The Detroit Pistons wrapped up their preseason schedule with a 112-108 victory over the JV squad of the Philadelphia 76ers on Friday night. That pushed Detroit’s record to 2-2 with opening night slated for Oct. 20 against the Chicago Bulls.
As much as last offseason was about blowing up what Troy Weaver inherited, his second offseason was about continuity and continuing to build up the pieces he has in place. The roster stayed largely intact including surprise returns for veterans like Cory Joseph and Rodney McGruder to new deals.
Stil, there were some subtle and not-so-subtle changes. The biggest was the addition of Cade Cunningham, the No. 1 overall pick. He’s yet to play, but the franchise is in the hands of a 19-year-old kid from Texas. There was also a swap of Mason Plumlee for Kelly Olynyk in the big-man rotation and the team cut bait on the last vestige of pre-Weaver life when it traded Sekou Doumbouya, with his spot in the rotation being taken by Trey Lyles and his spot in the larger roster by two-way player Jamorko Pickett.
Now that we’ve seen some good and plenty of bad from Detroit during its four-game run, what were the biggest takeaways? Or to put it a little more precisely, what were five reality checks unceremoniously delivered during the preseason? Let’s run through them.
1. There is a chance this team is worse talent-wise than last season
During the typical glow of the offseason when everything is building and potential and fixing mistakes, many Pistons fans had thoughts of the play-in tournament dancing in their heads. And, sure, that might be possible. But there’s an equal chance that from a talent standpoint, the Pistons will be worse this season than they were last season.
Now, I don’t think it’s terribly likely, but I also don’t think this team is anywhere close to the play-in. But if you take a step back, the team always seemed to be punching above its weight last season even as the losses piled up. Some of that was luck — as in, the Pistons are lucky they lost so many games. By point differential, they played like a 26-win team and not the 20 wins they came away with.
That was because of strong(ish) veteran play from Derrick Rose, Wayne Ellington, Delon Wright, Cory Joseph, and even the ghost of Blake Griffin (he attracted attention, anyway). It was also thanks to surprisingly robust play for a trio of rookies — Isaiah Stewart, Saddiq Bey and Saben Lee. Stewart and Bey made All-Rookie teams and Lee blew past expectations of a second-round point guard prospect.
The natural assumption is that all those young players, plus Cade Cunningham, will get better. Add in natural growth from Jerami Grant and Frank Jackson and Josh Jackson and Hamidou Diallo, and suddenly the Pistons look downright frisky.
Growth and maturation don’t come in straight lines, however. There are plenty of ups and downs along the way, even for players who reach their potential. Stewart, Bey and Lee could all experience the dreaded sophomore slump. The very good Jerami Grant we saw in the second half of the season could be the true Grant and not the All-Star type player we saw in the season’s first half.
Last season, the team was better than the final results. It got positive performances all over the roster and only lost so many games because they judiciously rested players. Many of those rested players are back, but the team also got weaker in a few key areas. The clearest deficiency this team will experience is a lack of rebounding. The next is that it’s no sure thing this team actually bolstered it’s 3-point shooting compared to a year ago. Ellington is gone. Svi Mykhailiuk is gone. It’s not fair to expect Hamidou Diallo and Cory Joseph to have career years from the perimeter once again. The team drafted 3-point shooters, but it’s unfair to expect anything from second-round picks.
2. Killian Hayes’ offense is still a major work-in-progress
The shot is still broken. He still twists his body on 3-point shots. He still front-rims too many jumpers. He’s still a zero-level scorer. Yeah, he missed most of preseason, but the shot looked just as wonky in preseason as it did in Summer League, where it looked just as wonky as last season.
I understand the No. 7 overall pick has played roughly 34 games at these various stops, and I’ll reiterate that I like what I see from him as a defender, and I like his court vision and his ability to be a playmaker when the mood strikes him.
But I’m forced to ask myself how the team expects Hayes to be successful when he is not a threat to score from anywhere on the floor at the NBA level? What I see is that because defenders do not fear him, if the initial action does not create a clear advantage he dumps the ball off. This means he becomes one of the league’s least dangerous off-ball scoring threats.
And that means running him out there is doing him and the team no favors, and there is little happening that actually develops his game. Until he becomes a scoring threat either at the rim or from the perimeter, he won’t be a true NBA-caliber player. And the team has to ask itself what is the best mechanism to build that shot and scoring into Hayes’ game. Is it the starting lineup? It could be. Is it off the bench? Maybe. Is it in the G League? If the answer is yes, they need to embrace the fact and not run away from it.
3. Cade Cunningham is precious cargo
I know we’re all anxious to see Cade Cunningham play. And it’s important for Cunningham to play. He needs to get up to game speed, he needs to develop chemistry with his teammates, the coaching staff needs to understand what works and what doesn’t work in Cade-led lineups.
And yet, he was a complete no-show in the preseason. A seemingly minor ankle injury kept him out for all four games. Does that mean the injury is serious? Not even close. But it does mean that from the perspective of Pistons’ leadership, Pistons coaches, and perhaps even Cade himself, health is a heck of a lot more important than anything that happens on the floor this season.
The preseason is one thing, and I’m sure nobody was shocked Cunningham was held out. But I would expect the same caution to carry over into the season. He might be ready for opening night, but if you see Cade roll an ankle, come up limping or have trouble with flexibility, don’t be surprised if a cadre of trainers descend on him and ensconce him in protective bubble wrap.
It’s been a long time since the Pistons had a player with the potential of Cunningham, and with those kinds of players comes a few features — an abundance of caution and the team and the players’ representation working in concert to make sure the player is happy.
As much as fans might not want to hear it, Cunningham is more than a player, he’s a growth enterprise. Get used to him being handled with extreme care.
4. You might be done with Josh Jackson, but Josh Jackson is not done with you
Jackson was looking at a situation that would find him as a part-time player this season, and even faced the possibility of being outside of the rotation buried in the team’s deep and high-priority wing depth.
Injuries meant that Jackson got to play plenty in the preseason, and he took full advantage of the opportunity. Jackson averaged nearly 13 points and shot 45.5% from the floor and 36.4% from 3 all while doing a lot of his typical Josh Jackson stuff — running the floor, putting pressure on the defense, passing and shooting with abandon. Some of the bad Jackson stuff didn’t materialize — he had just 1.3 turnovers to 4.3 assists, and his shots were going through the basket.
Whether you loved or hated what Jackson brought to the team last season, one thing just about everyone agreed on was that if he could nudge his 3-point shooting from the 30% range to the 36% range, it could redefine what he’s capable of on the offensive end. Or maybe that was just me.
Anyway, the early returns are promising. But we’ve seen hot stretches from Jackson before. We’ll have to wait a while to determine whether it’s a blip or true growth, but even Dwane Casey said Jackson earned himself a spot in the rotation after his strong training camp. Hard to argue with that.
5. Isaiah Stewart might be too small to be a starting center
This one is a bit of a cheat, because it is less something I am confident in and more something I am fearful about following preseason. Perhaps it’s a byproduct of Stewart shaking off a considerable amount of rust after injuring himself in Team USA practices and not playing 5-on-5 until recently. Perhaps it’s a byproduct of facing off against behemoths like 7-foot-1 Jakob Poeltl and 265-pound Steven Adams, but Stewart had trouble keeping up with the competition this preseason.
I love Stewart as a prospect. He’s strong and has a 7-foot-4 wingspan. He’s also nasty as hell (in a good way) and plays with an unrelenting motor. He was the team’s best defender last season and both the eye test and the metrics back it up.
But he’s got his work cut out for him as an undersized center on a team that has no appreciable size behind him. One of the reasons Stewart fell in the draft is because nobody was quite sure what to make of him. Was he a center or a power forward? Was he a banger down low or someone who could stretch his game? Could he play quality man defense?
Troy Weaver saw something he liked in Stewart and picked him much higher than most prognosticators had him pegged. The bet paid off last year with Stewart making an All-Rookie team and having the highest ceiling of any of Detroit’s draft picks.
Detroit was right to bet on Stewart’s potential, he earned the right to start at center, and the Pistons owe it to themselves to give it as much time as possible to see if it’ll work out. If it does, and his perimeter shot is for real, he could be a rare two-way big man that can guard multiple positions and score inside and outside. That’s what we’re all hoping for. We saw a little more of it in the finale against the Sixers, and hopefully, it carries over into the regular season.