Pistons conditions are right for the Williams-Cunningham connection to flourish

Isiah Thomas was already an All-Star when Trader Jack McCloskey went to his Philadelphia roots to install Chuck Daly as Pistons coach in 1983. But he wasn’t yet a champion.

Chauncey Billups was on his sixth NBA franchise when Joe Dumars identified him in free agency as the point guard to take the Pistons to the next level. Billups found his footing during that 2002-03 season, but it took Larry Brown’s hiring to transform him into an All-Star, a Pistons icon and ultimately an NBA champion in 2004.

Which brings us to Cade Cunningham and Monty Williams. If Troy Weaver’s grand vision for restoring the Pistons to the unbridled glory of the Bad Boys and Goin’ to Work eras is to be realized, it will be the synergy of the Cunningham-Williams partnership that serves as catalyst.

So far, so good.

“We see a lot of things in basketball the same way,” Cunningham said as the Pistons prepared to launch their first training camp on Williams’ watch. “But the main thing I like is how he carries himself outside of coaching, just the way he goes about connecting people and just talking to people.”

There’s a lot to chew on there, all of it wholesome and nutritious for the future of the franchise.

Mutual respect is the cornerstone of any successful coach-star relationship. It’s important that Cunningham and Williams share similar basketball ideologies, but it’s essential that they connect as men and partners first. The real test of that doesn’t come in summer brainstorming sessions, of course, but in the inevitable moments of strife that assault every team’s every season. But there are unions that are doomed from the start. This one has already dodged that bullet.

Not that it was ever really a concern. Not with these two.

In an era when it often seems the greater a player’s abilities, the more volatile his personality, Cunningham is the polar opposite. Weaver cited his ability to knit teams together – both with his on-court selflessness and his locker-room aura – as a motivating factor in the decision to make him the No. 1 pick in the 2021 draft. Williams’ humanity bubbled up into the national consciousness with his heart-wrenching eulogy to his late wife, Ingrid, after she tragically died in a 2016 car accident.

The expectation when Williams was hired in June was that he and Cunningham would prove a hand-in-glove fit, and so far there’s no reason to think otherwise. Williams has been struck by how easy the exchange of ideas flows with the player he knows he must win over to unlock every possibility for his time in Detroit.

“Watching him this summer, just impressed with his work ethic and his coachability,” Williams said, echoing the sentiments of his predecessor, Dwane Casey. During Cunningham’s idled 2022-23 season, which ended after 12 games due to a shin injury that ultimately required surgery, Casey made a point to consult after every practice with Cunningham to keep him mentally engaged and make certain the misfortune of injury wouldn’t completely drain meaning from his second NBA season. Casey, too, was struck by Cunningham’s beyond-his-years maturity and observational acuity.

While Williams acknowledges there will be greater stress tests of Cunningham’s leadership capacity in the offing, what he’s seen so far is overwhelmingly affirmative.

“I think you can still see some of that stuff in the off-season,” he said. “The way he handles certain situations, the way he talks to his teammates. He has an understanding that he has a big voice, so he uses it well. We’ll see more as we get into training camp and then preseason, but I saw that from a distance before.”

During Cunningham’s rookie season, with no reason for Williams to expect he would be coaching him two years later, the then-Suns coach was struck by Cunningham’s presence.

“That particular game was pretty impressive. I saw the skill, the play on the floor, and then I could see the leadership ability down the stretch. That was something that, for whatever reason, stuck in my mind. Coming here and spending time with him in our building, I’ve been able to see more and more.”

When the Pistons were in their first year of Weaver’s tenure, the general manager called Casey the “perfect” coach for what the Pistons were enduring in a floor-to-ceiling rebuild. He meant that Casey’s demeanor wasn’t influenced by the frustrations of a young team’s growing pains.

In Williams, the Pistons have landed on a coach who similarly won’t impose an emotional whirlwind on a team that might be more experienced but remains preposterously young with eight key players 23 or younger.

Listen to what one of their handful of veterans, 28-year-old Monte Morris, came to know about Williams from competing against him in the Western Conference over much of his career.

“You watch some coaches and play against them, you can see their demeanor change throughout the game,” Morris said. “He was one of those coaches, you’d never see him sweat, whether he was up 20 or losing a game. That’s always something that stuck out to me. That’s kind of how I play, as well. I don’t like people to know when I’m rattled or when I’m wearing my heart on my sleeve.”

Morris said his mother would tell him, “the head coach can’t never sweat because the players are looking over to him and it could be a spiral effect with the team.”

“That’s one thing that stood out for me playing against Monty.”

Their head coach is unflappable and their burgeoning superstar is cut from the same cloth. Everything the Pistons could have hoped for the coach-star relationship is in place for this to flourish.

“I think it’s amazing to watch,” Cunningham said of his perspective of Williams’ way of going about his business to date. “It’s easy to follow behind somebody like that and I’m excited to be able to play for him and learn so much more from him throughout the season.”