Pistons Mailbag - October 6, 2021

by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

Tonight was supposed to be highlighted by No. 1 pick Cade Cunningham’s debut in a Pistons uniform, but a sprained ankle has scuttled those plans – and provided plenty of grist for the Pistons Mailbag mill.

Darrell (Detroit): Can you envision the Pistons using a second unit consisting of Cory Joseph, Frank Jackson, Hamidou Diallo, Josh Jackson and Kelly Olynyk?

That’s possible, though it requires Josh Jackson – or Diallo, I suppose – to play the four and I don’t think we ever saw that last season. It’s certainly more of a possibility than it would have been even a few seasons ago given how many other teams are willing to play Josh Jackson types as the nominal four and especially on second units. Dwane Casey has said that in his offense the one through three spots share many of the same responsibilities. I think Saddiq Bey is more likely to split his time between the three and four, so if it’s not Trey Lyles at the four with the second unit then maybe Casey manipulates the rotation so that Bey plays that spot with the second unit while starting at the three. If it turns out that there’s two distinct five-man units, then Lyles appears the front-runner to be the four. And that would mean that one of Josh Jackson, Frank Jackson and Hamidou Diallo gets squeezed from the rotation – unless, again, he sees Josh Jackson as a possibility at the four on a more or less permanent basis.

Cunningham’s sprained ankle, which hasn’t allowed him to practice since early in camp, takes him out of the equation for tonight’s preseason opener. He was listed as out on Tuesday night’s NBA injury report. He hasn’t practiced in a week and Casey said he’d need a couple of practices for him to feel comfortable in a game. Hopefully he can return in time for next week’s mini-road trip to Memphis and Philadelphia. As for the others, Casey wants to look at everybody at some point in preseason. He’ll want to ramp his expected starters up so they’re prepared to play 30-plus minutes when the regular season opens, but we might not see anyone play as many as 30 minutes in the preseason opener.

@patrick_sxtn/IG: Cade’s availability for next Monday’s game?

I don’t think anyone can say at this point. As I wrote above, he’ll have to be cleared to practice first. The Pistons probably will get three days of practice, Friday through Sunday, before hitting the road to Memphis. If Cunningham is back by Saturday, then it’s likely he debuts on Monday. If he’s cleared to go on Sunday, then it probably would depend on how his ankle responds after going through a practice.

Charles (Redford Twp., Mich.): Many people compare Cade Cunningham to Grant Hill. They said Grant Hill’s ankle sprain was nothing to worry about at first, just like Cunningham. But it took Hill three years before he was able to play again and he was never the same. Convince me I shouldn’t panic.

You shouldn’t panic. By rough estimate, there have been 60 gazillion sprained ankles suffered in the NBA in the 21 years since Grant Hill’s torturous journey began as his time in a Pistons uniform wound down in 2000 and nothing quite compares to his experience. He wound up having five surgeries – turns it it was a broken bone, not stretched ligaments – and suffered a near-fatal MRSA infection after the fourth of those. Dwane Casey said Tuesday that Cunningham’s X-ray is clean and given the advances in medical technology and especially given the enormous explosion in resources pumped into preserving the health and wellness of NBA players in the past two decades, I think it’s a pretty safe bet the Pistons medical team has examined Cunningham’s injury from every angle. I get being wary, but let’s not be fatalistic. It’s a sprained ankle, the least serious of the three grades of ankle sprains, and that’s the most common injury in the history of basketball.

@vicsmithmusic/IG: What do you see Cade and Grant averaging this year?

I’d guess Grant leads the team in minutes played and scoring. I don’t know that he’ll play quite as many minutes per game as last season (34) or score quite as many points (22.3 per game) but I don’t think the numbers dip much, if any, and I’d bet he’ll be a more efficient scorer thanks to his better understanding of what it’s like to be the primary option but also to the improvement of those around him. I’d guess Cunningham and Saddiq Bey would come in next in minutes played and they’ll probably be next, in either order, in per-game scoring – maybe both somewhere around 15 a game. Kelly Olynyk could also be in the mix as a second-leading scorer.

McGriffin (@JGRIFFY2020): What’s the plan with tinkering with Cade Cunningham’s shot when it was pretty efficient in college and even Summer League?

Tinkering is a good word for it. Dwane Casey said last week now is not the time – this close to the season – to be doing any real overhauls of a player’s shot mechanics. John Beilein is the resident staff shot doctor and he’s worked with Cunningham on getting the shot launched from a slightly higher release point, but they’re not messing with his grip or release or trying to move the shooting pocket horizontally or anything like that. Just trying to get the release point a little higher so having the shot blocked doesn’t become an issue with the need for a quicker release in the NBA due to the greater length and shorter recovery times of NBA defenders.

Ken (Dharamsala, India): The young Pistons will make more shots this season, which will help a defense that played surprisingly well in spurts last year. But is Pistons management committed to the absolutely relentless, hard-nosed defense that was such a signature part of the 1989-90 and 2004 championship clubs? Is that kind of defense even possible in 2021? It was incredible to watch the 2004 Pistons hold the Lakes Hall of Fame roster to 80 points or under in the championship series. And, of course, the 1989-90 Pistons were legendary.

Rules changes that favor the offense and the explosion of emphasis on 3-point shooting have changed the game considerably over the past decade, so I don’t think the pendulum will ever swing back to the point games are won with points totals in the 90s any more. If and when defenses ever start reversing momentum, I suspect rules changes will be enacted to slow or stop the progress. But great defensive teams can still exist within context and that’s what the Pistons have prioritized this season. It was the first item Troy Weaver mentioned when he was asked where he expected improvement this season and it has been mentioned repeatedly by Dwane Casey over the first week-plus of training camp. Right now the strength of the roster is its youthful energy and its depth – after Jerami Grant, a lot of players of more or less equal impact from 2 through 11 or 12, say – and that will have to compensate for inexperience.

Philip Shaw (@agridome): What is the vaccine policy for entry into Little Caesars Arena for Pistons games? Is it double vaccinated like it is in Toronto? As of now Canadian Pistons fans cannot drive across the border to see the Pistons play.

It’s a fluid situation dictated by the status of COVID-19 numbers. Last season, of course, the Pistons followed state and local guidelines that limited the sizes of crowds. There are no such limits in place this season, but the NBA currently has mandates that require all fans 2 and older that are seated in or have access to within 15 feet of the court either have proof of vaccination or return a negative COVID PCR test within 48 hours of the game. You can check this link for updated protocols as, again, requirements could change as the situation warrants. With recent reports that COVID-19 cases are beginning to trend down after the delta variant caused a late-summer spike, perhaps there won’t be a need for more restrictive measures moving forward. And hopefully that trend continues and the U.S.-Canada border becomes open to travelers in both directions soon.

LEW AL$INDOR (@PA_Young215): Potential inactives and/or starters?

There’s no such thing as inactives for the preseason, so all 18 players participating in training camp – rookies Isaiah Livers and Chris Smith (on a two-way contract) are still rehabilitating pre-draft injuries – could suit up, though it’s doubtful they’d all be used. I speculated on a starting unit in this report from Sunday, one consisting of Cade Cunningham, Killian Hayes, Isaiah Stewart, Jerami Grant and Saddiq Bey. But in that report, and consistently over the years, I’ve tried to make the point that starting lineups receive undue attention and aren’t nearly as telling as finishing lineups. I would bet on Kelly Olynyk to be on the floor to end close games, either in tandem with Isaiah Stewart or at center in place of him for the scoring versatility he provides. Because the Pistons have little separation in impact after Jerami Grant and through the top 11 or 12 players, Dwane Casey is going to have a nearly infinite number of lineup combinations to ponder and deploy.

Stephen (Whitehall, Mich.): I love the look of Jamorko Pickett as a clone behind Jerami Grant. I know he’s young, but playing him in the G League is a waste. Here’s why: He’s going to get better by practicing with the Pistons and, most importantly, his teammates will get to know his game better, which gives him the greatest chance for success.

Meh, that last point is pretty thin, in my experience. Even if it were credible, Pickett practiced with many of the players who’ll make up the core of the Pistons – Cade Cunningham, Killian Hayes, Saddiq Bey, Saben Lee, et al – before and during Summer League. He also was around for the three weeks of voluntary team workouts with the entire team before camp started and he’ll have almost all of October with them before the Motor City Cruise open training camp. He’ll have plenty of familiarity with his teammates – and they with him – by that point. After that, he’ll still be able to practice with the Pistons frequently thanks to the proximity that having the G League team housed in the same practice facility and headquartered in the same city as the parent NBA team allows. He’ll be steeped in practice habits and in lockstep with teammates at that point. I’m sure he’ll be champing at the bit to get in some game action and be afforded the luxury of major minutes and a prime role that suiting up for the Cruise will allow him. Certainly, there is benefit to both ends of the equation – being around the parent NBA team and getting plenty of playing time in the G League. The beauty of moving the G League affiliate from Grand Rapids to Detroit is the Pistons don’t really have to choose between the two any longer. They can get the best of both worlds and players like Pickett will be the beneficiary.

@shooters_shoot_media/IG: Pancakes or waffles.

Pancakes. Sourdough pancakes.

Robert (Albany, Oregon): Luka Garza showed a Bill Laimbeer type of skill set, strength and positioning. And a contagious tenacity. Methinks he will be special. What about Saddiq Bey at shooting guard? He showed a nice handle in Summer League. Let the games begin!

There are some undeniable similarities in the skill sets of Garza and Laimbeer – the shooting touch from the perimeter, the technical adroitness of their footwork despite lacking great lateral agility, etc. – but the thing that made Laimbeer thoroughly unique – and unique is a grossly overused word, but it is absolutely appropriate to use for Laimbeer – was his complete disregard for how he was perceived by others. A lot of athletes, of course, say they don’t read or listen or care about how they’re perceived. Only Laimbeer in my experience really lived by that creed. In fact, I’ll go a step further. Laimbeer truly seemed to thrive on being despised. And that wouldn’t be relevant except – and here’s what made him truly unique – I’m convinced being despised actually helped Laimbeer’s performance level. Now, Garza might prove to be unaffected by the opinions of outsiders, but he’s about as much of a polar opposite from a personality standpoint to Laimbeer as you’ll get. He’s pleasant to everyone and consistently upbeat in my experience with him. As for Bey, I would say he’s more likely to go the other way and play more power forward than shooting guard. Do I think he could do it? Yeah. It would be a tougher ask for him defensively, I think. When you see Bey in person, he’s a lot thicker and more substantial than you might expect. I wouldn’t be surprised if power forward winds up his career destiny as he matures.

Pistons.com editor Keith Langlois answers your questions about the Pistons and NBA. To have your question considered, submit it along with your name, email address and city/state using the form below.

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