Detroit Pistons confident the turning point is coming in 2023-24. They’re not wrong

Detroit Free Press

The Detroit Pistons are itching to move on.

Their 2022-23 season didn’t go as planned. The front office projected confidence in September, and had good reason to expect improvement from last season’s 23-59 finish.

A lot went wrong, and the team finished 17-65 — the second-worst record in franchise history. Yet, the optimism that defined the weeks leading into the season persisted as players sat down for end-of-season news conferences Monday at the Pistons’ practice facility in New Center.

Despite the NBA-worst record, there’s belief their fortune could turn around next season. Much of that will depend on how players attack the offseason.

“I’m just excited about the group that we have, and the steps that are coming up next for us,” Cade Cunningham said in his first time addressing the media since his season-ending injury. “We have a big summer ahead of us, because next year is the year for us. It’s a huge year, a year that we need to take another step and improve and be better.”

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The Pistons are one of three teams with the best odds in the 2023 lottery (14%), and project to have around $25 million in cap space this summer to fortify the roster. Yet, their fortunes may hinge on Cunningham and the extent he’s able to bounce back after missing 70 games this season. He’s close to 100% after undergoing December surgery to repair a stress fracture in his left shin.

Cunningham was up-and-down in 12 games, averaging 19.9 points, 6.2 rebounds and six assists, shooting 41.5% overall and 27.9% from 3. He revealed his shin was ailing him, and his final game before he was shut down saw him shoot 1-for-11 in 24 minutes Nov. 9 in Boston.

“I’m at full body weight running now, which was a big step for me,” he said. “I’m shooting jump shots now, doing a little bit of change of direction right now. Not too much as far as running up and down and changing direction yet, but the next week or two weeks I should be getting that going. I’m progressing pretty fast now. I’m at a point where now that I’m at full body weight, I can do a lot more.”

He spent his down time tweaking his shooting mechanics, and says he has more lift and power behind his 3-point shot.

Injuries also limited the rest of the roster. Marvin Bagley III played 42 games. Isaiah Stewart played 50. Bogdanovic and Burks played 59 and 51, respectively, each sitting for the final five weeks.

“This wasn’t the season that we planned on having, but we made it through, and I’m still excited about what we’ve got here,” Bagley said.

“I’ve said this since Day 1 when we got here, and I still believe that, we’ve still got some dogs in this locker room and that’s never changed for me. We added to the team with (Jaden) Ivey, what he’s been able to do this year as a rookie has been awesome to be a part of and to be able to see every night, and just his growth. I still stand on that. … Now we just gotta bring the pieces together and get everybody playing and healthy. I think we’ll be a problem for teams in this league for the next years to come.”

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Beyond better health, the Pistons flat out need to get better on the court. Ivey and Jalen Duren established themselves as franchise cornerstones. Ivey’s improvement as a passer and outside shooter could give him a higher ceiling moving forward — in the 2023 calendar year, he shot 36.3% from 3 on 5.2 attempts per game and averaged 6.3 assists against 3.6 turnovers. Duren started 31 games, and immediately was a rebounder and lob threat, while adjusting to the NBA’s speed defensively.

“It’s hard for me sometimes to find growth when you’re not always winning, but you have to take the little things and appreciate them,” second-year forward Isaiah Livers said. “Every guy, from top to bottom this year, whether it’s doing something offensively, defensively or off the court, has gotten better. They grew from it and they learned from it, and that’s most important. I told Jaden and the guys, take this burn into the offseason. It’s going to make you work harder, it’s going to make the grind a lot better for you, and when you come back next season, you’ll have something to look forward to, because no one’s trying to have this season again.”

Players are encouraged because they like each other — something that’s not always a guarantee for rebuilding teams. There weren’t many signs of angst in the locker room or behind-the-scenes. Duren expected players to keep to themselves more, but was greeted by “great chemistry” and camaraderie that persisted through the year.

“We all laugh and joke and hang out with each other,” Duren, 19, said. “I know before the league, I had a couple of other guys who would just tell me it’s more independent than what I’ve seen with the team. This team has been really together. I think that’s because we’re young and the vets also pour into us a lot. I feel like we’re going to have a bright future just off of that.

“It’s huge. It translates a lot because that makes you be able to talk to your brothers and critique and criticize your brother, and nobody takes it the wrong way because when we’re out there, we all have the same goal. We’re trying to win games, we’re trying to go as far as possible. When you have that chemistry and that love between each other, it helps you go that far.”

The Pistons are on the same page entering a pivotal summer. They know what’s at stake in Year 4 under general manager Troy Weaver.

The work continues this summer.

Listen to “The Pistons Pulse” every Tuesday morning at 5 and on demand on freep.com or wherever you listen to podcasts. And catch all of our podcasts and daily voice briefing at freep.com/podcasts.

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

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