Five roster questions new Pistons head coach Monty Williams will have to answer

Detroit Free Press

Monty Williams has a long list of evaluations to make now that he’s in the lead chair.

The Detroit Pistons are coming off a 17-win season and have several young players fighting for their roles. Williams is respected for his ability to connect with players and put them in positions to succeed on the floor. Detroit’s trajectory will ultimately be defined by the extent he’s able to accomplish those tasks.

Here are five roster questions Williams will have to address.

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How will he utilize Cade Cunningham?

One of Williams’ skills is raising expectations for developing teams, and the Pistons will have significant resources available this summer to improve the roster and move up the Eastern Conference standings. But no move they make is likely to impact the team as much as Cunningham’s return from shin surgery.

Detroit’s hopes still lie with 2021’s No. 1 overall pick. Injuries have limited him to just 76 games through two seasons, but in that time, he has showcased high-level shotmaking, passing and leadership that could enable him to become one of the league’s top guards. Williams’ ability to help Cunningham reach stardom, as he did for Phoenix’s Devin Booker, will be one of the biggest factors dictating if the Pistons become contenders.

Thus far, Cunningham has dominated the ball. It would be surprising to see that change under Williams, as Cunningham is likely Detroit’s best all-around playmaker and decision-maker. But due to the lack of help he received as a rookie, injury struggles and other issues, we haven’t seen him fully unleashed.

Can he consistently knock down catch-and-shoot 3’s? Will Williams trust him with tough defensive assignments?

Cunningham’s malleability makes him an easy fit in any offensive scheme, but he should benefit from Williams’ emphasis on quick ball movement, smart rotations and spacing. He was asked to do too much as a rookie, with Jerami Grant sidelined for much of the season with thumb and calf injuries. He’ll return to a deeper, more talented roster that can make his life easier. And that should also make it easier for Williams to put him in positions to succeed.

How will he juggle Cunningham and Jaden Ivey?

With Cunningham in street clothes, Ivey made significant progress as a rookie point guard and showed upside as a primary decision-maker. Williams will now have to find ways for his young guards to thrive together.

Cunningham and Ivey have complementary skill sets. Both can knock down 3-pointers, though Cunningham will have to improve his career mark of 30.9%. Despite his reputation of being a non-shooter when he entered the league, Ivey, too, was able to consistently hit catch-and-shoot 3s last season. Both also have the tools to defend multiple positions, though they are learning how to apply those tools effectively.

But Ivey’s speed with the ball in his hands separates him from the rest of Detroit’s roster and will give Williams a key weapon to break down opposing defenses. Defenses were constantly worried about Ivey’s ability to beat defenders and get downhill last season. Off-ball, Williams can run actions to shake him loose and generate easy opportunities for him at the rim, or for Detroit’s shooters after the defense collapses.

Booker and Chris Paul were able to thrive together in Phoenix. Cunningham and Ivey are different players, but Williams has shown that he can get two on-ball creators to jell together.

What can he get out of Killian Hayes?

Hayes’ third season was encouraging, at times. He had his longest sustained good stretch of basketball, averaging 12.4 points and 6.7 assists while shooting 37% from 3 through 30 games, from Nov. 12 until Jan. 13. But overall, Hayes still has progress to make. He finished the season shooting 37.7% overall and 28% from 3, right in line with his career averages. If Hayes doesn’t improve as a scorer, the new coaching staff will have to determine how much they value his defense and playmaking and whether it makes up for his shooting.

It could help Hayes that, with Cunningham and Ivey healthy, he won’t have to score as much. The coaching staff could have him hone in on his strengths. Willliams often asked Jevon Carter — also a defensive-minded guard — to apply full-court pressure to opposing ball-handlers. Perhaps there’s a role for Hayes as a defensive specialist who can also keep the ball moving while occasionally hitting shots.

Can his rotation accommodate four bigs?

The Pistons have invested deeply in their frontcourt. They drafted two bigs — Isaiah Stewart (2020) and Jalen Duren (2022) — and have traded for two recent No. 2 picks in James Wiseman and Marvin Bagley III. General manager Troy Weaver has spoken openly about his desire to have two bigs share the floor, as well as the importance of having multiple bigs who can match up against other frontcourts, such as Cleveland’s Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley.

It remains to be seen if Weaver’s strategy will translate to winning basketball. Due to injuries, Dwane Casey was unable to play two bigs together often last season. And of the four, only Stewart has shown a willingness and ability to take and make 3-pointers at high volume. It will be difficult for Williams — who prioritized having good spacing in Phoenix — to adhere to his philosophy of quick, smart ball movement with two non-shooting bigs on the floor. Defenses will crowd the paint and dare them to shoot.

Williams will also need his bigs to be difference-makers on defense. Though Williams reportedly butted heads with Suns center Deandre Ayton, he did coax strong two-way basketball out of the 2018 No. 1 overall pick. Ayton anchored a defense that finished in the top seven in defensive rating during Williams’ final three seasons in Phoenix. Advanced metrics grade Stewart as a solid defender, but Bagley, Duren and Wiseman have strides to make.

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Which bigs will receive the bulk of the minutes?

Read-and-react offenses favor bigs who can pass, willingly set screens and score efficiently and quickly, either from behind the arc or at the rim. That bodes well for Duren and Stewart.

Stewart, who shot 38.1% from 3 during his first 29 games last season before finishing at 32.7%, is expected to continue expanding his perimeter game next season. He’s still learning which reads he should make when passing the ball, but his floor-spacing and defensive versatility could make him a rotation stalwart.

Duren excelled from day one as a rebounder and lob threat, but his defensive upside and passing could separate him from the pack. His athleticism and 7-foot-5 wingspan gives him the tools to be an elite rim protector, though he’s still learning that side of the floor. But his flashes as a short roll passer could make him irreplaceable, as defenses would have to account for him finding open shooters or even finding another big for a lob.

That’s not to say that Bagley and Wiseman won’t thrive under Williams. Bagley is a skilled scorer and lob threat who also takes some 3s, although he’s not a very efficient shooter. It’s more difficult to project Wiseman’s fit, as he spent little time with Detroit’s starters (outside of Ivey) as the injury report grew late in the season. But he was turnover-prone, took a lot of midrange jumpers and not as many 3-pointers. He will have to grow comfortable doing things he hasn’t shown yet.

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