Cade Cunningham and Killian Hayes are the fruits of the last two trips to the NBA draft lottery for the Pistons and they’re the hot topics of discussion in this week’s edition of Pistons Mailbag.
Dakari (San Diego): When does Cade Cunningham come back?
Langlois: He didn’t accompany the Pistons on their current three-game road trip, so we’ll see if he’s back at practice on Friday when they get back to town. Cunningham stayed behind to continue his rehabilitation in familiar surroundings with staff available to him rather than go through the rigor of travel. When you’re dealing with an inflammation injury, flying from city to city in pressurized cabins isn’t optimal for recovery, as I’ve had many trainers remind me over the years. If Cunningham can participate fully in practice on Friday, then perhaps there’s a chance he could play as soon as Saturday. He’s been going through practices with the Motor City Cruise the past few days, so that’s a good sign. Dwane Casey said a few weeks ago he’d prefer Cunningham get a few practices in before getting thrown in a regular-season NBA game, so perhaps one solid practice with the Pistons after getting some run in with the Cruise will satisfy that requirement. The Pistons have a Saturday-Sunday back to back, then return home after Sunday’s game at Brooklyn to play Tuesday, Thursday and Friday home games.
@otot1107/IG: When will Cade play and will it be with limits?
Langlois: It was a sprained ankle, so those usually don’t come with any restrictions on playing time. But common sense says that if you haven’t played in as long as Cunningham has missed, you’re not going to be ready to handle 30-plus minutes out of the gate, probably. It will be interesting to see how Dwane Casey and the organization handle his return. Will they start him but keep him to five- or six-minute intervals in the first game or two? Or will they try to pick their spots by having him come off the bench? Hopefully, we get our first glimpse of him by week’s end and find out.
PistonsGoin2Work (@pistons4life76): Since when do the Pistons hide and misinform their fans about injuries so much? First, Beef Stew is in a walking boot and no information is released the whole summer and now Cade Cunningham has been day to day for as long as it would take to recover from a broken bone with no details.
Langlois: Stewart missed Summer League because he turned an ankle while participating with the United States Select Team a few weeks earlier. What, exactly, should the announcement have said? It didn’t affect his availability for the voluntary team workouts that preceded camp and he was full go from day one when camp started. Zion Williamson had foot surgery at some point in the off-season and the Pelicans didn’t announce it until media day to open training camp and all they’ve said since is that they expect he’ll be back at some point in the regular season. Teams are sensitive about the details of injuries and return estimates for many reasons, but a big one is that the players themselves – often influenced by agents – are reluctant for timetables to be placed on injuries for one simple reason: No two injuries are the same and sometimes they take longer than anticipated and often the narrative turns negative for the affected player when that happens. Sometimes sprained ankles linger because the inflammation doesn’t ebb as quickly as is typical. I think it’s likely that’s what’s happened with Cunningham’s ankle. When the media is allowed to view the end-of-practice shooting and other drill work that occurs, we see Cunningham doing his thing, so it’s not like there’s something sinister unfolding and he’s dealing with something more serious than a sprained ankle. And, no, it’s not taking the same time as a broken bone. It takes a broken bone a minimum of six weeks to heal in almost all instances and even then there’s usually a few weeks required to ramp back up to be ready to play. Cunningham’s sprained ankle happened four weeks ago.
@ck2_originals/IG: Why do we look worse this year than last? Sophomore slump?
Langlois: The Pistons in the opening week last season were still heavily revolving around Blake Griffin and Derrick Rose. They are relying much, much more heavily on youth to start this season. So it’s an apples and oranges comparison. One thing I think that’s been a little obscured by the offensive struggles, the obsession with Cade Cunningham’s absence and the uneven start from Killian Hayes is the performances of Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart. Bey, despite not matching last season’s 3-point shooting so far (and a three-game sample size where shooting is concerned means nothing), has been a markedly better player than last year. His per 36 numbers reflect as much: 19.4 points, 11.5 rebounds, 2.9 assists and .468 overall shooting this season to 16.2, 6.0, 1.8 and .404 last season. Stewart’s numbers are also up per 36, which is impressive in light of the fact he’s now starting and going against starting centers as opposed to backups. Let’s check in on the Pistons after 20 games to see what it looks like. When you’re as young as they are playing in the NBA, you’re going to have nights where the product looks flawed. It’s to be expected. Anybody who thought otherwise wasn’t being realistic.
Bill (Whitehall, Mich.): When can we officially start worrying about Killian Hayes?
Langlois: I don’t know, but it’s not three games into his second season after a rookie season that was maybe 25 percent of what a typical rookie experience would have been given the rushed start to the season with no typical rookie orientation and then the injury that wiped out three months of games. I always expected Hayes would have a longer acclimation process than many rookies for a multitude of factors. He was really young, for starters. I mean, Hayes is two months older than Cade Cunningham. He had one season of experience as his team’s point guard and that came in Germany, which is a middle-of-the-road European league. The tools are there and so is the makeup, from all indications. But when young players experience more tough times than good times, you always worry about what that does to their confidence. The first two games were tough, but Hayes showed some mettle in Monday’s game at Atlanta. It didn’t start great, but then Hayes put together a really strong second quarter and followed up with some more good play in the second half.
Lisa Perry (@lisaperry0727): With Killian Hayes struggling, do you think he should come off the bench and play with the second unit? I know he’s a first-rounder, but he needs work and he fits best with the second unit. What do you think?
Langlois: I’m sure that’s something Dwane Casey and his staff have considered. The original idea was to keep him and Cade Cunningham together – in a lineup that also included second-year players Isaiah Stewart and Saddiq Bey plus Jerami Grant, so a very young unit – so that Hayes and Cunningham could split primary ballhandling and playmaking duties. Cunningham missing nearly all of training camp and every preseason game – and all quite unexpectedly, given they originally thought it was not an ankle injury that would linger – threw a curveball at that plan. Perhaps if they’d have known Cunningham would miss a month, they would have altered the blueprint in some fashion. Now his return appears imminent. You can make convincing cases for either way to handle Hayes, but with Cunningham on the verge of a return it’s a good bet that they’ll want to see their original play through.
Phil (Auburn Hills, Mich.): My optimism is getting pretty low. Yes, I know it’s only three games and we have yet to see Cade Cunningham, but outside of that what are some things you see that assures you we’re on the right path to restoration?
Langlois: Cunningham has missed all three games and, really, the entire preseason. The team’s best player, Jerami Grant, sat out at Atlanta on Monday and the Pistons were competitive until a bad final four minutes of the third quarter with the bench unit on the floor – a bench unit that was splintered for the first time because Dwane Casey had to pull Kelly Olynyk and Josh Jackson into the starting lineup. The middle two quarters of the game at Chicago were rough, but other than that – given the injury situation – I’m not sure there’s anything we’ve seen that should alter the reality for this team that we assumed a month ago. They’re very young with three 20-year-olds in the starting lineup (once Cunningham returns) and a fourth player, Saddiq Bey, in his second season. Given the quality of depth in the Eastern Conference this season – perhaps the deepest it’s ever been – this season is pretty much an extension of last. The progress of their young players will be the overriding factor that determines the success of the 2021-22 Pistons season. If we get to April and you feel good about Bey and Isaiah Stewart as quality NBA starters, see confirmation of future stardom for Cunningham and see Killian Hayes having turned a corner, the Pistons will be on the right path. There are other things to monitor, of course – young veterans Josh Jackson, Hamidou Diallo and Frank Jackson taking another step; rookies Luka Garza and Isaiah Livers showing viability as rotation pieces; and Jamorko Pickett and Chris Smith hinting at NBA futures by being consistently productive in the G League when the Motor City Cruise get up and running. But Cunningham, Stewart, Bey and Hayes are central to how we’ll judge the state of the restoration at season’s end. Nothing that’s happened yet has moved the needle on that count.
Arom (Paterson, N.J.): The NBA announced the top 75 players in league history to commemorate its 75th anniversary and among those who did not make the list were Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, Kevin Garnett, Dwight Howard, Tracy McGrady and Chris Bosh. I was surprised by this outcome. Who in your opinion was deserving to make the list but did not?
Langlois: Garnett made it and deserved to. Of those who weren’t included, I think it’s tough to justify keeping Dwight Howard off the list. He was All-NBA first team five times, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year and an eight-time All-Star. As a Pistons fan, I was disappointed to not see Joe Dumars or Ben Wallace on the list given their accomplishments and their central roles on NBA champions, but when you winnow the list of great players to 75 over a 75-year span, you’re talking about an exceptionally exclusive club and some legitimately great players are going to be excluded.
@spencer__garci/IG: In addition to becoming a contender, what else should Detroit do to attract talent?
Langlois: It’s not so much “what else” as what they need to do first in order to become a contender. The first steps are accumulating young talent and instilling the right culture. A big component of getting the second part right is making sure you get the first part right – find players who espouse the values you prioritize. All franchises give lip service to that, but not all stay disciplined to that blueprint when a talented player who can address deficiencies comes available even if he doesn’t check all the boxes on character and intangibles. Troy Weaver and Dwane Casey haven’t wavered from what they’ve said they prioritize. Stay consistent with that, keep hitting on more draft picks than you miss on, target compatible free agents, make good trades and find a hidden gem or two here and there and things can turn around pretty quickly. Who’d have believed two years ago that Phoenix was destined to be an NBA Finals participant in 2021? That’s how you attract talent. Don’t take shortcuts, show progress, start winning and free agents take notice. Behind the scenes, word gets around about how organizations treat players. The Pistons Performance Center, opened about two years ago, is an unbelievably well-appointed home away from home for players. Those things matter.
Matthew Budurowich (@sunburnfudge): I’ve seen a couple of Kyrie-to-the-Pistons rumors floating around. Is there any substance to this and do you think it would be a good move?
Langlois: Rumors are a dime a dozen. Does it make sense? The Pistons are in the early stages of their restoration, to use Troy Weaver’s word, but that doesn’t mean you ignore opportunities to improve the roster if it can happen at no meaningful risk to the future health of the organization. If Brooklyn is dealing Kyrie Irving, one would suspect the Nets are more interested in immediate help than the typical return when a superstar is dealt – meaning multiple first-round draft picks, usually. I would imagine the Nets would have high interest in Jerami Grant given the makeup of their roster and his proven ability as a defender – especially when it would give Brooklyn another option to use if and when the Nets run into Milwaukee and Giannis Antetokounmpo in the postseason. So that would logically be the basis for any deal. I would put the percentage chance of an Irving deal that brings him to Detroit in single digits … very low single digits. I’m sure at some point the Nets will be tempted to turn him into tangible assets, but there’s no real rush on that. The trade deadline doesn’t hit until Feb. 10. And a lot can happen between now and then. There logically will be several more suitors then than there could possibly be today simply because free agents that changed teams over the off-season can’t be traded sooner than Dec. 15 – but also because seasons will go in directions that disappoint some franchises and they’ll be more motivated to trade between Dec. 15 and Feb. 10 than they are today. As unsettling as the Irving situation is with the Nets, there’s no real urgency for Brooklyn at this point. And all organizations will have to weigh the impact of trading for a player whose logic for not getting vaccinated is convoluted and could easily be interpreted by teammates as being less than invested in the greater good.
Kevin (Las Vegas): Can a team trade the amount of “dead money” owed to a player via his buyout for another player’s contract of the same value? For example, can or could the Pistons have used what they owed Blake Griffin to trade for another player or two whose contracts equal the same amount and have the trading team pick up what is owed to Griffin so the other team can get rid of unwanted contracts?
Langlois: Nope. I suppose one reason it’s called “dead money” is there is nothing that can be done to resuscitate it to be used in another form. Once it’s on the books, it’s on the books.
Mark (Portland): Just how tall is Cade Cunningham? The official listing here says 6-foot-6, but most media outlets like ESPN keep on saying 6-foot-8. From pictures where he is standing next to Isaiah Livers, he definitely looks shorter than Livers, who is also listed at 6-foot-6. What gives?
Langlois: NBA measurements have always been a little mysterious. For the players invited to the NBA draft combine, there is a database that offers the most reliably accurate information and that’s what I generally go with. But Cunningham, as the presumptive No. 1 pick, didn’t participate in any of the testing or measurements. When the Pistons went to Summer League, Cunningham was listed at 6-foot-6 by the team. That’s what led to the NBA listing him at that height on the team’s site. So that’s what we’ll go with. Anecdotally, Cunningham looks taller than 6-foot-6 to me, but maybe that’s just a function of how lean and willowy he appears.