This was supposed to be the year the Detroit Pistons stopped tanking and started getting serious. Coming off an NBA-worst 17-win season, the Pistons made the first big move of the summer by inking Monty Williams to the richest coaching contract in league history. Detroit entered the offseason with maximum lottery odds to land Victor Wembanyama and about $30 million available in cap space, making them one of the few teams with real ability to add impact talent in free agency.
The Pistons’ dreams were quickly dashed when they fell to as far as they possibly could to No. 5 overall in the draft lottery, though Ausar Thompson was a hell of a consolation prize. Instead of trying to throw a bag at someone like Cam Johnson in free agency, Detroit used its cap space to take on veterans Joe Harris and Monte Morris all while adding an extra future second round draft pick.
The Pistons knew their hopes rested on internal development and Williams’ ability to manufacture wins. Detroit had reason to be optimistic with former No. 1 draft pick Cade Cunningham returning from a shin injury that limited him to 12 games a year earlier. Cunningham went to USA Basketball training camp and lit it up with the Select Team, sparking optimism that he could still be the offensive engine Detroit badly needed.
With Jaden Ivey and Jalen Duren entering year two, first round picks Thompson and Marcus Sasser joining the young core, and the chance for continued growth from Isaiah Stewart and Killian Hayes, the Pistons could talk themselves into a real leap. The bar for this franchise was already at the ground; just showing organizational competence would have counted as a step in the right direction.
Unfortunately, the Pistons haven’t taken a step to begin the 2023-2024 season. At 2-11, this is still the worst team in the NBA, and the lack of success after four years of rebuilding is starting to get embarrassing.
The Toronto Raptors beat the Pistons, 142-113, on Sunday afternoon. Toronto entered the game at No. 27 in offensive efficiency by scoring 108.3 points per 100 possessions. Against Detroit, the Raptors scored 134.4 points per 100, per Cleaning the Glass. Toronto finished the game with 44 assists, a stunning number, by whipping the ball around to open shooters and interior finishers before the Pistons knew what hit them. Toronto — again, one of the worst offensive teams in the league — made 41-of-66 shots from two-point range, and also knocked down 39 percent of their 36 three-point attempts.
It was the Pistons’ 11th straight loss. While that would be a new low for just about any other franchise, it’s par for the course with Detroit. This is the team’s third 11-game losing streak during 2023.
This is the Pistons’ third 11-game losing streak since Feb. 10. They dropped 11-straight twice during their final 24 games last season.
— Omari Sankofa II (@omarisankofa) November 19, 2023
The Pistons’ struggles are even more concerning when you look at the newfound success of the other teams used to sharing the league’s basement with Detroit.
Since the 2019-2020 season, the Pistons have the worst record in the NBA at 82-234. That’s a 25.9 percent winning percentage.
The two teams right below them? That would be the Houston Rockets and Orlando Magic. The Rockets also hired a tough veteran head coach over the offseason by bringing in Ime Udoka. They actually spent their cap space, signing Fred VanVleet and Dillion Brooks to expensive deals to augment the young core. Houston is suddenly off to a 6-5 start, and have been one of the most pleasant surprises in the league to this point. The Magic also had a quiet offseason, but their young core pieces look significantly better than Detroit’s do. The Magic are 8-5 and can dream of cracking the East playoff picture without needing to go through the play-in tournament.
So why hasn’t Detroit improved the same way the Rockets and Magic have? It comes down to a lack of development by the purported franchise player, some strange coaching decisions by Williams, a ton of injuries, and an oddly put together roster that just doesn’t fit.
Cade Cunningham doesn’t look like a franchise player yet
I thought Cunningham looked like a no-brainer entering the 2021 NBA Draft. I had Cunningham ranked atop a talented class, and after interviewing him for a feature a year ago, was convinced he was built for modern basketball as an oversized lead initiator who could blend scoring and passing at a high level while being able to shoot from deep, and be a plus defender with a big frame.
Cunningham is only 22 years old, and still has plenty of time to pop. It just hasn’t happened yet.
Cunningham has struggled badly with turnovers and his own scoring efficiency so far this season. His per-game numbers look solid with 21.2 points and 7.4 assists, but he’s only shooting 40 percent from the field and under 30 percent from three. With a true shooting percentage a shade under 50 percent, he’s in the 10th percentile of scoring efficiency in the league, per dunksandthrees.com. He’s also leading the NBA in turnovers so far.
Cade’s issues are real. He lacks dynamic athleticism to collapse the defense off the bounce and finish at the basket. So far, he’s putting up woeful 50 percent shooting at the rim and he’s been allergic to getting to the free throw line. The outside shot also just hasn’t translated to the league after hitting 40 percent of 155 attempts from deep during his one season at Oklahoma State. On 505 three-point attempts in his career, Cunningham is shooting 30.7 percent. The turnovers are just as troubling: Cade is often getting himself into unwinnable situations on the floor, and he doesn’t have the bounce or strength to recover.
Of course, the Pistons aren’t doing him any favors in terms of spacing.
Detroit has no shooting thanks to injuries
How is Cunningham supposed to shine as an on-ball creator when he’s playing a shoebox every night? Detroit really might have the worst spacing in the league, starting Killian Hayes, Ausar Thompson, Marvin Bagley II, and Jalen Duren on most nights this season.
The Pistons only take a three-pointer on 33.7 percent of their field goal attempts — which ranks No. 28 in the league. They make their threes at a 35.3 percent clip (No. 18 in the league), but simply don’t take enough of them, often turning wide open looks into turnovers. This is because there just isn’t enough shooting on the roster — at least not healthy shooters.
This is where the injuries come in: Bojan Bogdanović, Monte Morris, and Isaiah Livers are three of the best shooters on the team, and none of them have played this year. Joe Harris, another vet with a long history of being a sniper from deep, has also been out with a shoulder injury after appearing in seven games.
There have been some odd coaching decisions from Monty Williams, too
Williams has been resolute to starting Killian Hayes over Jaden Ivey. Hayes is a defensive bulldog with plus size in the backcourt, but the former No. 7 overall pick simply can’t score at the NBA level. Hayes struggles to catch-and-shoot, doesn’t have enough lift to finish at the basket, and can’t get to the line. At this point, most people agree Hayes is a total nothing burger offensively, but Williams has kept him on the floor over Ivey, last year’s No. 5 overall pick, who is bursting with offensive potential.
Per-36 minutes, Ivey is averaging 19.2 points, 4.8 assists, and 4.3 rebounds on 51.4 percent shooting from the floor and 39.3 percent shooting from three. He’s young and raw defensively and prone to mistakes, but at a certain point Williams needs to give him more than 20 minutes per game to see if he’s really part of the long-term plan or not.
The Pistons are also almost always playing two bigs together who can’t shoot. Stewart has actually been the team’s best shooter (40.7 percent from three on 4.2 attempts per game), but he can be a liability on the perimeter defensively, and he’s failed to take advantage of smaller defenders as an interior scorer. Former No. 2 overall pick Marvin Bagley III has had an efficient year as an interior scorer and rebounder, but doesn’t stretch the defense with his jumper at all. James Wiseman has surpassed Bagley as an even bigger draft bust as a former No. 2 overall pick himself, and he’s just not giving the team anything on the rare occasions he actually plays.
The Pistons have some bright spots, but they should have seen more improvement by now
While Cunningham struggles and Ivey remains a question mark, the Pistons at least have two young players who look incredible right now.
We had Jalen Duren as a top-five player in the 2022 NBA Draft. The Pistons wisely traded up for him at No. 13, and he looked dominant as a long-and-strong, super athletic big man slamming home lobs and even showing flashes of creation off the dribble. Still only 19 years old, Duren looks like a home run pick for Troy Weaver. Unfortunately he’s also been out of the lineup lately with an ankle injury.
Ausar Thompson is living up to the hype in an explosive rookie season so far, as well. Thompson is already a terror on the defensive end as a 6’7 wing with a 7-foot wingspan with elite speed, leaping ability, and body control. He’s racking up defensive accomplishments the league has rarely seen before every night, gobbling up rebounds, blocks, and steals at record rates for a rookie. Thompson can’t shoot at all right now, but if he ever develops a reliable jumper, he could a multi-time All-Star. He’s going to be pretty great even if it never comes.
The Pistons’ future isn’t totally bleak, but their present is. The losing sounds like it’s taking a huge toll on the players.
I asked Cade Cunningham — who, along with Stewart, have been trying to keep the group together amid this losing streak — how the message, approach has to change at this point with 11 straight losses. His response: pic.twitter.com/H5hW4ZnJNh
— James L. Edwards III (@JLEdwardsIII) November 19, 2023
The Pistons weren’t supposed to be this bad again, not with Monty Williams in charge and Cade Cunningham back in the lineup. While the Magic and Rockets ascend, Detroit has to be asking itself some tough questions. Is Weaver the right man to lead the front office? Can Cunningham really be the best player on a good team? Was Ivey another wasted lottery pick? Was it a mistake to give Williams such a big deal?
The Pistons have time on their side, but eventually, both ownership and the fans will want to see results. After years in the NBA cellar, it feels like it’s only getting worse for Detroit.