The Detroit Pistons are still mulling the most important decision the franchise will have to make this season.
Franchise cornerstone Cade Cunningham hasn’t appeared in a game since November 9th. The second-year guard has been out with right shin soreness – an issue so severe that the organization is considering season-ending surgery. The ramifications of this decision are massive.
Whether Cunningham returns this season or not, the Pistons appear destined to finish at the bottom of the league standings for the fourth consecutive season. Sitting at 5-17, last place in the Eastern Conference, the franchise looks as though they’ll have the opportunity to draft another premier prospect in a heralded draft class frontlined by 7’2 sensation Victor Wembenyama and Scoot Henderson, a multi-year prodigy of the NBA G League.
The optics of the decision are murky. Rival executives believe Detroit will opt for Cunningham to undergo surgery in order to put the team in a position to lose the most games possible – giving the franchise the best chance of landing one of the top picks in the draft. If Cunningham returns and struggles – or even worse, injures the shin more significantly – the organization will be lambasted for allowing him to step back on the court in a losing season.
If Cunningham is able to make a full recovery and can return to the court in perfect health, he should absolutely play again this season. Even if the Pistons are on a path to the bottom once again, Cunningham needs to be on the court developing – especially since he largely struggled before the injury – shooting just 41.5 percent from the field and 27.9 percent from the 3-point line. It’s also imperative that he and rookie guard Jaden Ivey are provided the necessary time to build chemistry together – not just as the team’s starting backcourt – but as the pillars the franchise is being built upon.
However, the Pistons have been very quiet about Cunningham. They’ve offered little details as to his status outside of marking him as “out” on the injury report with right shin soreness. From the outside, it appears the organization is in no rush to get him back in a jersey. That being said, he traveled with the team throughout its entire six-game road trip out west and was seen entrenched in a workout on the court prior to Detroit’s game against Sacramento on November 20th. Yet it appears Cunningham will be out for a long time, perhaps the rest of the season if surgery is decided upon.
With Cunningham sidelined for the remainder of the year the priorities for what’s left of the season come to question.
Will general manager Troy Weaver open a fire sale on the roster? Teams across the league have shown intense interest in acquiring newly-extended veteran Bojan Bogdanovic. Nerlens Noel is reportedly not expected to finish the season in Detroit. Alec Burks and his microwave-scoring ability will be a hot commodity at the trade deadline. Could the team ship away all of the veteran help it brought in to buoy its playoff aspirations?
A decision to move on from Bogdanovic, unless the return would net Detroit significant assets in form of draft compensation and young prospects, would be unwise. The 33-year-old forward is averaging a career-best 20.6 points per game on 49.5 percent shooting from the field and 39.5 percent shooting from the 3-point line. He’s arguably been the team’s best player, and his new contract extension is team-friendly, with minimal money guaranteed in the final year of the deal.
Moving Noel makes sense. Even with Isaiah Stewart missing time with a right toe injury, Noel has seldomly played this season with Jalen Duren and Marvin Bagley firmly entrenched in the rotation ahead of him. With Stewart due back soon, there’s even less time to play Noel. As a team with a desperate need for wing depth, Detroit might be able to pawn him off to a team looking for an interior presence.
Burks’ future in Detroit is a toss-up. His contract includes a team-option for next season that would pay the 31-year-old just under $10.5 million for the 2023-24 campaign. After missing the beginning of the year, he’s returned to average just under 17 points on nearly 45 percent shooting from deep. With Cunningham and more recently Jaden Ivey out, Burks and Killian Hayes have been the only real threats in the backcourt. It’s easy to envision Burks playing a role on a version of this team fighting for a playoff spot – a position the organization surely hopes to be in next year.
On the other hand, a current contender could be willing to part with a significant asset – such as a late first round pick – to acquire Burks and his club-option this year. The Pistons are a very young team already and don’t roster an excessive amount of veterans. First round picks are great, but at some point, the front office has to put a roster on the court capable of winning. Burks figures to be an easy piece to help in that regard.
The injury to Cunningham opens up plenty of opportunity on the roster, most notably for third-year guard Killian Hayes. When the Pistons selected Jaden Ivey with the fifth pick in the 2022 NBA Draft, it became apparent the organization was ready to move on from the hope that Hayes, the 7th overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, would be a part of its starting backcourt long-term. After an abysmal start to the season, not only was Hayes no longer a starter, but his future in the league appeared murky. But since Cunningham went down, Hayes has emerged. In his last 11 games, Hayes has averaged 11.3 points, 5.6 assists, 3.5 rebounds, and 1.5 steals in 29.3 minutes. He’s shooting 40.8% from the field and 37.5% from beyond the arc. This version of Hayes is intriguing. It’s the most comfortable and confident he’s ever looked in his young career and it’s obvious. The rest of the year remains an opportunity for Hayes to prove he belongs – not only on the Pistons – but in the NBA moving forward.
Ivey, who’s currently out with a right knee issue, is still looking to find his way without Cunnigham. His efficiency has sputtered since becoming the defacto lead guard – essentially being a hit-or-miss guy on a nightly basis. In his last six games prior to sitting out, he was shooting just 37.6% from the field and 25.8% from deep. The hope is that some of the inefficiency stemmed from missing time with an illness and, now, the right knee soreness. Ivey is due back soon for the Pistons – who are in desperate need of a dynamic playmaking slasher. With Hayes playing the best basketball of his career, Ivey should have some of the pressure taken off his shoulders, allowing him to play to his strengths – not having to take on the burden of carrying the offense in Cunningham’s absence.
Cunningham’s injury is damning. In many ways, it feels like a lost season for the organization. The hope was that this would be the season that the franchise took a step forward – on the shoulders of Cunningham – toward playoff contention, or at least a play-in appearance. That hope has passed. Now vital decisions have to be made about the roster surrounding Cunningham. What direction will the franchise travel in moving forward? Will they soft reset the moves made this past offseason? Will the roster be plucked of its best pieces to solidify a successful tanking effort? Troy Weaver will have to make these important decisions over the coming months.
In the meantime, Jaden Ivey and Killian Hayes have been handed the keys to the roster. Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart remain key cogs of an offense built to maximize the guards it has been built around. The development of the team’s core is vital, with or without Cunningham. The season may be lost in terms of winning or losing, but with so many young players on the roster, the organization must still prioritize the growth of its foundation and building chemistry between Ivey, Bogdanovic, Stewart, and the rest of the core in the absence of Cunningham.