The wing position for the Detroit Pistons is surprisingly deep, but only because in Detroit’s system, just about everyone is asked to play off the ball along the perimeter. Starting point guard Cade Cunningham could easily find himself on the court while Jaden Ivey or Killian Hayes initiates the offense. And the reverse is true as well. Cory Joseph confounds, but he’s a guard who can hit a 3, so he’ll be playing the wing too.
Then we have those traditional twos — Alec Burks, Rodney McGruder and Hamidou Diallo. At small forward, you have Saddiq Bey iron manning his way through the season, but with a lot expected of Isaiah Livers — if he’s not pressed into small forward duty. And then there is the lottery ticket of young Kevin Knox trying to salvage a career after washing out with two organizations in the past year. And with a surplus of bigs, Bojan Bogdanovic might be asked to space the floor alongside a two-big lineup of Jalen Duren and Isaiah Stewart.
It’s all so confusing, and scary, and worrying. Hopefully, in the end, it is at least interesting.
Question 1: Are the Pistons better at the wing today than they were last season?
Saddiq Bey, Hamidou Diallo, Frank Jackson, Rodney McGruder, Isaiah Livers, Braxton Key
Saddiq Bey, Alec Burks, Bojan Bogdanovic, Isaiah Livers, Hamidou Diallo, Kevin Knox, Braxton Key, Buddy Boeheim
IN: Alec Burks, Borjan Bogdanovic, Kevin Knox, Buddy Boeheim
OUT: Frank Jackson
No position group has gotten stronger than the wing position in Detroit. Last season, too much was banking on the success of Frank Jackson from deep and Hamidou Diallo as a do-it-all guard/forward. The Pistons were thin, undersized and undermanned. Now the Pistons have a mix of vets in Burks and Bogdanovic, promising second-year player Livers and Saddiq Bey, who needs to find consistency but does manage to add new wrinkles to his game every offseason. And then there is Jaden Ivey, who will certainly be this team’s X-factor.
He will go through all the ups and downs of a standard rookie season. He’ll shoot too often, miss too much, make poor decisions and get into foul trouble. But for the first time in forever, the Pistons have an elite athlete who can score the ball and facilitate. When Ivey gets anywhere near a comfort zone, it could do a lot to open up the games for shooters like the Triples Bs — Burks, Bogdanovic and Bey.
If the team determines Ivey would benefit from operating out of a run-and-gun unit off the bench, it’d be wild to see him alongside Hayes and Duren flying up and down the floor.
Question 2: What does the wing depth chart look like?
Ivey will get his chance to sink or swim in the starting lineup alongside Cade Cunningham. Whether that was always the plan or an adjustment to accommodate the recovery of Burks, whose foot injury will force him to miss the beginning of the season, we will never know. Bey has an iron-clad lock on the small forward position, and the hope is he can hold up defensively and is a more consistent perimeter threat this season.
Off the bench, the Pistons will be mixing and matching a lot of parts and pieces depending on who else is out on the floor. Cory Joseph is likely the first man up while Burks heals, and I do expect Livers to play a healthy dose of minutes at both forward positions. Who else and how much they play likely depends on how successful Killian Hayes is offensively and how much the team is able to hold up defensively. If Hayes struggles, he could lose minutes to Joseph at point guard, and that could open up minutes on the wing for Rodney McGruder. If the defense struggles, and it likely will, that could force Casey to rely on the athletic Diallo to make up ground.
I’m sure if Troy Weaver was more loquacious than usual, he would admit the ideal scenario the Pistons have in their heads is for Jalen Duren to force his way into the starting lineup, Ivey thriving as an off-guard who can take some of the playmaking and ball-handling responsibility from Cade, Isaiah Stewart to flourish as a 3-point shooter, have Marvin Bagley III hold down the fort as a backup center with Cunningham and Hayes maintaining a stranglehold on the point guard minutes.
If ALL OF THAT happened, then the Pistons would have the ability to play a heavy dose of the Triple Bs on the wing — Bey starting and using that inside-outside game, and Bogdanovic and Burks raining 3s from deep to help open up space for their teammates. Then using Livers as a mini-me, second-round version of Bey, who can play both forward positions, defend and hit the 3. That’s the dream, but it’s just that — a dream. Every player above is going to have his struggles, some of these plans won’t pan out at all, and Bagley is already out with injury. That’s the way it goes for young, rebuilding NBA teams.
Question 3: What is the outlook for the wings?
The worry for the wings in Detroit is that if the ceiling isn’t quite as high for some of these players, the team is going to scramble to cover some obvious holes and paper over flaws as it tries to put together a coherent rotation on a nightly basis.
If the 3s aren’t falling, the rookies are fouling out, and the switching scheme remains a shambles, well, it’s going to be a long year, and the team will be turning to every single player on the wing to try and see if they can be a part of the solution.