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Detroit Pistons season preview revisited

Does this season represent progress or regression for the Detroit Pistons?

Detroit Pistons v Sacramento Kings Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

The Detroit Pistons are once again one of the two worst teams in the NBA. With a record of just 12-49, they are pretty much equaling the deficient pace of last year’s 20-win team. The big question for Pistons fans is whether that makes them happy or sad.

Before the season, we published a Detroit Pistons season preview looking at the best-case, worst-case and most-likely scenarios for the team. We thought it made sense to revisit them now that we are halfway through the season.

Best-Case Scenario

What we said then:

The fanbase is split between those who view a perfect scenario one that sees the team consistently competitive but still winning just 20-25 games for a better chance at another top pick to team with Cade Cunningham. Then there is a contingent who want to see a 15-plus game improvement and the team fighting for a play-in spot. In reality, it’ll likely fall somewhere in between those scenarios so that everyone in the fanbase is miserable.

This team is right on pace for a 20-25 win season, and while the NBA Draft does not to be nearly as strong as last year’s, there are still enough difference-making prospects that intrigue. The Pistons struggled so completely out of the gate that it seems like fans quickly internalized the upside of another losing season so they have mostly been on board. Sure, fans would prefer more competitive games and fewer blowouts, but losses all count the same in the end. Perhaps we’ll only know if this best-case scenario played out on lottery night, but it seems safe to say at this point, Detroit is getting, at worst, a top-seven draft pick.

Worst-Case Scenario

What we said then:

The worst-case scenario really has nothing to do with wins and losses and everything to do with how much Detroit’s young core can show. So the disaster scenario is that Cunningham shows he’s probably not THE guy you can build a contending team around and the Pistons seem to have wasted not just a lottery pick but a potential franchise altering No. 1 overall selection.

This has been the truly mixed bag of Detroit’s season, though perhaps the good parts so outweigh the bad that we can look back at the progress of Detroit’s core and call it a wild success. Because it all comes down to Cade Cunningham. And at this point, he looks like he is THAT guy.

Cunningham struggled out of the gate, but he’s getting more comfortable, more efficient, starting to cut down on his turnovers, and he is showing he definitely knows how to step up in big moments. Even with Evan Mobley (selected third by the Cavs) looking like perhaps a superstar, you’d be hard pressed to find many Pistons fans who wouldn’t still pick Cade at No. 1.

While he’s the most important member of Detroit’s core in ways that is hard to put into words, he isn’t the only member. And those other members have had many ups and downs. Saddiq Bey’s 3-point shot is wavering, but he’s building other parts to his game that makes it seem like he is not destined to just be a 3-and-D specialist with catch-and-shoot responsibilities. He’s carried the Pistons on many nights.

Isaiah Stewart, however, seems to have taken a step back as a starting role at this point seems to large a responsibility for him to fill. He’s not the best rebounder, his range is non-existent at this point, and he doesn’t have the rim gravity or the passing instincts to dish out of the short roll, so he has spent most the season doing more damage to the offense than he is lifting the defense. The books not written on him yet, but as someone who viewed Stewart as the brightest star from last season, it has definitely been a bummer to see him struggle this year.

Then there is Killian Hayes. He barely got a rookie season at all last year after injuring his hip. When he did play last season he was awful. So you can call his play this season a step forward. His defense is routinely excellent and his passing is underrated. But his offense remains awful on the worst days and non-existent on most of the others. He needs to be a more reliable scoring threat if he wants to be a starting guard in the NBA. Full stop.

Saben Lee, meanwhile, seems like he might simply be a AAAA player, to borrow a phrase from baseball. A guy who is too good for the G League, but doesn’t quite have enough in his game to stick in the NBA. Again, he has time to develop the offensive repertoire needed for his game to succeed at the highest level, but he hasn’t shown it so far this season.

Most-Likely Scenario

What we said then:

In completely remaking the Pistons in just over one year, it’s pretty clear what Troy Weaver wants in his team, and that makes projecting it out relatively easy. There will be no questions about hustle, energy, commitment on both ends of the floor but there will still be some obvious talent gaps and concerns with consistent offense and rebounding.

This one has mostly played out, though the deficiencies in generating consistent offense and rebounding are much more glaring than I envisioned before the season started. Detroit’s offense is 29th in the league. It’s rebounding is 30th. The team’s net rating is 30th. This team was compromised from a roster construction standpoint in ways I couldn’t fully grasp before the season began, and that’s been disappointing. The team once again looks like it will finish with one of the three worst records in the NBA, and if I had to be more specific, I think they will probably finish with the worst record in the NBA.

Why I’m Still Excited to Watch the Pistons for the Rest of the Season

Cade. Cunningham. It’s been a treat to watch this highly skilled, high basketball IQ player figure out the NBA game in real time on the floor from night to night. He’s understanding how to run a team, he’s getting a better sense of what he can and can’t do against elite defensive players, and he understands how to step into big moments and deliver.

If the whole point of being awful and getting the No. 1 pick is to get a player your team can build itself around for the next 10-15 years, I believe the Detroit Pistons have that player. And I’m excited to follow his journey, even it is through a mostly miserable rookie season.

Rookie of the Year Odds

Part of that excitement for the rest of the season is seeing if Cunningham can supplant presumptive favorite Mobley for Rookie of the Year. It is certainly an uphill climb. Mobley has been great, could be generationally great on the defensive end, and has his team in the thick of a playoff race.

Detroit, as previously mentioned, stinks. Currently, Mobley is sitting at -500 for Rookie of the Year on Draft Kings. Cunningham is at +750. There has already been movement toward Cunningham lately as he has put together a couple of statement games. It seems likely the odds are only going to get tighter going forward.

Detroit Pistons Record

Preseason Season Prediction: 29-53, 13th in the East
Updated Season Prediction: 23-59, 15th in the East

Yeah, 29 wins was too lofty. The preseason over/under of 25.5 looks like the most optimistic scenario for the team from here on out. Much more likely is something closer to 20 wins. I’ll continue my optimistic streak and bump it up to 23 assuming some late-season garbage wins.

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