Eleven months ago, the Detroit Pistons accomplished the most arduous task of any rebuild: They got the dude. Not a dude, the dude, in the form of Cade Cunningham, one of the most tremendous prospects from the past half-decade.
Yet because Detroit was only in the second year of a new era and its 2020 lottery pick, Killian Hayes, continued to struggle, the surrounding context for Cunningham didn’t extend him much leeway. Evan Mobley and Scottie Barnes, the other two finalists for Rookie of the Year alongside Cunningham, are imminent superstars and incredible players, but the disparity in contexts between those two and Cunningham last year was startling. That, of course, is not the fault of Mobley or Barnes by any stretch, though these types of details must be accounted for as we analyze young players and their development.
Ideally, the bedrock of Cunningham’s offensive game is a methodical, slashing nature amplified by a threatening jumper. At 6’6, 220 pounds with the guile to ram defenders into screens and a rocking chair cadence to burrow his way downhill, Cunningham can reliably generate paint touches. The aim is to lure defenders his way and invite his versatile, virtuoso playmaking to shine, finding shooters/secondary creators on the perimeter or play-finishers around the basket.
Last season, though, the Pistons, well, didn’t really roster any of those archetypes to capitalize on how often Cunningham compromises defenses. They ranked 29th in three-point percentage (32.9 percent) and were below average in three-point rate (17th). Among the nine players to log at least 800 minutes, only Cory Joseph (41.4 percent) shot better than 36 percent beyond the arc. The shooting was dire and vertical spacing didn’t offer a reprieve either.
Isaiah Stewart, who started 71 games at center for Detroit, is a 6’8, vertically limited big man with 65 dunks in 139 career contests. During the second half of the season, when Marvin Bagley III (acquired via trade) and Kelly Olynyk (returned from injury) were in the rotation, the Pistons’ offense ran much smoother. That uptick was directly tied to Bagley providing a lob presence and Olynyk spacing the floor on pick-and-pops.
Following Bagley’s move to Detroit (26 games, he played 18 of them), he averaged 15 points on 59 percent true shooting, while the Pistons ranked 24th in offensive rating (111.4), a notable bump from 28th and 105.6 prior to his arrival. That was by no means a coincidence. Legitimate release valves for Cunningham in Bagley and Olynyk brought the offense to passably poor levels rather than dastardly worrisome.
Entering Thursday’s 2022 NBA Draft, Detroit evidently recognized the constraints of its roster around the franchise cornerstone and immediately addressed those shortcomings. They are properly building around Cunningham and progressing toward a future where the ancillary personnel amplifies him and is suited for him to amplify it.
That is how you maximize lottery-bound seasons and do not squander someone like Cunningham, who is destined for years of superstardom. These downtrodden campaigns are not merely a bridge to wait on Cunningham’s full-fledged arrival. They are a conduit to accelerate his full-fledged arrival that elevates everyone around him.
With the No. 5 pick, the Pistons selected Jaden Ivey, a speed demon of a guard who projects to best toggle between a 1B and 2A creation role. Both horizontally and vertically, he’s a jetpack-powered athlete touting a manipulative handle, creativity as a driver, and uncanny contortion as a finisher (73rd percentile at the rim in the half-court, per Synergy). Grant him a pocket of space and he can spin that into a grave error. Cunningham’s orbit will help pry open those pockets of space.
Detroit did not sport a viable complementary ball-handler next to Cunningham last season. Ideally, Hayes assumed that responsibility, but his poor burst and shooting have proven to be too large of hurdles to overcome. Although Ivey’s jumper resides in the incubator, his explosion and ability to wiggle through congested quarters will let him maintain and expand the advantages crafted by Cunningham.
Separate from spot-up threes, there are absolutely ways to serve as a devastating off-ball outlet and Ivey will outline that concept alongside Cunningham in the coming years. Stunts, rotations, and attention diverted toward Cunningham and away from Ivey lay the groundwork for the 6’4 guard to teleport into points.
As a rookie, Cunningham was a rather adept advantage creator. Perfect would not be an apt label, but the far more pressing issue for the Pistons’ offense was a lack of options to multiply those advantages into points or dependable opportunities for points. Ivey doesn’t alleviate every flaw of the roster, but a secondary handler, at least in due time, checks off a glaring issue from the to-do list. Further, eschewing primary creation needs for Ivey and slotting him in a less daunting job ensures he will not be straddled by a sink-or-swim mantra, nor will all of the burden rest on Cunningham.
This partnership should be symbiotic; Ivey can commandeer the offense at times and Cunningham holsters off-ball savvy. The dichotomy between Cunningham’s meticulous, think-then-act approach and Ivey’s roadrunner, act-then-think approach is a suitable contrast upon which to establish an offense.
Not even an hour after drafting Ivey, Detroit traded back into the lottery, this time with a fixation on center Jalen Duren. Stewart delivered commendable contributions in his first two seasons. But some sophomore stagnation and his scoring hangups make him a precarious fit next to Cunningham and as a general NBA starter. Duren, a top-10 recruit in the class of 2021, projects as the successor in the middle.
The 18-year-old from Memphis touts pogo-stick bounce, a 7’5 wingspan and the catch radius to turn Elastigirl green with envy. According to Synergy, he shot 70.9 percent at the rim last season in the half-court, landing him in the 93rd percentile, and jammed home 70 dunks in 29 games, per Barttorvik. Given Cunningham’s accolades as a lob and laydown facilitator, a potentially elite play-finishing 5 instead of last season’s carousel inside should augment him individually and the collective offense.
Duren’s short-roll playmaking and the rate at which he processes chances substantially progressed over the past couple years, too. Passing on the move are not traits brandished by Stewart or Bagley, so a vertical spacer who doubles as a distributor, albeit in a limited capacity, embeds another novel dimension into Detroit’s offense.
What’s more is his presence should also ease Cunningham’s own finishing complications (30th percentile at the rim in the half-court, per Synergy). Defenses were comfortable flooding his drives and attempts around the basket because whoever the outlet was didn’t provoke much concern from them. Such a shift in dynamic will require time to transpire, but the Pistons own the luxury of time for a little while. These sorts of moves are all about fashioning the ideal vision long-term with Cunningham piloting things. Undoubtedly, Thursday advanced those goals.
After these additions, Cunningham’s life is easier and the extent of his greatness now radiates wider. Once you uncover the dude, your aim should always be to operate through a lens of magnifying him and letting him magnify everyone else. Detroit and Cunningham may not yet be ready for greatness, but the likelihood of actualizing that intention grew a whole lot on Thursday.