Yes, those Detroit Pistons. The ones that enter Wednesday with an Eastern-Conference-worst 19-53 record. Before you know it, Motown could be the site of one of the league’s most dominant teams.
Of course, a lot of things have to go right. Just like they did for a Suns franchise that was in Detroit’s position not too long ago. But the signs are there for the Pistons to not only compete, but run the East in a few years’ time.
The Detroit Pistons are showing signs of life during their rebuild
Any fan with realistic expectations knew the 2021-22 Pistons season would be chalked full of L’s. And they were right — Detroit is just seven losses away from hitting 60 for the year. It would be the first time since 1993-94 the franchise reached the 60-loss mark and just the fourth time in franchise history.
But believe it or not, things could have been a lot worse for the rebuilding Pistons.
Before losing six of its last seven games, Detroit won six of eight. Leading the way was Cade Cunningham — the top pick of the 2021 NBA Draft — averaging 21.6 points, 7.7 rebounds, and 5.4 assists. Jerami Grant, Saddiq Bey, and new acquisition Marvin Bagley III also topped 16.8 points throughout Detroit’s most successful run of the season.
The Pistons’ season-long numbers are, as you’d expect, not the greatest. Detroit enters Wednesday with the 28th-ranked offensive rating and 24th-ranked defensive rating. However, it’s 18th and 16th respectively since Feb. 16, its final game before the All-Star break.
With Cunningham quietly becoming a superstar and others like Bey showing their star potential, the future is bright in the Motor City.
Could the Pistons be on the same trajectory as the Phoenix Suns?
It’s been a long time since the once-proud Pistons were a franchise worth fearing. Detroit has had one winning season since 2007-08 and three first-round exits. Though if there’s one team that can relate, it’s the Suns.
Phoenix, like Detroit, was one of the best teams in basketball during the mid- to late-2000s. Yet after a Western Conference Finals loss in 2010, it embarked on 10 straight years without a playoff berth and only one season above .500. In 2018-19, the rebuild was headed in the wrong direction, as the team finished a dismal 19-63.
Then, something clicked. In 2019, the Suns added a veteran coach (Monty Williams) to lead young stars Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton. They showed massive improvement, finishing 34-39 with a 12th-ranked offense and 17th-ranked defense. Then just ahead of the 2020-21 season, Phoenix completed a deal for future Hall of Famer Chris Paul that completely changed the trajectory of the franchise.
Now, the Suns are the class of the NBA — three seasons after winning 19 games. Fresh off on an NBA Finals appearance, Phoenix is on track to enter the playoffs as the West’s number one seed. And they haven’t missed a beat with Paul’s hand injury keeping him sidelined since the All-Star break.
So if Phoenix can do it, why not Detroit?
The Pistons already have Cunningham, who by the looks of things will be the franchise star like Booker is in the desert. In addition to Bey, Detroit is set to add another high-caliber player in this year’s draft, similar to what Phoenix did with Ayton. Assuming all of the youngsters progress as planned, the Pistons could be one final player (a la CP3) from contending in a conference where the best teams (Heat, 76ers, Nets) have stars already in their 30s.
A lot still has to go right, particularly on the player development side. But it wouldn’t be surprising if two seasons from now, the Pistons are in the mix to win the East.
Cade Cunningham will decide Detroit’s fate
With respect to Paul, Ayton, Mikal Bridges, and Williams, the Suns wouldn’t have become the Suns without Booker transforming into a bonafide number one. For the Pistons, their franchise will remain hopeless until Cunningham takes the next step.
As mentioned above, Cunningham has the makings of a star. Following a horrendous start to his career, the 20-year-old is averaging 17.1 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 5.4 assists and asserting his way back into the Rookie of the Year conversation. For context, Booker finished his rookie year with 13.8 points, 2.5 rebounds, and 2.6 assists in approximately five fewer minutes per game.
Cade’s numbers, particularly in the second half, bode very well for his overall development. He must continue to progress, particularly with his shooting efficiency, in order to become the All-Star Detroit expects.
Should Cunningham join the ranks of Luka Doncic, Trae Young, and other young, franchise-carrying stars, the Pistons will be playoff contenders at worst. Though if they make the right moves over the next two summers, the rest of the league will need to go on high alert.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.