The Pistons Complete Their No-Win November
4:40 PM EST on December 1, 2023
The Detroit Pistons—miraculously, in retrospect—opened this season 2-1. Since then they have lost their last 16, including all 15 contests in the month of November, concluding with Thursday's 118-112 defeat to the Knicks. This is what qualifies as a team-promoted highlight these days:
Really gets the blood pumping.
These Pistons now hold the franchise record for most consecutive losses in a single season, though they still have some work to do to contend for the league record of 26 straight, achieved by both the post-LeBron 2010-11 Cavs and the Processing 2013-14 Sixers. But those teams were angling for lottery picks. This roster already resembles a wholesale crate of lottery picks, if perhaps one upended on the edge of a highway ramp: the No. 2 (Marvin Bagley III) and No. 9 (Kevin Knox) in 2018; the No. 2 (James Wiseman) and No. 7 (Killian Hayes) picks in 2020; a seemingly can't-miss No. 1 pick in 2021 (Cade Cunningham); the No. 5 (Jaden Ivey) and No. 13 (Jalen Duren) in 2022; and the No. 5 in 2023 (Ausar Thompson).
Add all those up—plus the stewardship of head coach Monty Williams, signed to a record-setting $78 million contract—and you get the 27th-ranked offense and the 25th-ranked defense in the NBA. Is youthful inexperience to blame for sitting 29th in net rating? One partial answer to their struggles is the absence of veterans Bojan Bogdanovic, about to return from a right calf strain, and Monté Morris, out indefinitely with a right quad strain. It's possible that a solid 34-year-old wing and backup-quality point guard could account for the gap between a conventionally bad team and a catastrophe on pace for 10 wins, but it's a bummer to express that idea in writing. Lots of these kids are, or were at some point, supposed to be full of potential.
Some of them might still be. Thompson is a 20-year-old defensive savant who fucks things up with precision, length, and vigor. Sadly, this might also describe his offensive contributions to date. While Marcus Sasser, a 23-year-old taken late in the first round this year, doesn't have the draft pedigree of his teammates, he might be the most reliable young guy on the roster when it comes to that perilous enterprise of "dribbling." Duren is a delightful, springy big who missed a two-week chunk of this losing streak with an ankle injury, so he dodges some of the collective shame, and inspires something that could even be called hope.
A source close to the situation informed me that Bagley has been basically fine lately. Just don't ask about Wiseman's minutes. Ivey still intrigues as an athletic off-guard, but his standing on the team is now in question. After starting all of last season, Ivey has lately been shifted back to the reserves, and he's not guaranteed to be the first guard off the bench, either. His uneven playing time is creating tension between Williams and the Detroit front office, if I'm correctly parsing the Yahoo Sports scoopese here.
This is all to talk around the most uncomfortable topic about these Pistons: Cade Cunningham, once hailed as the next great heliocentric creator, and limited to 12 games last season due to a shin injury, hasn't proved that he is good at any distinct NBA skill. Into his third campaign, he looks slow, slight, and shaky with the handle. If he has some way to create advantages against an average NBA defender, he has yet to share it with the class. He can't attack the rim, or finish when he does happen to find himself there. Given these physical limitations, the Pistons might really like Cunningham to shoot the hell out of the ball, yet he's shooting just 32 percent on pull-up threes, and 36 percent off the catch. Drawing fouls would ease his scoring life, but he doesn't really do that. His true shooting of 51 percent this season falls right in line with his bricky career figure. The offense has generally performed better when combo guard Alec Burks is microwaved up from the bench. Cunningham's defense is bad, too.
Cunningham's setup on the Pistons is similar to an object in a black hole: any real information about it is not available to outside observers. His particular skillset—smart decision-making when surrounded by competent play-finishers—has been cast into the worst possible conditions to thrive, into genuinely competence-free conditions. He spends every game slogging through some of the worst spacing in the NBA—the Pistons are 29th in three-point volume—and soaking up low-30s usage for a squad of bricky zoomers. He leads the league in both field goal attempts and turnovers. I suspect Cunningham wouldn't look nearly as dire as a supporting character on a better-constructed team. He'd keep the ball moving, and his defense could look better with a smaller offensive load. But even that consolatory hypothetical tempts me toward a grim conclusion: maybe he's just that—a supporting character, way off the path to stardom. He'll be eligible for the rookie max extension next summer.
To his credit, Cunningham wrapped his best game of the season last night: an efficient 31 points on 20 shots, plus eight assists and two steals, as the Pistons nearly ended their skid in Madison Square Garden. (He still had seven turnovers.) After the game, Williams explained why he had shifted two of his most promising players to the bench: Hayes started over Ivey to help move Cunningham off the ball, and Isaiah Livers started over Thompson to free up some spacing.
As depressing as it is to think about Hayes's ball-handling as a relative asset, there could be some merit to this plan, based on Cunningham's shot quality in that game. If Williams stays the course, maybe the Pistons can turn things around over the next week, which will see them take on the Cavs, Grizzlies, and Magic. Or maybe not. The situation isn't too far removed from what Cunningham described last week, four losses ago: "It's hard to just be like, 'Oh we're good, we're good,' because we're bad. We've got to address that."