The last time the Detroit Pistons won an NBA playoff game, George W. Bush was still the president and the team’s championship core from their 2004 title run — led by Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Chauncey Billups, and Rasheed Wallace — was still in place. Since that fateful trip to the 2008 Eastern Conference Finals, the Pistons have regularly been one of the NBA’s most hapless franchises.
It feels like that’s starting to change.
In the matter of a few years, the Pistons have assembled one of the best young cores in the NBA. It starts with Cade Cunningham, the franchise player Detroit landed when it won the the 2021 NBA Draft lottery. The Pistons landed another blue chip prospect in guard Jaden Ivey in the 2022 draft, and swooped in to steal one of my favorite prospects in the draft, center Jalen Duren, with a trade at the end of the lottery. The two promising rookies will augment a group that already included the Pistons’ haul in the 2020 draft — Killian Hayes, Saddiq Bey, and Isaiah Stewart.
Landing talented young players is only part of the equation to building an eventual winner. Teams also have to add the right veterans around them to give the young guys a chance to succeed. Detroit has done that, too — and made another brilliant move in that regard by acquiring Bojan Bogdanovic in a trade with the Utah Jazz earlier this week.
Here’s why the Pistons should be set up for huge success in the near future.
Cade Cunningham is the stud primary initiator every team needs
It was easy to see that Cade Cunningham was on track to become a future NBA star from his high school days at Montverde Academy. I spoke to Cunningham for a feature ahead of his senior year, and since then he’s only met and exceeded the hype.
Cunningham is the type of oversized lead ball handler that every team wants. At 6’6, 220 pounds, he puts pressure on the defense with the ball in his hands as both a scorer and passer. He can also play off the ball as a quality three-point shooter, even if his shooting skill didn’t really show up in the numbers as a rookie with a 31.4 percent mark from deep. Given his success as a shooter at the college level at Oklahoma State — where he hit 40 percent from three — you can expect him to be a better shooter in his sophomore season with the Pistons, and beyond. Oh, and he’s a plus defender, too.
The hardest and most important piece to find for any NBA contender is a primary initiator. The Pistons have a bright future because Cunningham has a bright future — and he’s going to have the ball in his hands a lot. How high the Pistons’ ceiling ultimately gets should be a reflection of how high Cunningham’s ceiling is. It isn’t crazy to think he should be an All-NBA caliber player during his prime years.
Jaden Ivey is an awesome complement to Cunningham in the backcourt
If there’s a shortcoming in Cunningham’s skill set, it’s a lack of top-end speed. That’s why Jaden Ivey is a wonderful fit next to him in the backcourt.
Ivey was our No. 3 overall prospect in the 2022 NBA Draft, but he fell to the Pistons at No. 5 on draft night. The turbo-charged guard will be one of the fastest players in the NBA from the moment he steps on the court. His ability to pressure the rim is a great complement to Cunningham’s more deliberate playmaking, and gives the Pistons a thunder-and-lightning style approach that should be incredibly difficult to defend, and awesome to watch.
Ivey is probably going to be rough defensively to start his career … but Cunningham can take on the tougher backcourt assignment. Ivey isn’t yet a reliable catch-and-shoot threat … but Cunningham can space the floor around his drives. Cunningham doesn’t have the extra gear to generate rim pressure whenever he wants … but Ivey’s best skill is exactly that. We can’t wait to see how this pairing plays out.
The Pistons are getting shooters and rollers to put their two stud guards in position to succeed
Let’s take it one-by-one, starting with my favorite addition to the Pistons’ core.
- Jalen Duren – Big roller: I had Duren as my No. 5 overall player in the 2022 NBA Draft because he was the youngest player in the class, has awesome physical tools, plays with a high motor, and has flashed promising skill. With long arms, great leaping ability, and man-child strength, Duren is going to have a lot of gravity as a vertical spacer with a huge catch radius. Having a great roll man is one way to make life easier on your guards, and Duren is going to be exactly that. Landing him via trade at the No. 13 overall pick was a stroke of genius by lead executive Troy Weaver.
- Saddiq Bey – Wing shooter: Bey is a big 6’8, 215 pound wing who lacks top-end athleticism and creation skills, but fits with this core because he’s a good shooter and rarely turns the ball over. Year 3 is a big one for Bey, but the addition of another ball handler in Ivey should help clarify his role going forward. The Pistons really just need to him to hit threes and hold up defensively.
- Bojan Bogdanovic – Wing shooter: The 33-year-old is a high-volume three-point shooter, who can also generate offense off the dribble in a pinch. He’ll be able to space the floor for Cunningham and Ivey while improving Detroit’s wing depth. This is a great fit in terms of skill set, positional value, and making life easier for your young stars.
- Killian Hayes – defensive guard: I had Hayes as a top-three prospect in the 2020 draft, and he certainly hasn’t lived up to that. Hayes simply struggles to score the ball, and isn’t a good shooter off the catch. At the same time, he’s still only 21 years old, he has awesome size for a guard, and he’s already very good defensively. I like the idea of Hayes leading the second unit alongside Ivey when Cunningham needs a breather.
- Alec Burks – Guard shooter: The Pistons used their cap space to land Burks and Nerlens Noel this offseason. Burks is another shooter to dot the perimeter around Cunningham — he’s hit at least 40 percent of threes in each of his last three seasons. Like Bogdanovic, Burks can also get you a bucket in a pinch, and should alleviate some pressure on the young guards in the halfcourt.
- Marvin Bagley III – Big roller: Don’t write off the former No. 2 overall pick in the 2018 draft just yet. The second-and-third jump king, Bagley is a super bouncy roll man who gives Detroit another vertical spacer, and offensive rebounder.
- Isaiah Livers – Wing shooter: Livers had a great four-year career for the Michigan Wolverines before the Pistons picked him up in the second round of the 2021 draft. All he did as a rookie was hit 42 percent of his threes. While he’s a tad undersized and slow for a four at 6’7, 230 pounds, he can shoot the rock from deep with consistency and generally plays with high-IQ.
The Pistons are going to be awesome … eventually
It’s going to take time in Detroit. Cunningham needs to learn how to be The Guy, and going from good to great is the toughest step in the league. Ivey may need a few years to improve his defense, and pick up any semblance of a mid-range game. Duren is just so young that it’s hard to expect him to contribute right away, but I love his long-term potential.
The Pistons will be one of the most exciting young teams this year. Eventually, I believe this group is going to form a sustainable winner. For the first time in a long time, things are looking up for the Pistons.