidelined in mid-November due to a stress fracture in his left shin — he underwent season-ending surgery on Dec. 16 — the team’s focus immediately shifted to Ivey’s development.
And nearly four months later, there are signs that shift actually might help accelerate the Pistons’ 3-year-old “restoration” project. Weaver finally called it a “rebuild” in a letter to season-ticket holders this week, for what it’s worth. But, while win-loss ledger remains an ugly reminder of just how far they have to go, Ivey’s progress — along with that of fellow rookie lottery pick Jalen Duren — does offer something resembling a silver lining.
“He’s had some nights where it’s been ugly, but that was expected,” head coach Dwane Casey said of Ivey, the fifth-overall pick last summer, who should earn a spot on the NBA’s All-Rookie team at season’s end. “But, to see where he is now, and the growth he has had — not only offensively, but defensively, I think he’s made even better strides — it has been impressive.”
Ivey’s performance against Miami was one of his best this season, but it was hardly an anomaly. The former Purdue standout currently ranks third among all rookies in points and first in assists this season, and Tuesday’s outing was his third with at least 30 points and five assists. The last rookie to have more was Dallas Mavericks star Luka Doncic, who did it six times in 2018-19.
Over his last 25 games, Ivey is averaging 17.6 points and 6.3 assists while shooting 38% from 3 on 5.7 attempts. Over the last month, Ivey is at 20.2 points, 7.4 assists and 39.7% from 3. There were doubts about his ability to consistently knock down shots from deep, but of the handful of rookies averaging four or more 3-point attempts per game this season, only Sacramento’s Keegan Murray, who went fourth overall — just ahead of Ivey — in last summer’s draft, is shooting at a better clip.
“I’m just constantly working on it; I think that’s the biggest thing,” Ivey said after going 4-of-6 on 3-pointers in Tuesday’s loss. “Earlier in the season, I was kind of getting down on myself. I was missing a lot of shots that I believed I could make. But, I couldn’t just sit with it.”
So, he kept working at it. Ivey’s diligence is such that coaches have to shoo him off the court, at times. John Beilein, the team’s senior advisor for player development, was playfully doing just that after practice Monday, in fact.
And as Ivey is making more of those shots, it’s opening up a new world of possibilities for a player that hadn’t had much, if any, experience playing as a true point guard in college.
That’s not what Ivey will be asked to be in Detroit, either, once Cunningham returns from his injury this summer. But, the rookie’s crash course at the position — and specifically the steady diet he has been force-fed initiating ball-screen actions — should pay dividends going forward for the Pistons.
Ivey looks much more comfortable in the pick-and-roll game now, beyond that electric first step of his. He’s setting up defenders and reading weak-side help better. He’s making smarter decisions when it comes to forcing passes or attacking the rim. His mid-range jumper is coming along, and his floater eventually will, too. But, above all else, it’s his patience that is starting to show.
“Again, that’s not easy,” Casey said. “It’s probably the hardest thing to learn for a young point guard.”
And as hard as it is to watch this team on some nights — particularly with a half-dozen NBA regulars in street clothes the last few weeks — it’s not hard to envision what it might look like next year. Cunningham and Ivey can take turns initiating the offense, creating advantages and attacking rotations with their contrasting styles and complementary skills.
We saw glimpses of that backcourt’s potential at the beginning of this season, but that was back when the rookie’s head was still spinning. Now, he says, the game has slowed down considerably and it shows not just in his own play. But, also in the way teams are defending him.
Tuesday night, that meant Heat coach Erik Spoelstra blitzing Ivey with two defenders to force him to give up the ball, effectively daring the rest of the Pistons’ depleted lineup to beat Miami in the half-court offense. They couldn’t, obviously, so the strategy worked.
“But, did you see what he was doing before that? Before we were doing that?” Spoelstra asked. “I mean, he’s a heckuva player. (He has) that speed, and he was able to hit his 3s and his mid-range tonight, which makes it even tougher. … He’s a special young talent.”
One that absolutely should fit alongside Cunningham going forward, which was the question they were supposed to answer together this season. Instead, Ivey has had to find some of the answers himself.
“But, I’m definitely looking forward to playing with him again, and I know the rest of the team is,” Ivey said of Cunningham, the former No. 1 overall pick and franchise fulcrum. “And once he gets back and we’ve got everybody healthy, I believe — and I know he believes — that we can be a dominant team.”
That’s a long way off, obviously. But, you have to start somewhere, right? And at the end of a trying season for Ivey and the Pistons, maybe that’s the point.