The Detroit Pistons made the Eastern Conference Finals in 2008. It marked the sixth year in a row the team made it to that point, and over that stretch, they made the NBA Finals twice and won it once. Since then: 15 seasons, three playoff berths. The most recent one came in 2019 — with the Sacramento Kings making it last year, Detroit is currently tied for the second-longest postseason drought in the league.
The bad news for the Pistons is that the Eastern Conference is going to be brutal this year, and odds are, they’re not going to be able to break through to the Play-In Tournament. The good news, though, is that this has the potential to be a year where Detroit lays a really great foundation, one that lets them get back to being a perennial playoff contender.
Biggest Question: Can Cade Cunningham Be A Star?
Cade Cunningham’s sophomore campaign came to an end on Nov. 9, 2022. Cunningham, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, suffered a stress fracture in his shin that required surgery and limited him to only 12 games of action. It was a brutal twist of fate for Cunningham and the Pistons — he was supposed to use this year to build on his rookie campaign and build his chemistry with his potential backcourt mate for the next decade-plus, Jaden Ivey.
There was a silver lining to this cloud, as Ivey came into his own as the season went along and looks like the dynamic, explosive guard he was billed to be coming out of Purdue. But Cunningham is the potential face of the franchise, the sort of jumbo playmaker with scoring chops that every team covets right now. Losing out on a year of development — and, frankly, a year of watching him play basketball — really stinks, even if the Pistons weren’t viewed as a potential playoff team in the Eastern Conference.
The good news for Detroit is that Cunningham is back and healthy. By all accounts, Cunningham was magnificent while playing with the USA Basketball Select Team that helped prepare the senior side ahead of the FIBA Basketball World Cup — “He looked great,” Steve Kerr said, per The Athletic. “The injury is clearly behind him and it’s great to see him healthy. He’s a guy who can really control the game from the point guard spot with his size and physicality.”
There’s an opportunity for Cunningham to take a big step forward under new head coach Monty Williams — remember, Devin Booker made his first All-Star team after he took over in Phoenix. If he can, it’s going to make the Pistons’ rebuild look awfully promising, and turn them into an up-and-coming team to watch as we enter 2024-25.
X-Factor: Figuring Out Their Core
Detroit has … we’ll say a lot going on. Again, it’s not like this is a team that will be expected to compete for a title at some point in the next 20 months or anything like that, so this season is all about figuring out who is and is not at the center of Williams’ plans going forward. Cunningham seems to be a lock, as does Ivey. Jalen Duren, whose bright spots last year were incredibly bright, seems a safe bet. Ausar Thompson, who went fifth overall in the 2023 NBA Draft, has superstar potential.
But what about everyone else? Namely, what will they do with the younger players on their roster? James Wiseman, Killian Hayes, and Isaiah Livers are potential restricted free agents next offseason. (Not young guys, but Joe Harris, Alec Burks, and Monte Morris are all unrestricted free agents next summer, too.) Marvin Bagley will hit the unrestricted market in 2025. If you assume a Cunningham contract extension is coming and they don’t make any trades, the only players the team will have on the books in 2025-26 are Cunningham, Duren, Ivey, Thompson, Marcus Sasser, and Isaiah Stewart.
(Stewart, as an aside, is an interesting case here, as he’s only 22, has shown a willingness to shoot threes, and brings energy and toughness every night. He’s due $15 million a year, every year, through his team option 2028, which is not a ton of money considering where the salary cap is going. He’s either part of their core going forward or he’s a potentially fascinating trade chip.)
There are obvious questions about whether or not the team tries to turn any those aforementioned veterans — along with Bojan Bogdanovic — into more future-facing stuff over the course of this season. But above all else, Detroit is in the process of figuring things out with those youngsters, and having clarity about how they all fit together by the end of this season is crucial.