November 3, 2008. That was the day Chauncey Billups was traded by the Detroit Pistons. Since then, the Pistons have had perhaps the worst run of point guard play in the NBA thanks to a combination of injuries, lack of depth, lack of development and more.
Remember when the point guard rotations included John Lucas III, Steve Blake or Jose Calderon? Remember point guards of the future of the past like Rodney Stuckey, Brandon Knight and Reggie Jackson? They all had their moments, but it was never quite enough. And to have perhaps the least talent at the most important position, and with a coach in Dwane Casey that loves to deploy multiple point guards? It hasn’t been a pretty sight.
Sure, there was talent, and each player had moments. For example, look at these offensive plays by multiple point guards rotations employed by Dwane Casey in 2018-19 season.
Or these defensive plays.
Now imagine a young, healthy player with the potential to be a generational talent in place of Reggie Jackson. And a young and big guard with the potential to be a top P&R ball-handler in place of Jose Calderon. And a young and athletic guard with the potential to be a scoring machine on top of being great facilitator in place of Ish Smith.
Can’t see it yet? Then let me show you the world in my eyes, namely let me show you a couple of clips displaying the glimpses of what we can expect if everything goes according to plan — and the offseason is all about dreaming of everyone reaching their ceiling, right? The Pistons have three young, skillful points with tremendous upside – Cade Cunningham, Killian Hayes and Saben Lee. The glimpses were there in their first time playing together during Summer League. So let’s get to the film.
Pick your poison on offense
Cade, Killian and Saben can all attack off the dribble. When one of them initiates the charge, the defense tends to collapse on that player (and it might already be on its heels as the possible exchange of the on- and off- the ball roles outside the arc between the guards keeps the defense in limbo). Below we can see the repercussions of this state of affairs.
Even adjusting defense can’t contain the attacker in a way that makes him unable to find the passing lane. But when the defense is on the hook, the other(s) point guard is ready to take command when the ball is passed to him. He’s no less able to run the offense. However, his task is now easier because he has in front of him a defense trying to recover. And even if it is somehow able to recover, the point guard’s vision and passing skills will allow him to find somebody in position to deliver the final blow, as the last clips show (if only Tyler Cook all of a sudden had good hands hands and Luka Garza didn’t manage to lose his touch, that is).
Offense run by this kind of guards combinations could be deadly. If Troy Weaver and Casey succeed with their apparent vision of fielding a whole lineup of capable playmakers, the team’s offense could be dangerous.
Universal switching ability on defense
To play multiple point guards in a lineup, you need at least one of them to be able to defend beyond his position. But what if both (or all three) can defend multiple positions? Glad you asked! In that case, the following happens.
The Pistons don’t need to worry about guard-guard screens. They can switch them freely and maintain the same pressure on the ball at all times. This switching party can go beyond guards/wings, at least in the case of Cade and Killian, as both are tall, long and already strong enough to be able to stop posting bigs on switches.
The length of at least Cunningham and Hayes should also allow Detroit to simplify the defense even more and play zone with arms flying everywhere since the rest of the team is long as well. The benefits of all these options might be enormous and bring about another era of great Pistons defense, and one perfectly matched for how the game is played today.
But we’re not there yet
No matter how great the potential, there is still much development needed for each young player.
On the offensive side of the matters, all of Cade, Killian and Saben need to prove that they can be relied on as advertised as individual players and scorers. During Summer League, Cunningham showed potential to attack the lane, but he also showed that he can’t be trusted yet to deliver points or assists this way on a desirable clip. Hayes is probably the longest shot of them all, as he still needs to prove himself as a scorer on all three levels and take better care of the ball. Saben seems like he is in best position of the three to provide adequate levels of offense and defense, but his ceiling is the lowest of the three. He also often seems like he needs the ball at all times to be effective.
On the defensive side, individually speaking there are some of the mental mistakes that come from young players, but all seem extremely likely to become quality defenders. However, there are some collective lack of comprehension problems that they should eliminate as soon as possible because those problems undermine their joint defensive endeavors.
This ascendence of multiple young and talented point guards started at the end of last season when Detroit played Killian with Saben a lot together.
Killian-Saben Lineup on offense
Killian-Saben lineup on defense
The addition of Cade makes it so much more intriguing. The young fellas have some work to do, but when the work will be done, after the misery of point guards of the past, we might just have, if everything breaks exactly right, an Isiah-Joe D-Microwave redux. We can dream, anyway.