“You wanna trend something? I’m pissed! So go ahead, get it out there.”
That all-time quote by the ageless Pat Riley perfectly encapsulates my current feelings on the ongoing Jaden Ivey situation. In the same breath, I’ll go ahead and point out that I do, in fact, know we are early in this season and in the tenure of the coaching regime. I could (hopefully) be eating my words in a couple of months. But at the moment, Detroit Pistons guards Jaden Ivey and Killian Hayes are trending on Pistons Twitter with the combativeness of two political candidates in an election year.
Say what you will, but it is not debatable that Jaden has among the highest ceilings of any player on this roster. Putting future potential aside, even if you only look at the players available to the injury-plagued Pistons today, he is maybe the second-best offensive player when factoring in overall impact. In a season where the Pistons are clearly not going to push for the playoffs, helping Ivey reach his ceiling is paramount. This is not a guy who should be getting less than 20 minutes a night and rarely in crunch time.
He should also not be getting fewer minutes than KEVIN FREAKING KNOX! Yes, the same Kevin Knox, who did not have a job less than two weeks ago. And while Knox can give the team a needed jolt of shooting, Ivey’s limited minutes in games when the team desperately needs scoring and playmaking are becoming more and more inexcusable for a team with an absolutely impotent offense. I also want to note that, yes, I know Ivey has been sick. That does not change my feelings about this situation, as the weirdness was evident long before he missed any games.
Now that I’ve gotten that all off my chest, let’s take a step back and sort through some serious issues involving this Ivey situation.
Can we get this man some help?
The first point isn’t directly about Ivey, it’s about Cade Cunningham. My biggest gripe of the season is the lack of putting any semblance of a competent NBA offense around Cade. As many have pointed out, teams are not scared of anyone in the starting lineup aside from Cade.
He is constantly double-teamed, collapsed on, and blitzed when he probes the lane or receives a ball screen. As a friend of mine recently put it, the current starting group looks like the worst version of a Tom Izzo-coached team. That might be a compliment—if the Pistons played in the Big 10. The emphasis on defensive effort has been Monty Williams putting his money where his mouth is. However, muddying up the game with physical play and rebounding while trading off a severe lack of spacing and scoring does not work for extended stretches in the NBA.
Cade often looks winded at the end of games, which makes sense as he currently leads the NBA in minutes. I’m tired of watching one of two things happen in crunch time as the Pistons squander yet another winnable game: one, a gassed Cunningham dribbles into a crowded paint and either turns it over or leaves a heavily contested shot short. Two, a gassed Cunningham attempts to catch his breath and defers to Killian Hayes, who receives a ball screen, dribbles for 10 seconds, and, more often than not, clanks a contested midrange shot. It’s tiresome even more so because it is correctable. It’s simply not fair to Cade, who is being asked to increase his efficiency while being scoring option 1 of 1. At a minimum, for the sake of the promising franchise player, the Pistons should consider going smaller, and look to add shooting into its starting and closing groups.
Do you know who would help alleviate some of these issues? Jaden Ivey!
More than that, though, Ivey would add an element of support to Cade that he is desperately lacking in almost any lineup he finds himself in. Not only would Jaden’s 46% catch-and-shoot percentage be welcomed spacing for Cunningham, but the sophomore is far and away the best player on the team at putting pressure on the rim. The gravity that rim pressure creates for others is enormous, and right now, the Pistons don’t have enough of it to stay afloat offensively.
Ivey is the only other player on this team that an opponent would ever blitz or double-team. Don’t believe me? The aforementioned Pat Riley’s own Miami Heat team blitzed Ivey routinely in the second half of a contest last April, as he torched them for 30 points and 7 assists. Aside from Cade, no other player on the roster is capable of striking fear into an opposing defense in the manner that Ivey can.
This increased playmaking and scoring threat on the floor could allow Cade to become a floor spacer himself, and benefit from catch-and-shoot opportunities of his own, where he has been league average. It would also decrease his usage, and give him the chance to cut down on his turnovers. It would also afford Cunningham the opportunity to attack a partially collapsed defense on its heels as opposed to one that typically quadruple-teams him.
With his electric athleticism, Ivey can get to the rim seemingly at will, and he draws fouls at a high rate. Not to mention, he is much improved finishing at the rim this year, at a very good 65.4% rate. These are attributes that would be a welcome help to Detroit’s young star.
Beyond all of this, though, why would you not want to see how your two highest-drafted guards mesh together? While it’s clear Hayes has taken a step forward, he still demonstrates the skill set of a backup guard. Ivey and Cade have played extremely limited minutes together, and I do not understand why the team would not want to see how they fit as a duo. In what appears to be another lost season, it is worth discovering whether this is a Darius Garland-Donovan Mitchell situation or a Luka Doncic-Dennis Smith Jr. arrangement. Maybe I’ll be wrong down the road, but at the moment, the team is doing itself no favors by delaying finding out.
Setting Ivey up for success
Last year, Ivey led all rookies in assists a year. Today, he is mostly asked to stand in the corner for possessions at a time. Last season, with Cunningham (and half the roster) injured, Ivey thrived as a playmaker with the ball in his hands for much of the game. This season, Ivey is sharing the floor with Marcus Sasser and Alec Burks, both of whom are among the best available catch-and-shoot options on the roster. Unfortunately, Ivey rarely finds the ball in his hands.
This lineup should theoretically allow the team to spread the floor and allow Ivey to operate out of the pick-and-roll, where he has shown to be efficient dating back to his college days. His ball screen playmaking and drive-and-kick ability would be enough to function as the fulcrum of a competent second-unit offense. Yet I see Ivey frequently in the corner, looking unsure of whether to go to the ball or spot up more often than not these days.
Yes, Ivey has struggled with shot selection and turnovers at times this year. So has every one of his teammates. Jaden’s talents are worth accepting some of these mishaps. I am all for Monty Williams’ tough-love approach (more on that to come), but that approach needs to be balanced with an effort to put players in positions to have success by playing to their strengths.
We have a year’s worth of NBA tape that demonstrates Ivey’s proficiency in using pick and rolls, dribble hand-offs, and pin-downs to create shots for himself and others. It is inexcusable not to see him get those opportunities, particularly when the roster is clearly deprived of someone who can do those exact things. I am fine with Ivey coming off the bench for now, and I am even okay with him seeing his minutes reduced. What I am not fine with, is a young player with a high ceiling being limited in his minutes to the point where he is not able to catch a rhythm, and also not having a schematic structure in place to help him along as he works through growing pains.
What do I mean by that? Creating a defined role for him to master and giving him the fairness of predictable minutes, no matter how many or little they may be. At the moment, neither of those things is happening for Ivey, and that is on the coaching staff. A failure to do this can be psychologically damaging to a young player, and I’d hate to see that happen to Jaden. Put another way, good coaches adapt to the talent they have, not the other way around.
What is the standard?
Head coach Monty Williams has maintained that Ivey needs to improve his “habits” in order to see increased minutes on the floor, and he has talked at length about not giving out minutes to youngsters. He has a clear desire to make his young players earn playing time. However, the standard for Jaden appears different from the standard set for the rest of the team’s young players. We know the standard has nothing to do with not putting in the time to get better. Ivey, by all accounts, is one of the hardest workers on the team. Don’t take my word for it, take Monty’s word for it.
Presumably, this is all about defense and decision-making. As our own Bryce Simon pointed out on a recent episode of The Pistons Pulse, there is plenty of tape on Killian this season that shows him getting beat defensively. Ivey actually has a higher defensive rating than Hayes, though it is, admittedly, in a much smaller sample size. The same could be said for the defense of Cade and others. In terms of shot selection and turnovers, Sean Corp recently conducted a deep dive into Cunningham’s struggles in both of those areas, yet he leads the entire league in minutes. While Sasser has been electric, the extended minutes have shown that the ball can stick to him at times, and he is sometimes prone to be indecisive and opt for a stepback jumper instead of taking the catch-and-shoot opportunities. I say all of this, and yet all of the previously mentioned players are blowing Ivey out of the water in terms of minutes. Are we really being consistent in holding all the young players to the same standard?
Furthermore, Ivey’s defensive effort and intensity have been noticeably increased this season. Against the Bulls, he was seen walling up on multiple Demar DeRozan drives. In a game against the Pelicans, he ignited a comeback attempt with a block on a CJ McCollum jumper and a coast-to-coast drive, before promptly being pulled from the game. His effort on the ball has improved noticeably. He still struggles getting lost in screens, but again, so does much of the roster. And for all of the talk about improving the defense, and trotting out a starting and closing lineup that sacrifices spacing and skill for improvement of the defense, the team is just 23rd in defensive rating. I am not sure how anyone benefits from that.
Searching for the positives
There can be some positives to be gleaned from this tough start. Again, Killian has objectively improved. Sasser looks like a real guy whose ceiling grows by the week. At some point this season, the Pistons may have some actual veteran depth. This has created a level of competition among the Pistons' backcourt — the only healthy position group on the roster. All of these things could give the Pistons real options for the first time in what feels like forever. With the current roster, they should be able to have the flexibility, and assets to either go after a big name, or sell and acquire additional assets at the deadline, and/or next summer.
Nonetheless, as it stands, 2023-34 will likely be yet another ho-hum rebuilding season. The longer the Pistons continue to handcuff Ivey’s growth, the longer they put off determining the best version of one of their most talented players and his place on the current roster. Here’s hoping we look back at this article and laugh as his minutes skyrocket going forward. Carry on.