Four reasons to pay attention to Pistons in 2021-22 season: The Cade Cunningham era begins
Ever since the core of their 2004 championship team broke up, and their streak of six straight Eastern Conference finals appearances came to an end in 2008, the Detroit Pistons have been wandering aimlessly around the NBA landscape.
Never good enough to compete, they’ve made the playoffs just three times in 13 seasons and were swept in the first round on each occasion. Never bad enough to build through the draft, they didn’t pick higher than seventh from 2009-2020, and only selected two future All-Stars in that time. One of them, Khris Middleton, was traded after his rookie season for Brandon Jennings.
The Pistons’ failed attempts in either direction left them grasping at the relevance they so desperately wanted. They didn’t even have the ignominy of being regarded as a laughingstock. For the better part of the past decade-plus, they’ve just existed.
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Enter Cade Cunningham. Last season, the Pistons finally did sink low enough in standings that they were in contention for the No. 1 overall pick, and they won it for just the third time in franchise history. In Cunningham, the do-it-all guard from Oklahoma State, they have a franchise player who can lead them back to where they want to be.
As the Pistons set off on another new beginning, here’s a look at their roster along with four reasons to pay attention to Deee-troit Basketball this season.
Detroit Pistons roster 1. The Cade Cunningham era begins
First and foremost, the Pistons are going to matter this season because they have Cunningham, the No. 1 overall pick. It doesn’t matter the team, the city or the players around them, everyone always wants to see what the top pick can do. And if things go to plan, Cunningham will be doing a lot.
Because of his size, versatility and ability to read the game and pick apart opposing defenses, Cunningham was drawing comparisons to Luka Doncic ahead of the draft. Reaching the heights Doncic has hit thus far in his career will obviously be a challenge, but it shows what sort of expectations there are for Cunningham.
For good reason as well. At 6-foot-8, 220 pounds, Cunningham has tremendous size for a guard, which he can use to bully smaller defenders and create unique passing angles. Though he only averaged 3.8 assists in his lone college season, that says more about his teammates than him. He is truly a high-level playmaker, and should look even better with more talent and space around him.
But while he usually operates with the ball in his hands, Cunningham can play off the ball as well, which is important with some of the other players on this roster like Jerami Grant and Killian Hayes. Cunningham is a strong 3-point shooter, knocking down 40 percent of his attempts in college. That will be a big boost to a Pistons team that finished 22nd in the league in 3-point shooting (35 percent) last season.
Also a solid defender who should be able to guard multiple positions, Cunningham has just about everything you’d want in a prospect save for elite athleticism. Maybe most importantly, he seems excited to be in Detroit and is already embracing the city.
“I love Detroit,” Cunningham said this summer. “I’ve already been listening to Detroit music and things like that, way before the draft lottery, any of that stuff. I was already hip to the culture in Detroit. It’s a city that has a lot of things going on, and I feel like getting the sports team rolling again would be huge for the city. Detroit fits me, that’s the main thing I’m going to try to do is step in and embody the swag that people from Detroit walk with, the people from Michigan in general. They have an underdog, go-get-what-you-want feel to them and I like that about the city.”
2. Killian Hayes’ re-introduction
Last year, the Pistons used their top draft pick on French point guard Killian Hayes, who had been playing professionally in his native country since he was 16 years old. As a teenager playing overseas, he was understandably unknown to most fans. That didn’t change much during his rookie season.
Just seven games into his NBA career, Hayes suffered a torn labrum in his hip. Though the injury didn’t require surgery, he missed three months and did not play in most back-to-backs once he returned. In all, he played 26 games (starting 18) and averaged 6.8 points and 5.3 assists.
Somehow now the longest tenured Piston, Hayes will have a chance to re-introduce himself this season. Along with Cunningham, they should form one of the more interesting young backcourts in the league. Much like his new teammate, Hayes is a nifty passer who excels at getting others involved and can really lock in on the defensive end.
He will have to be more responsible with the ball — 28.5 percent turnover rate last season — but Hayes showed off some really nice playmaking as a rookie and fans tuning into the Pistons this season will quickly take note. His ability to handle point guard responsibilities should help Cunningham make the transition to the pros.
At the same time, Cunningham is most effective when he’s the one controlling the offense, and this is his team now. The big challenge for Hayes this season will be improving off the ball. He only shot 27.8 percent from 3-point land, and was just slightly better on catch-and-shoot opportunities at 31.9 percent. He also wasn’t much of a threat attacking the basket, making just 42.9 percent of his attempts in the restricted area. He’ll have to be more of a threat to score in order to make the partnership with Cunningham thrive.
3. Jerami Grant’s continued evolution
In the bubble playoffs in 2020, Jerami Grant was a big part of the Denver Nuggets’ run to the Western Conference finals. It wasn’t surprising that he parlayed that performance into a big payday, but no one expected him to sign with the Pistons. And certainly not as their primary offensive option.
For the first six seasons of his career, Grant had been part of the supporting cast wherever he went. He did the dirty work on the defensive end and spaced the floor as a stretch forward, which made him the type of complementary piece that every contender would love to have. The Pistons believed there was more to his game. That’s why they signed him to a three-year, $60 million deal and handed him the keys to the offense.
Grant showed he could put the ball in the basket, scoring 22.3 points point per game, which well exceeded his previous career high of 13.6. He was inefficient in the process, however, registering the lowest field goal percentage (42.9) of any top-30 scorer. The increased workload also seemed to wear on him, as he only played 54 games and his splits based on the amount of rest he got were staggering.
Grant’s splits by days off
In an NBA that is becoming more homogenous by the season, the Pistons’ Grant experiment was fascinating if not always successful in Year 1. Now that Cunningham is in town, it will be interesting to watch how Grant continues to evolve. At least for now, he’ll still be the best player in Detroit, but slightly less responsibility on the offensive end should be beneficial for both him and the club.
4. Saddiq Bey building on strong rookie season, busy summer
In the middle of draft night last year, the Pistons were involved in a three-team trade with the Nets and Clippers which saw them acquire the No. 19 overall pick and send Bruce Brown to Brooklyn. The deal didn’t get much attention at the time, but it turned out to be a brilliant piece of business by the Pistons.
They used the pick to select Saddiq Bey out of Villanova, and the swingman quickly became an important part of the rotation. By February he had claimed a spot in the starting lineup for good, and finished the season with 12.2 points, 4.5 rebounds and 1.4 assists per game. Most notably, he shot 38 percent from downtown, which made him one of the team’s main outside threats.
For his efforts, Bey was named to the All-Rookie First Team alongside the likes of top-three picks LaMelo Ball and Anthony Edwards. Bey was the first Piston to claim that honor since Brandon Knight back in 2012, and just the 12th player in franchise history. What’s more, he earned the Eastern Conference Player of the Week award in February, becoming the first Piston to do that since Andre Drummond in 2019.
While development in the NBA is not always linear, it’s a good bet that Bey will be even better this upcoming season. He spent the summer with Team USA, both as a member of the Select Team and briefly with the National Team, gaining valuable experience competing against some of the league’s best. And of everyone on the Pistons, he should benefit from Cunningham’s arrival the most. The Pistons didn’t have a ton of high-level distributors last season, and Bey still managed to shoot 40.2 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s. That number should be even higher with Cunningham getting him the ball.