CHICAGO — The Detroit Pistons, for all the talk of what can be and will be, are down bad. Real bad.
An eight-game losing streak with only 11 games played for the season is a nightmare for everyone. The players. The decision-makers. The coaches. The fans. “Make it stop!” they all screamed collectively.
The latest loss, 119-108 to the Chicago Bulls, was like the rest. Detroit had a chance to win. A few too many mistakes here, a few mistakes there, and it didn’t. A close game looked more decisive than it actually was because of downfalls late. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
The Pistons’ story is quite often the same as other rebuilding programs, except it feels like this horror film has been on repeat for the last 15 years in the Motor City. One day those mistakes will diminish and those close losses will be narrow wins. One day. When that is? Your guess is as good as mine.
Injuries have plagued Detroit through 11 games. There’s no question about that. The absences of Bojan Bogdanovic, Monte Morris and Isaiah Livers for the season to date have been noticeable, and so has the iffy attendance of Alec Burks, Jaden Ivey and Jalen Duren. Everyone is tired of excuses. The Pistons are, too. However, the reality of the situation is that Detroit can’t afford to miss so many of those players so often. That’s why the 2-9 record shouldn’t be surprising, although it is disappointing.
It’s disappointing because Cade Cunningham, the No. 1 pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, is back after missing, essentially, all of last season and hasn’t been able to be set up for success. Detroit’s perimeter floor spacers have all been out, but the face of the franchise has suited up every game. He’s been fighting against defenses designed to stop him and him only. Cunningham hasn’t been perfect this season, but no one should have expected him to be. He’s learning to play with a metal rod in his leg. He just surpassed 82 career games played last week. He just turned 22 years old. It’s OK that he needs help.
Cade dishes to a cutting Ausar 💪 pic.twitter.com/IRPeeIyWGx
— Detroit Pistons (@DetroitPistons) November 13, 2023
The Pistons need Cunningham to play near-perfect basketball in order to turn more of these close losses into narrow victories. That’s not fair, but that’s what the situation is calling for. Defenses aren’t respecting those teammates who Cunningham most shares the floor with. If you didn’t watch Sunday’s loss in Chicago, find the replay and see how the Bulls threw multiple bodies at Cunningham on every inch of the court. In the first meeting between these two teams on Oct. 28, a game Detroit won by 16, Cunningham scored 25 points and dished out 10 assists. The Bulls weren’t having that this time. Every second and every movement defensively was dedicated to making sure Cunningham had no room to operate.
“They had bodies all over him tonight,” Detroit head coach Monty Williams said of how the Bulls defended Cunningham. “They semi-blitzed him so that he couldn’t get down the lane. He got down the lane one time before the second quarter ended and that was probably the only time he could get to the basket. We missed a ton of shots. We were 11-of-(32, from 3), and we had some wide-open looks tonight. Those shots open it up for Cade to get to his spots and be able to find guys off of his penetration.”
Cunningham has had turnover issues this season, and while some are due to simple carelessness, many can be attributed to the fact that defenses are hounding him, packing the paint and forcing him to play into a crowd because of who he shares the floor with. Sure, Cunningham doesn’t have to take the bait, but it’s easy to understand why he may look around and feel the pressure to try and make something happen.
Per NBA.com, Cunningham has shared the majority of his minutes with fellow backcourt/wingmates Killian Hayes (253 minutes) and Ausar Thompson (301 minutes), both of whom are dared to shoot by defenses and in the case of Thompson, who does almost everything else really well and relies on Cunningham’s creation to generate offense in the half court. Hayes, while he allows Cunningham to play off the ball more, doesn’t regularly generate scoring on his own. That’s not his game.
Detroit’s most-used starting lineup this season features Cunningham, Thompson and Hayes — as well as Isaiah Stewart, who is knocking down over 40 percent of his 3s on the season but is still not garnering the full respect of defenses, and Duren in the frontcourt — and has a disheartening offensive rating of 101.8 in 100 minutes played this season, per NBA.com. The defense has been solid at times with this group, but the offense really struggles to muster up acceptable NBA offense for legitimate stretches of time.
Due to all of the injuries, particularly to Bogdanovic and Burks, it’s clear that Williams is leaning into defense to start games. That side of the floor is the identity that the Pistons want to inherit and, at times this year, has really popped. However, the offense with this group and Cunningham, in particular, have been unable to find a rhythm because of the defensive trade-off.
Cunningham has had big scoring performances this season, but those games feature him being the tough-shot maker that he’s capable of being. Cunningham hasn’t really been able to moonwalk to a 30-point game this season because the players he’s sharing the floor with the most don’t allow that. Again, because of the injuries, that’s the reality of the situation.
At a point, I wonder if Williams starts to go the other way: Sacrifice the defense in order to make Cunningham’s life a bit easier. Maybe the 4-of-15 shooting night Cunningham had against Chicago on Sunday will be the final straw.
If so, how Williams goes about that will be interesting. Does he just wait for Bogdanovic to return from his calf injury, whenever that might be, and continue to hope the Cunningham-Hayes-Thompson trio can figure it out sooner rather than later? By then, though, Detroit could be 10 games or more below .500. Maybe he’ll turn to Burks, who returned to his bucket-getting ways against the Bulls after missing the previous six games with a forearm injury, as the starter. Cunningham and Burks have only played 65 minutes together this season, and while two-man net ratings can be a bit flimsy, the eye test checks out on the 120 offensive rating that those two have when playing together. What about rookie Marcus Sasser? Sasser has carried over his scoring prowess from college to the NBA, but given he’s a generous 6-foot-2, that’ll likely cause Cunningham to take on more pressing assignments regularly on the defensive end.
Then there’s the Ivey conundrum. Even before he missed a handful of games due to an illness, Ivey’s minutes were limited to about 20 per night. The No. 5 pick in last year’s draft has been unable to find a high-usage role with Williams so far, as the head coach has emphasized Ivey’s growth as a defender and decision-maker early in the season. Less than 15 games into the season, is Detroit ready to break glass in case of emergency on Ivey and prioritize his upside offensively to make Cunningham’s life easier? If the goal is to break Ivey’s particular habits and keep that message strong, I’m not sure throwing him minutes just to try and fix the offensive issues accomplishes that.
Williams, no doubt, is in a tough spot. This team desperately needs Bogdanovic — someone else who can bend a defense with his mere presence — back on the basketball floor. Cunningham needs Bogdanovic back. Until then, though, it feels more and more like something has to give. Cunningham is the only player defenses have cared about for the first two weeks of the season. He’s being cornered at every turn, every other night. Cunningham, who has played 398 minutes this season, the most in the NBA, looks exhausted at times.
For us to see the best version of Cunningham more regularly, and for Detroit to get out of this funk, he needs help sooner rather than later.
(Photo of Cade Cunningham and Torrey Craig: Nam Y. Huh / Associated Press)