There are moments every game where you see how Cade Cunningham could become a dominant NBA player. The Detroit Pistons guard is clearly capable of scoring at the rim even without explosive athleticism. Using his size and patience to get to his spot and easily hitting a mid-range jumper. Finding cutters even while being swallowed up by the defense. Walking into a 3-pointer that seems effortless.
Two weeks into his third season (with his second largely being lost to injury), you see all the building blocks. You also see all the mistakes. The unforced errors. The bad shots. The turnovers.
Cade Cunningham is a former No. 1 overall pick who has struggled to put it all together consistently. There are myriad factors. The Pistons have not blessed him with opportunities to share the floor with spacers, he’s playing a point guard role when he might be best served playing more off the ball, only Detroit’s point guard lottery pick, Killian Hayes, is one of the least efficient shooters in the NBA.
This season, injuries have hit the Pistons hard, and the team is currently without five rotation players, including its three most reliable perimeter shooters.
Too Much of Everything for Cade
That has led to a sky-high usage for Cunningham (33%), and, relatedly, astronomical turnover numbers (18.9%). The advanced stats are not kind to Cunningham’s game, to put it mildly. He’s working through his third consecutive season with negative Win Shares, Box Plus-MInus, and this season has a negative VORP.
His True Shooting Percentage continues to hover around 50% when good offensive players hit the 55% mark, and stars routinely eclipse 60%.
So how good is Cade Cunningham?
Unfortunately, we have no way to find out because when Cade is on the floor, he is forced to do everything for his team. He’s the best (and often only) playmaker. He’s often the best shooter on the floor despite not being terribly efficient. He’s the only player to attract defenders, and he consistently attracts ALL the defenders.
All Attention on Cade
We’re only eight games into the season, and I feel like I’ve seen screenshots of dozens of instances where Cunningham has the ball in the lane, and he is surrounded by four defenders. That is because the defense isn’t afraid of letting Cade shoot, and the defense is often right not to be concerned.
Cade can dish the rock and make excellent passes. He’s also prone to careless turnovers, and the defensive attention he garners just exacerbates that issue into fatal errors in winnable games. Cunningham hasn’t had fewer than five turnovers since opening night this season.
Cunningham is also a capable shooter. However, he’s often the only capable shooter, and he knows it. That means he takes a lot of shots. Too many shots. He has five games of more than 20 shots attempted this season. He has also scored 25 or more points five times.
But when you look at those 25-point games, his shot attempts are: 27 to get 30 points, 19 to get 25 points, 27 to get 30 points, 24 to get 26 points, 27 to get 33 points. That’s not a superstar dominating a game. That’s just inefficient basketball.
Again, I ask, how good is Cade Cunningham?
Do More With Less
We will know once he can do much less of everything — less shooting, less distributing, less playmaking.
Only seven other players in NBA history have had as high a usage percentage as Cunningham does now, and they are, for the most part, the elite of the elite players. Cunningham’s performance is clearly the worst, but when the crowd is populated by Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Mark Aguirre, Luka Doncic, Joel Embiid, Trae Young and Ja Morant, it becomes at least a little more understandable.
I don’t want Cunningham to have a Luka-like workload, and he’s no Michael Jordan. That’s no slight.
Ideally, he’d share the floor with a point guard or high-level off-ball guard. The Pistons are putting him alongside Killian Hayes for now, but Hayes’ generates so little defensive attention, it mitigates the help he can provide as a passer, because you still want the ball in Cade’s hands more often than not.
That might be Monte Morris, an ultra-efficient point guard who has made 39% of his career threes. It could be Jaden Ivey, who acquitted himself nicely during his rookie season filling in for the injured Cunningham. Ivey, though, is currently absent, and has minutes have been limited as new coach Monty Williams challenges Ivey to step up his defensive performance. It might be rookie Marcus Sasser, because, it seems, Sasser is one of the best basketball players ever (a slight exaggeration).
Cunningham could also benefit from as many shooters as the team can field. That’s not going to be Ausar Thompson, the do-it-all-but-shoot wunderkind rookie who is already a great defender and rebounder, and who needs to be on the court as often or more than Cunningham.
Hiring: Shooters in Detroit, Experience Required
That means those other three slots joining Cade and Ausar are critical. The team wants that to be Isaiah Stewart, the burly center who the team has slowly transformed into a perimeter-oriented power forward. Stewart is hitting 42% of his 3s this year, and if and when defenses take Beef Stew’s shot seriously, it will do wonders for Cade.
As of now, they still play off Stew and blitz Cunningham at every opportunity. That is sometimes a recipe for Stewart open 3s, but more often it means more dribbling, more turnovers, and more tough shots for Cade.
Veteran sharpshooter Bojan Bogdanovic might be the straw that stirs the drink for Detroit’s plans this season. The Pistons hope he can survive defensively at small forward this season, and on offense, he does everything the Pistons need from a wing. Last season in his first year in Detroit, he averaged 21.6 points while shooting nearly 54% on twos and 41% on 3s, averaging six attempts per game.
The ball also doesn’t really stick in his hands, and he can make quick decisions within coach Monty Williams’ scheme. He also led the team last year in free-throw attempts at 5.1 per game.
If you add that overwhelming offensive competence to Detroit’s lineup, it could help everything lock into place, especially for Cunningham.
The injury report is expected to get cleared up in the next two weeks. We could see the season debuts of Bogdanovic, Morris, and the return of Ivey and Burks by the end of November.
Adding that experience and shooting to the complementary and emerging skills of Detroit’s young core, the team will make a lot more sense, and potentially be a lot more effective.
Then we can see what kind of player, and star, Cade Cunningham can be.