The Pistons didn’t go into the season expecting there would be nothing but smooth seas. You don’t overhaul a roster, stock it with this many players who in another era would still be rushing fraternities and dreaming of a “One Shining Moment” sendoff in April and expect all seashells and balloons.
They didn’t know adversity would take the form of injury to three players as central to their future as Cade Cunningham, Isaiah Stewart and Saddiq Bey, but here we are. It would be easy to fall prey to the notion that there’s a black cloud hanging over their heads, but a big part of a head coach’s job entails insulating his locker room from creeping negativity.
“It’s not ‘Woe is me’ right now in the locker room,” Casey said after Sunday’s loss to Sacramento, which came despite the offense producing a season-high 129 points even without those three key components. “We’ve got to stay together, stay connected.”
Wind the clock back to draft night for a second. The Pistons were elated to go into it with the fifth pick and come out of the night with two players frequently cited as the draft’s most athletic players available, Jaden Ivey and Jalen Duren. Troy Weaver, part of the Oklahoma City front office that added future MVPs Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden in consecutive drafts – a man who isn’t easily awed, in other words – said he’d never been part of a draft night quite like it.
But the reality is that by converting one valuable asset, Jerami Grant, into the draft pick that became Duren – who turned 19 on Friday and is the NBA’s youngest player – the Pistons might have set themselves up for a blindingly bright future but a future that was a little bit further down the road.
And in that sense, the current injuries to Cunningham, Stewart and Bey are but a blip on the radar. None of them are remotely close to career threatening. Bey’s sprained ankle that snapped his 152-game consecutive streak probably will be forgotten before the Pistons next play at home on Sunday. Stewart’s return could come as soon as next week. Cunningham’s shin injury is the most problematic – if surgery is required, it’s likely a season-ender, based on the history of stress fractures if that’s what it’s determined to be – but players who’ve had that come back as strong as ever.
However long Cunningham is out, the mission for Casey and his staff will be to present the reality as an opportunity for others to spread their wings. Ivey’s first month in the NBA could hardly have been more promising. Whatever your highest expectations were for the impact of Ivey’s quickness and speed, they’ve been met. As he builds up repetitions and takes a few laps around the league, his ability to harness that precious gift will be fine tuned.
“When a guy is out, it’s an opportunity for the next guy to step in and compete to show what he can do,” Casey said. “For Killian Hayes, it’s an opportunity. For Jaden Ivey, it’s an opportunity.”
Hayes, indeed, appears to be evolving into the player Weaver envisioned when he spent his first pick as Pistons general manager on him two years ago. The passing and the defense have been there. Now he’s knocking down shots – mid-range pull-ups and 3-pointers – and that puts him in a very different place.
If the outcome of a Cunningham absence is that he returns to a team with fully realized versions of Ivey and Hayes, the Pistons are going to be poised for a dramatic surge. And that’s without considering Duren’s capacity for improvement, which based on the way he’s already shrunk the learning curve figures to be substantial, or any number of other potential beneficiaries of increased opportunity.
No one would have wished for those opportunities to come in the manner they have. But the everlasting challenge of the unforgiving NBA universe is to circle the wagons and maximize resources. Get through today and have faith that it will lead to a better tomorrow.
That tomorrow still brims with limitless promise for the Pistons. They just have to grit their teeth and get through today.