Pistons Mailbag - October 20, 2021

Cade Cunningham’s status, expectations for the Pistons as the season tips off and Dwane Casey’s fit with a team in transition are among the menu items in this week’s edition of Pistons Mailbag.

Ryan Raver (@RyanRaver9): Is Cade Cunningham playing?

Langlois: If you’re asking if he’s going to play in tonight’s season opener, no. He was ruled out when the NBA’s official injury report was released at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday. Given that he hadn’t yet gone through an entire practice coupled with Dwane Casey’s comments earlier that he’d like Cunningham to get at least a few practices behind him before playing an NBA game, that wasn’t a surprise. And with the season getting under way and practices naturally limited around the game schedule, it wouldn’t be a big surprise if the debut doesn’t come for another week or so. As much as they’d love to get the No. 1 pick on the floor, he’s 20 years old and they expect him to have a long and productive career – a career they aren’t about to put at risk by rushing him back just to satisfy everyone’s enormous curiosity to see him crack the ice.

@billybands_/IG: What are the expectations this season – play-in team or playoffs?

Langlois: They’re not setting that as a stated goal. Most of it is just the reality of their situation with a very young team that expects to have three 20-year-olds – rookie Cade Cunningham, Isaiah Stewart and Killian Hayes – plus a third second-year player, Saddiq Bey, in the starting lineup. Of the 17 players on the roster, 12 are 24 or younger. Another part of it, though, is the landscape of the Eastern Conference. Every team but three – the Pistons, Orlando and Cleveland – go into the season with the full expectation of being a playoff team and the math on that just doesn’t work. I don’t think the Eastern Conference has ever had this type of depth, on paper, at least. Injuries will probably alter the possibilities for one or two of those franchises, but right now teams like Washington, Charlotte, Chicago and Toronto look to be battling to avoid finishing 11th or 12th to not only miss a sure first-round playoff berth but also miss out on a play-in spot. Here’s what Dwane Casey said on Tuesday about the outlook for the season: “We know who we are. That’s where patience comes in. When a young man doesn’t play great one night, let’s not panic. We know where we are, who we are, what we’re about. We’re about coming in to compete, play physical, play hard, play smart, play together and growing each and every night.”

Ahmed (San Antonio): Ten games into the season will determine how the team will do this season. Which team is likely to do well and which will do worse this season?

Langlois: There have been seasons when the standings after 20 games turned out to be a pretty accurate snapshot of the playoff field and even of the seedings for the postseason. But there are always outliers. The 2016-17 Miami Heat were 11-30 over the first 41 games and 30-11 over the final 41. If I had to pick a team that will start the season well, I’ll go with the two NBA Finals competitors, Milwaukee and Phoenix. Both bring back all of their essential players and go into the season at or near full health. The situation that will bear watching in Phoenix is how Deandre Ayton responds to not having his rookie deal extended into a max contract, which he saw happen to several players (Luka Doncic, Trae Young, Shea Gilgeous-Alexander, Michael Porter Jr.) taken after him in the 2018 draft. The team I’d pick to have a chance to recover from a slow start is the Lakers. They’ve turned over pretty much the entire roster other than LeBron James and Anthony Davis, plus Russell Westbrook seems like an incongruous fit. They’re all talented enough and have the right intentions, so I suspect they’ll figure it out at some point and I’d also expect the Lakers to make some roster moves starting in mid-December when free agents who changed teams this summer begin to become trade eligible.

Arman (@BostonArman): Is Dwane Casey on the hot seat? What needs to be achieved to save his job if so?

Langlois: There is not a scintilla of evidence to suggest his job is in peril. In fact, here’s what general manager Troy Weaver said during the All-Star break last March. “I can’t say enough about Dwane and his staff. A lot of times when you’re going through this situation, people will say you might want to have a different coach, but I absolutely believe and trust we have the best coach in the world for what we’re going through.” A few months later, just as the season was ending, the Pistons announced a contract extension through the 2023-24 season. Casey and Weaver are simpatico when it comes to what they look for in players, so there aren’t ever likely to be any significant differences between them over personnel. In Casey, the Pistons have not only a guy who’s won at a high level with what he accomplished in Toronto but also a coach who’s acknowledged as one of the top developers of young players in the game. That’s a pretty unique blend of abilities and validates Weaver’s claim that he really is the ideal coach for where the Pistons are in their transition.

James (Freedom, Pa.): It seems the Pistons are having a lot of ankle injuries. What does that say about the Pistons training staff?

Langlois: They’ve made a lot of advancements in the sports medicine/injury prevention field over the past few generations, but I’m not sure the art of taping ankles is fundamentally different than it was when Mike Abdenour was a greenhorn coming out of Wayne State in the ’70s. And whatever new techniques have been introduced, I’m sure the Pistons training staff is well versed in their application. But basketball players still turn their ankles and sometimes they pile up among the same team. I’m sure they’re examining all of their practices as they routinely do, but there’s a 99 percent likelihood that you can chalk up the ankle injuries to Cade Cunningham, Killian Hayes, Frank Jackson and Saddiq Bey to coincidence.

Robert (Albany, Ore.): Saben Lee keeps playing better and better. He looks like a starter. Jamorko Pickett is also impressing. Do other teams have end-of-roster guys like this?

Langlois: If you make it to the NBA, you’re really, really good. There should be no question that the quality of player in the NBA at this time is the highest it’s ever been. It wasn’t all that long ago that American colleges were the sole source of feeding the NBA and that once in a blue moon included a player who came from abroad to play college basketball. By the mid to late ’80s, the occasional European was coming to the NBA. This season, there are 109 international players on opening day rosters representing 39 countries, which is a slight increase in the number of players over last season and actually a decrease from 41 represented countries. The world’s population has nearly doubled over the past 40 years and the pool of countries that feeds the NBA has exploded. There are 450 jobs in the NBA, 480 if you include the two two-way contracts each of the 30 teams is allowed. Peel off the top 80 to 100 players and there’s a razor-thin difference between the rest of the players in the NBA and another thousand or so players waiting for the opportunity to show they belong. So, yeah, there are players like Saben Lee and Jamorko Pickett in every locker room – players good enough to stick in the NBA for a decade if they stay healthy, work hard and find the right opportunity. And there are players like them on virtually every continent coming after their jobs. One of the more challenging tasks of NBA front offices is not only assessing talent, but projecting what it can yield with development and then overlaying what they can determine about a player’s drive to reach his potential atop that. Troy Weaver and his front office, so far, have shown the ability to identify the types of players with growth potential and the capacity to reach it and they stay disciplined to their formula for assessing those possibilities.