It is time Detroit Pistons fans come to terms with what this disastrous and depressing season of basketball is all about. It’s not wins and losses or putting the most effective starting five on the floor. It is maximizing the role of Jaden Ivey in the present to maximize the potential of Jaden Ivey’s future.
I’m not saying that is a decree Troy Weaver has sent on high to the coaches on Detroit’s sidelines. I’m saying it appears that the Pistons have taken a collective look around and determined that what would be best for Detroit this time next year and potentially for years to come is throwing everything at Ivey, and then giving him even more.
Because, let's face it, nobody on the current roster has a higher ceiling than Ivey, and nobody has more to learn than Ivey.
You could argue Duren is second in line behind only the injured Cade Cunningham, but big men who aren't all-world passers simply have a less integral role in offense, and can be brought along more leisurely in a low-usage role.
It’s not about what is best for Ivey, not right now, anyway. It’s about what is best for his long-term development. Ivey, predictably, has more failures we can point to in his rookie season than successes. But the successes are there and the skills are obvious. He has shown some solid vision and instincts even as he has shown in equal or greater measure poor decision-making and getting himself sped up and out of control. But that speed is something they can’t teach, and Ivey is already pretty adept at using it to score in myriad ways. He’s also cleaned up his shot mechanics with a perimeter stroke that looks a lot smoother if not more reliable quiet yet.
These are all baby steps toward becoming the player his is capable of being, and he’s more likely to be better next year if he learns through trial and (plenty of) error this year. t might come at the expense rewarding Killian Hayes for his incredible leap forward in year three. It might mean that Saddiq Bey finds himself adrift toggling between starter and backup and serving different roles in the rotation. But it’s all about Ivey all the time.
And it makes a certain intuitive sense. Ask yourself this, what does a franchise do in year three of a rebuild when their franchise cornerstone goes out in 12 games and it feels like a lost year? The answer is figure out who is going to be out there playing alongside Ivey and put their development at the forefront.
A Scoot Henderson pick in the draft notwithstanding, it’s clear that the Pistons view a Cade Cunningham-Ivey backcourt as a key to the franchise’s success going forward. We already know that the team revolves around what Cade needs to be successful, and while he’s rehabbing the biggest thing he needs is a back court mate who can help complement his skills.
That is why they chose Ivey in the first place, and that is now why you’re seeing Ivey shoulder even more of the load at point guard alongside veteran Alec Burks. They want Ivey to learn how to be a ball-handler, a playmaker and an offensive initiator. It’s not that Ivey is a point guard going forward, but the more point guard skills he can bring to the table, the better he’ll be able to take some of that burden off of Cunningham, and the more dangerous the offense will be overall.
This season was supposed to be about Jaden and Cade learning side by side. With the two separated by Cade's injury, the Pistons have simply decided to double down on Ivey's education and throw him into the deep end. It might mean some bumps and bruises (physical and emotional) along the way, but they see a payoff in the long run.
At this point Killian Hayes is the best point guard on the team, but if Hayes himself is going to have a medium-term future with the Pistons, it’s going to come in a reserve role. There is no reason he can’t excel at it provided he keeps his scoring at an acceptable level, and there is no reason Hayes can’t find himself and his defense on the floor in crunch time closing games.
But Ivey needs lead ball-handler reps. Over the next 30 games, having that expectation on him might not lead to much success, but it might help him find his rhythm. Fewer rushed possessions, and less frequent needs to do it all at once as a playmaker. This is an opportunity to settle into this role, and it’ll only work if it’s a long-term decision and not just a change-of-pace to jolt a sputtering team.
Again, I don’t think the Pistons in any form are destined for many wins this season. They’re a bottom-three team missing Cunningham, missing Marvin Bagley, seeing other pieces fall in and out of the rotation. They never will be more than one of the league’s worst defense (and you can thank Ivey for a bit of that as well).
When you’re this bad you need to see beyond the win-loss record and scoring margin and start to think about the north star of the organization. And if that north star is “What is good for Cade Cunningham?” the answer becomes “Throwing Jaden Ivey into the fire this year and seeing him come out the other side.”
It’s the Jaden Ivey season. It’s ugly, real ugly, right now. But hopefully when Cunningham sees the floor again it’ll be alongside an Ivey who can look back and reflect on everything he learned in his rookie year.