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  • Writer's pictureSteve Hinson

What to expect when you're expecting: A 2021-22 Detroit Pistons preview

I know you’re excited. I am too.

After all, the Pistons have the first pick in the draft and Cade Cunningham seems excited to play for the Pistons. They’ll pair him with a nice young core and some logical veterans.

Troy Weaver has been rebuilding in a way that the Pistons have been needing to do for years now. And that’s great. For the first time in a very very very very very very very very very very long time, there's a lot to like about what's happening with this team.

But, of course, rebuilds take a while to pull off. Weaver’s seems more aggressive than usual, but this is still a very young team.

They won't win many games

Every year that I've covered the Pistons - I think this is my 10th - Pistons fans are always outraged by the projected wins in their over/under. Of course, fans always think their team is far better than Vegas does. Of course, generally the under has been the best bet for the Pistons over the past decade.

This year has been the same. Vegas has the Pistons over/under total at 25.5, the third lowest win projection in the league. As usual, Vegas probably has it about right.

During last year's shortened season, the Pistons won at a 22 win pace over the course of an 82 game season. This roster looks much more in Weaver's vision, one that probably won't see 21 different players get on the court in a Pistons uniform this season. It looks logical, talented, and added the number one overall pick in the draft. It ought to take a decent step forward, right?

Eh. Probably not.

Well, for the long term play, it'll take steps forward. But in terms of the win/loss column, no, it's unlikely to take big steps forward.

The obvious thing is that young teams lose a lot of games. But more important is the makeup of the Eastern Conference.

The 76ers, Nets, and Bucks all will once again be vying for the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Knicks, Hawks, Heat, and Celtics all think they should be back in the Playoffs.

The Wizards, Hornets, and Pacers all see themselves in the Playoffs.

The Bulls and Cavs both paid quite a bit of money this offseason and expect to be in that push. The Raptors are probably prepared to miss the playoffs, but not be truly bad.

That leaves the Pistons and the Magic as the only teams in the East for whom winning isn't a priority. And, if Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz are healthy, the Magic are probably going to pull off a couple more wins. If not though, it's about even.

The situation is similar in the West. Only Oklahoma City and Houston look to be the only teams that aren't trying to get into the postseason.

It's kind of an amazing confluence of situations. Back in 2017-18, a whopping 9 teams finished with fewer than 30 wins. With so many shitty teams, that led to the conversation of tanking and flattening the lottery odds - which took effect in the 2019 NBA Draft.

But that was its own crazy scenario. It was just a coincidence where there just happened to be a lot of teams that happened to suck. Whether they were working toward their own rebuild or just general incompetence, it was a confluence of teams that were bound to lose. And in doing so, they might as well compete for the top pick.

It's the opposite this year. Teams are building better, they are more competitive, and many on the fringe have star talents that they worry will grow tired with losing.

The Pistons are almost certain to be among the four worst teams in the league, which in the post tanking era is a great place to be for a rebuilding team. I know you're tired of losing, but this isn't a bad year to plan on missing the playoffs.

It would almost certainly be futile to try to make the playoffs with a rookie as the team's best player in a season where so many teams are vying for it. Equally important, this year's draft is both quality and is a great fit for the Pistons. I'll come back to that in a bit. But first...

Cade Cunningham could win Rookie of the Year

I never loved Killian Hayes as a draft prospect, but I could understand why those who were fans did. He's smart, young, has nice vision, looked good defensively. But there was a lack of production that concerned me.

So with Hayes, I never was going to suggest he'd be a ROY candidate, even if healthy. But Cade is different. His aggressiveness, his confidence, his clutch, his poise. This is a franchise player.

He's not perfect though. Teenage NBA players rarely are. He's going to need to facilitate more, turn the ball over less, finish at the rim, stay healthy. But that's kind

I love how he potentially fits next to Hayes, especially if Killian can become a 40 percent catch and shoot player. Their defensive potential is outstanding.

Bey and Stewart both make his life easier as finishers. Jerami Grant makes it so his rookie wall might hit less hard. Kelly Olynyk makes more sense than Mason Plumlee as the Random Slightly Overpaid Big Man Who Probably Only Sticks Around For A Year Or Two.

For a losing team, there's a lot to like about how it all fits together. A hat tip to Troy Weaver, he has constructed a roster that makes sense around Cade. It's something that the Pistons have struggled to ever accomplish.

It's going to come down to Cade or Jalen Green for ROY. No one else really shows the opportunity to put up the kind of numbers to compete with these two. I'm not really sure who it'll be. But ultimately, I'm glad it's Cade who's playing for the Pistons.


Long term, they still need more

Cade's not enough. Even with the good young core that Weaver has built, that's not enough.

If the Pistons are going to rebuild through the draft, they need more. Remember, the Oklahoma City Thunder drafted Kevin Durant, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka, and it wasn't enough to win a championship.

The league is increasingly more competitive than ever, and players dictating their way to major markets makes it so that Detroit has to stack their own hand as well. It's not the first time.

During the summer of 2003, ring-chasing became more of a thing where legends from the 90s signed minimum deals in hopes of getting a championship. Gary Payton and Karl Malone were two of the best at their position during their eras and signed minimum contracts to compliment Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal. Of course, the Pistons kicked their ass with a gentleman's sweep.

This rebuild is different than the Going to Work crew. They need another primere star next to Cade. They can get it with this year's draft.

Paolo Banchero, Chet Holmgren, Yannick Nzosa, Nikola Jovic, Patrick Baldwin Jr., AJ Griffin, Cade needs a big or wing compliment for initiation and there are some really interesting options in this draft.

It's worth being excited about this current roster, but the injection of one more guy is what will get the team's ceiling to the level of a true rebuild - rather than the rushed rebuild that Detroit is all too familiar with.

A season of building

Last year was about tearing down. This year is about building up.

After the departure of Sekou Doumbouya, the Pistons enter the season without a single player left from the previous regime.

The goals for the season aren't about wins and losses, improvements in some particular aspect of the game, or anything along those lines. It's about letting the team gell, figuring out who fits long term, putting players in positions to succeed, creating a culture of high expectations.

That being the case, success and failure hinges more on an individual basis rather than for the team as a whole. Even not including two-way players or non-guaranteed contracts who will likely be waived before opening night, the Pistons are looking like they'll have at least eight players on the roster 24 years old or younger.

From a team level, it's moving in the right direction. But it'll be the individual performances that determine just how right that direction really is.

Cade Cunningham

What success looks like

He stays healthy, is a frontrunner for Rookie of the Year all season, and continues to enjoy what Detroit has to offer.

What failure looks like

Injury, of course, would be the worst case scenario. But that doesn't seem to be much of a concern for Cade. Outside of that, it'd be that the red flags to his game are more bigger deals than initially figured. Too many turnovers, too little facilitation for teammates, not athletic enough.

I'm skeptical that these will wind up being the case though. I fully expect to establish himself as a budding star who plays a winning style of basketball early in his career.

Killian Hayes

What success looks like

It's an important season for Hayes. The hand-wringing about him being a bust is rather absurd, but he will need to start addressing the red flags. Health will be important. Being able to get the ball in the hoop. Fewer horrendous turnovers.

If he can get those negative aspects of his game up to the point where they're at least fine, Hayes will be fine. Will he ever be the kind of player hoped for with a seven pick? That'll be seen.

But he does have some nice aspects to his game. Good size, solid passing vision, a selfless game, promising defense. And both he and Cade have the ability to play either guard roles, which gives a unique fungibility. All that needs to happen is the trainwreck aspects just become a slow skid on ice that only taps the bumper of that car in front of him. That's all.

What failure looks like

Another season like last year.

Saddiq Bey

What success looks like

Saddiq is one of the older members of the Pistons young core, turning 23 before the end of this season. He came into the league looking NBA-ready with an impressive amount of polish to his game. Out of any of the young players, he's one who I'd like to see take the next step.

He can be better than a 38 percent three point shooter. He's good in the catch and shoot (40 percent), good off movement, good when contested (35 percent), but not off the dribble (30 percent).

Cade will draw more defensive attention from Bey than anyone else did last year and he's excellent moving away from the ball. I want to see him be more aggressive looking for cutting opportunities, creating space as a shooter, and improving both his efficiency and volume.

In the 36 games after the All Star Game last year, Bey averaged 14.5 points per game on 55.8 percent true shooting. Those are fine as starting points. But I'd like to see both of those numbers take a nice bump, particularly the TS.

What failure looks like


Jerami Grant

What success looks like

Grant has the opposite situation. He was one of the most improved players in the league last year in the prime of his career. I don't really want him to perform at the level that he did last season - it'd mean too many touches not going to young players.

But they'll still need him to carry a decent load this season. So hopefully that allows him to broaden his game in newer ways, being more selective about his shot attempts and creating opportunities for his teammates. That means still getting those impressive box scores that he was looking for by signing with Detroit, but more efficiently and effectively.

Ultimately that'll probably lead to a trade out of town, whether mid-season or next summer. Still, that would make the initial signing a win for both sides and a happy ending all around.

Simply staying healthy will also be a big win. The last person I've seen take a 10 point percentage jump in his usage percentage without a huge change in minutes or starting job can't really find one.

But the situation reminds me too much of Victor Oladipo after leaving Oklahoma City. Oladipo went from a 21 percent usage rate to 30 percent, got injured the next year, and has never been the same since. Grant went from 18 percent to 28.5 percent, is a similar age, has similar mileage, and plays a physical style.

What failure looks like

Grant gets hurt, limps out the final two years of his contract, and his future winds up undermined for the sake of one high volume year with a bad team.

Isaiah Stewart

What success looks like

Beef Stew continues his rise as one of the toughest, most energetic, and positive young big men in the league.

What failure looks like

He falls in love with scoring at the expense of the other great things he brings to the court. He finished ninth in the league in offensive rebound percentage, eighth in block percentage, and pissed plenty of opposing players off along the way.

Stewart is an effective scorer, but as a complimentary guy rather than someone who you should be running a play for. If he just naturally takes the next step in his game, increasing his minutes and maintaining his energy and productivity, he'll be great.

Saben Lee

What success looks like

I wonder if folks realize that Lee is younger than Saddiq Bey. I get perplexed at the lack of excitement around Lee's promising rookie season. Is it that he joined the team as a two way player? Is he dismissed because of his size?

As a rookie, Lee looked like a legitimate NBA backup point guard. He showed a nice ability to get into the lane and put his athleticism to use - which includes one of the best missed dunks of the season - along with some solid passing chops.

He needs to improve as a shooter. His 35 percent three point shooting was fine, but it came on very low volume, only 23 attempts in 48 games. He'll be fighting for minutes in the backup point guard role, a rotation that might just be Cunningham and Hayes. With Hamidou Diallo also deserving to be on the court, minutes will start to look pretty tight for Lee.

We know Lee's effective attacking the basket and can create some looks for his teammates. If he can add some decent shooting to that, he'll be too efficient of an option to leave on the bench - and he'll solidify his place in the league as a rotation caliber player for the foreseeable future.

What failure looks like

But if he can't shoot? Well, life as a third-ish string point guard in the NBA is a rough road. Hopefully he can figure it out.

Hamidou Diallo

What success looks like

At this point, there's a lot to like about Diallo, but he's just a guy. He's young, he's explosive, he shot the three in Detroit. But he's just a guy.

His swing skill is going to be defense. If he can be a dude defensively, he'll get those backcourt minutes. And he has that ability. He's shown flashes.

If there's a future of a team signing Diallo to be a 20 ppg guy, it's a distant future. But him as an athletic, defensive oriented, efficient, selfless guy, he can be extremely valuable - whether that's with the Pistons or elsewhere.

What failure looks like

Too often, Diallo was looking for his own shot. No one really cares how much you score, Hamidou. If his priority is scoring inefficiently, he'll be out of the rotation.

Josh Jackson

What failure looks like

I don't understand the love for Josh Jackson.

He took a ton of shitty shots trying to get his career back on track, but that's about Jackson, not about the Pistons. He had some big games, scoring 31 points, getting over 20 points 10 times. He also had a lot of really bad, selfish shooting nights.

Jackson is in Detroit for Jackson. He wants to score. He seems to think that's his route to success in the NBA, though the opposite is true. He can be an excellent defender, a bouncy offensive threat.

Al-Fraouq Aminu is going into his 12th season in the league because he's embraced that role. If Jackson figures that out, he can have the same type of tenure. If not, he'll fizzle out.

What success looks like

Selflessness. Do the dirty stuff, the stuff that doesn't lead to a payday but makes you a valuable player. Don't care so goddamn much about how many points you scored. Any player out there can do that. If you do that, next summer you'll be a rich dude.

Trey Lyles

What success looks like

Make threes.

What failure looks like

Lyles was a kinda odd signing that fans are generally and reasonably underwhelmed with - which feels rather odd to agree with a general fan reaction as "reasonable." But he's cheap, a veteran, and should be fine if he sees minutes. It seems like the team could have just kept Sekou Doumbouya around to fill the spot PF minutes, but whatever. You can only have so many young players around.

The bottom line is that if Lyles plays much of a role for the Pistons this season, something went wrong. It means injury to Stewart, Grant, or Olynyk, some effectiveness issue in that rotation, that Dwane Casey is either pissed off with someone or excessively in love with Lyles, or something else weird happened. Hopefully we don't see much of him in a Pistons uni.

Kelly Olynyk

What success looks like

You're probably already aware of this, but I feel like it hasn't been talked about enough: Kelly lost his damn mind in Houston. He posted 19/8/4. That's bananas.

Like Grant, Olynyk has the talent/ability to be more than he's been throughout his career. He's consistently been a 20 mpg guy who posted nice looking per 36 numbers, which turned out to translate with 30+ minutes per night.

The Pistons don't need 20 ppg from Olynyk, but his presence should be helpful to take some of the load off Grant and Cunningham.

What failure looks like

Olynyk has always been a reliable 60+ percent true shooting percentage guy. He's always been pretty reliable to stay healthy. If either of those two don't happen, it'd be disappointing.

And it would be quite tough for the team as well. Center is the team's thinnest position, and it'd put pressure on Luka Garza to be immediately ready to contribute.

It's not quite ideal when Kelly Olynyk is the guy you're counting on for the team's interior defense to avoid being a complete mess, but hey, there's a reason this season preview opened with a warning that there'll be a lot of losses.

The rest of the group - Cory Joseph, Luka Garza, Rodney McGruder, Frank Jackson, Jared Cunningham, Jamorko Pickett, Isaiah Livers, and Chris Smith

What success looks like

Joseph and Jackson will get some minutes, and they just need to do their job. Joseph, get to the basket. Jackson, make your threes. I think Garza will get a legitimate shot with Detroit too, and his job is obvious enough as well - make buckets and at least get in the way defensively.

I've always been a fan of Chris Smith's potential, but he always has felt a bit lacking. He needs to get himself healthy and figure out how to consistently make an impact. I love the idea of his size, his shooting ability, and his handle for a guy with his length, but I think he needs some 20 point nights in the G League before getting on the floor with the Pistons.

For the rest, I'm doubtful we'll see much of them.

What failure looks like

It's hard to call a scenario for the end of the bench guys a failure. I just hope we don't see 20+ minutes a night of Cory Joseph. Nothing against him, he's a fine player. It'd just mean something went terribly wrong.

Opening night is coming quick. Enjoy. It's been quite a long time since it's been worthwhile to be this excited about the Pistons.

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