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LAS VEGAS, NV - AUGUST 15: A behind the scenes photo of Cade Cunningham #2 of the Detroit Pistons during 2021 NBA Rookie Photo Shoot on August 15, 2021 at UNLV Campus in Las Vegas, Nevada.

By getting it right with Cade, the Pistons almost can’t go wrong at No. 5 this year

When the Jerami Grant and Kelly Olynyk injuries made it likely the Pistons would be taking healthy odds of landing a top-four pick into the lottery, the fan base spent an unhealthy amount of time pondering the fit of the consensus big three atop the prospect pile.

And because all three project as primarily power forwards with small-ball center capabilities, the conclusion of most was that the Pistons could hardly go wrong with any of Chet Holmgren, Jabari Smith or Paolo Banchero.

But even though the Pistons, indeed, took the best odds possible into last week’s lottery, the reality is there was still a better chance of them finishing outside the top three than in it – 40 percent vs. 60 percent. It was basically a coin flip whether the Pistons would pull a top-four pick – 52 percent vs. 48 percent – and they lost the flip, falling to fifth.

So it wasn’t the best-case scenario. But it wasn’t the worst, either. There was a 33 percent chance, after all, that they’d fall to sixth or seventh. Troy Weaver was less than emotionally incapacitated by this lack of good fortune, saying after the lottery results exactly what he’d said a month earlier.

“I didn’t see it as a big three,” the Pistons general manager said. “I think there’s tremendous players all along the draft board.”

Last year’s draft was viewed as perhaps the best in a generation and the early returns validated the enthusiasm. When Cade Cunningham does what he did and finishes third in the Rookie of the Year voting, it’s a superb class.

And just as Cunningham was a big part of what made the NBA’s 2021 rookie class so impressive, so too is he a major component of Weaver’s confidence that the 2022 draft also will be kind to the Pistons. Cunningham, you see, uncomplicates the evaluation process for what makes for a good fit as his side.

Because the Pistons have the man in whose hands their offense rests for the next generation, they can look at prospects through a lens of what they can do rather than what they cannot.

Let’s say the season-long assumption that Holmgren, Smith and Banchero are the top three picks, in some order, holds on draft night. Then there’s probably a very good chance – 75 percent and up – the Pistons’ pick will come down to one of four players: Jaden Ivey, Shaedon Sharpe, Keegan Murray or Bennedict Mathurin.

Cunningham complements them all. Of course he does. It’s pretty tough to conceive of a player Cunningham wouldn’t complement.

Take Ivey as an example. The upside of Ivey is the athletic pop of Ja Morant or pre-injury Victor Oladipo, someone who – freed of the congested paint that awaited him consistently in the Big Ten – should thrive with the wide-open spaces the modern NBA game creates. The downside revolves around questions about his decision-making. But with Cunningham pulling the strings offensively, Ivey’s decision-making will be greatly streamlined.

Yes, every player faces a decision every time the ball finds him, but Cunningham’s strength is making the decisions that set everything else in motion and putting teammates in the most advantageous positions to make those decisions self-apparent.

Same for Sharpe, Murray, Mathurin or whoever else is put under the microscope by Weaver and his lieutenants between now and June 23.

“We’re going to pick the guy that fits best for the organization moving forward,” Weaver said. “He’ll have the same attributes that these other guys have. But you absolutely factor in Cade and the rest of the guys, but that’s because these guys have some similarities with Cade, Saddiq (Bey), Isaiah (Stewart), etc. So this won’t be difficult to add this player to the mix.”

The Pistons are a distance removed from a finished product and Weaver is fully aware there remains a need for another talent injection and fine tuning of the roster. But Cunningham was the critical central piece. Weaver has infinitely more latitude to make those other moves now because of getting it so very right when the Pistons won the No. 1 pick last summer.

The revelation of the 2021-22 season was twofold: One, that Cunningham proved himself to be that guy; two, that everyone else on the roster became soon convinced of the first part and eagerly advocated for Cunningham to step forcefully into that role.

So, yup, lots of work still to be done, but there’s a real opportunity to accomplish a good chunk of it with the No. 5 pick in a draft Weaver compares favorably to last year’s – and that’s mostly because of the foundation laid by getting it right in 2021 with Cade Cunningham.