For a guy who has sat through 15 years of mediocrity and has endured nearly every game of the past four years of tanking, I’ve had a hard time dragging myself to the couch lately to endure yet another hair-pulling Detroit Pistons loss. Obviously, I am frustrated — all Pistons fans are. However, I am not going to attempt to recreate the well-covered “who’s to blame” narrative currently hanging over the franchise. I’d rather focus on the current on-court product.
Stop. Blaming. Injuries.
I will not be utilizing the injury sob story that has been inserted often by fans and journalists recently. Has the absence of Bojan Bogdanovic, Monte Morris, Joe Harris, (and previously) Isaiah Livers hurt? Of course. But to pin the majority of the blame on their absences is far too easy. Bogey and Morris are fine players who could help playoff teams, but to say that those two being healthy alone is the difference between an atrocious team and a competitive one is simply ludicrous. Every team deals with injuries. During this 15-game losing streak, Detroit’s opponents have often been down one or two of their best players. Yet, those teams find a way to win.
Furthermore, if those two are critical to your team’s competitive success, what does it say about the young core that you’ve spent the last four years assembling? Let’s take Orlando, who currently boasts a winning record. Aside from Joe Ingles and Gary Harris contributing some bench minutes, they are a young team that started a rebuild around the same time as Detroit and is being powered primarily by the young players they drafted and developed.
Their progress can largely be attributed to the continued growth of Franz Wagner and Paolo Banchero, who are both scoring around 20 points per game and shooting close to 50% from the field.
They’ve been aided by other young players, too. Cole Anthony and Jalen Suggs have upped their games and are shooting 44% and 45%, respectively. Another team on a similar timeline as Detroit is the Houston Rockets. Yes, Fred VanVleet has provided stability to the backcourt and averages over 9 assists per game. But he is shooting just 38% on the season and is far from the team’s leading scorer or best player. That, of course, would be Alperen Sengun, who was drafted the same year as Cade Cunningham. His growth and ability to carry the offensive load have no doubt been the biggest factor in the team’s surprise start and current playoff aspirations. Detroit’s young core has been relatively healthy, and all were drafted around the same time as the Rockets’ and Magic’s young stars. Their progress and Detroit’s backslide are due to some combination of better players, better fit, and faster growth. Regardless of the culprit, the situation should be alarming for the fans and the Pistons organization. This is not where they should be.
Take a page from the Phoenix’s book
So what is the path to a sliver of a competent product on the court? For starters, Monty Williams could do himself a favor by having more offense on the court at all times. He should return to the formula that proved successful for him in Phoenix. It has worked on other teams who also have had two high-usage guard/wings as their most talented players. A large part of what made Phoenix so successful under Williams was the fact that one of Chris Paul and Devin Booker were almost always on the court.
While the two started together, Williams would then often stagger their minutes so that one functioned as the foundation of the team’s offense at all times, regardless of who else was on the court. They would then typically close the half or game together. Other examples of this sort of setup working include James Harden and Paul in Houston, as well as Harden and Tyrese Maxey in Philly. Since Ivey was drafted, I have long envisioned this arrangement as the best way to utilize Detroit’s talented backcourt.
While Ivey’s increase in minutes has been beneficial on offense to both Cade and the starting unit, he is still not getting enough touches in areas that fully utilize his strengths. Ivey’s pick-and-roll prowess is well documented, dating back to his days at Purdue. Ivey is by far the most capable of getting into the paint, finishing at the rim, and drawing fouls of any player on the roster.
Additionally, he has shown the ability to create shots for rollers and shooters on kick-outs out of the pick-and-roll. He is not getting enough opportunities to generate shots as a lead initiator, as his backcourt mate gets a steady diet of pick and rolls and isolation opportunities while sharing the court together.
Having Cade and Ivey start and close games together while staggering their minutes in between presents the best-case scenario for the Pistons, as a team that is lacking offensive punch would suddenly have one of their two best shot-creators on the court at all times.
While it would certainly not solve all of the Pistons’ issues, it may help them cut down on the frequent scoring droughts and better preserve Cunningham’s stamina for crunch time. In this scenario, Cade and Jaden continue to be able to learn to play with one another while also giving the bench unit a boost. Guys like Alec Burks, Marcus Sasser, Livers, and others don’t have to overextend themselves as creators and should see an increase in open catch-and-shoot opportunities. This rotation tweak allows Cade and Ivey to play to their strengths while making the game as easy as possible for the rest of Detroit’s roster.
Time to End the Experiment
I love Isaiah Stewart and Jalen Duren as individual players. I love their chemistry as a duo and the energy that they bring to the floor. I believe each has the potential to be an emotional leader of this team in time. However, the experiment with them as a starting frontcourt is simply not working. While Stewart’s 3-point shooting numbers are solid, if not spectacular, opposing teams continue to show no respect to him as a threat from downtown.
Teams consistently sag off of Beef Stew and invite him to take wide-open 3s. This makes driving lanes narrower and harder to come by for Cade, Ivey, and Ausar Thompson. It also limits Duren’s vertical threat, as opponents can afford to commit an extra body to crash down on the pick and roll. As Williams has said, spacing around Ivey and Cade must be a top priority.
While Stewart and Duren have each been good on the boards, the team does not consistently control the glass the way that they should while having both bigs on the floor. Far too often, the team is plagued by giving up offensive rebounds or being out-hustled for 50/50 balls. Additionally, the main reason that these two started together in the first place was for defensive purposes. Each has shown potential to be a switchable big who can guard out on the perimeter. Unfortunately, even while playing most of their minutes alongside the team’s best defender, Ausar Thompson, the Pistons continue to look inept defensively most of the time.
If the plan was to sacrifice spacing for defense and rebounding purposes, that plan has backfired. The best thing the Pistons can do is give their most promising young guards and promising young lob threat the most possible room to operate. This means adding shooting to the starting lineup, whether it be Livers, Bogey when he finally returns healthy, or both, and move Stewart to a sixth-man role.
This is likely the best thing for Stewart’s individual development as well, as he can spend more time playing to his strengths while getting more offensive touches against less physically imposing defenses and continuing to develop his outside shot in a lower-stakes environment. An argument could be had to reverse this and start Stewart, as his defensive numbers are more impressive than Duren. However, having Duren in the starting lineup helps offensive spacing more than Stewart, as he is a legitimate lob threat. I’m also somewhat hopeful that a fully healthy Duren can get back to blocking everything like he did the first three games.
It’s important to note that I completely get that the Stew-Duren lineup may serve a purpose in certain matchups or for stretches. However, we have more than enough evidence to show that it should not be the most often-played lineup on a roster.
Be the man
In order to beat the man, you need to….be the man? Cade Cunningham remains the team’s best player and the most likely candidate on the roster to become a perennial All-Star.
While the previous sentence is true, so is this: Cade HAS to be better. The Pistons’ third-year guard lacks proper spacing around him, forcing him to attempt to do too much, and desperately needs more playmaking around him. Yet, to put it simply, he needs to be more efficient to be an impactful, effective NBA player.
Your best player cannot be shooting 40% from the floor. That is a recipe for a bottom-dwelling offense. The problem is that Cade currently lacks a bread and butter that he can fall back on as a means to score. There is no facet of his game that he’s able to rely on consistently to get him points when he is experiencing a cold shooting night.
As I’ve written before, this is what separates good players from great ones. At the moment, he is meh from all areas of the court. He does not finish at the rim at a high rate, does not get to the free-throw line often, does not hit 3-pointers at a league-average rate (though improved the last few games), and has even been so-so from the midrange after showing promise from there as a sophomore.
All of these things have led to inefficiency in the Oklahoma State product. There is a growing sample size, and these have all been recurring issues. This is more problematic because outside of Ivey, there is not a ton of shot creation around him. While the franchise could be doing him more favors in terms of getting him support or changing lineups to maximize his skillset, top-tier players are expected and able to overcome these issues to a certain degree.
Cade needs to do his part and simply hit shots. It can’t be that better teammates takes him from bad to good, it needs to be that a superior supporting cast moves him from good to great.
Tune in to a Pistons game, and you will see Cade do tons of awesome things on both ends of the court. You will also see him miss far too many makeable layups, floaters, jump shots, and you will see him struggle to turn the corner and get to the rim consistently. If Cade is the franchise player that we expect him to be, he needs to make those shots at a higher clip. While it’s early, the Pistons are in deep trouble if this does not improve as the season goes on.