The Pistons remain an offensive team of fits and starts for one unwavering fundamental reason: They start three 20-year-olds and four first- or second-year players. Tuesday was another reminder of what NBA history confirms: Young teams – especially teams with young guards – inevitably struggle to function at anything approaching a consistent level.
But those three 20-year-olds were also quite arguably the Pistons three best players in Tuesday’s 110-92 loss to Portland. Cade Cunningham had a career-high 26 points and did it on just 13 shots, making 10 of them, including 5 of 7 from the 3-point line. Isaiah Stewart recorded an emphatic double-double with 15 points and 14 rebounds, doing his damage on just six shots. Killian Hayes finished with 11 points and stood out defensively.
You don’t have to squint very hard to see what the Pistons might look like two or three years down the line when those players have a few thousand more minutes under their belts and have matured physically to go along with the experience – and the adversity – they’re soaking up in a baptism by fire.
“That’s this league. If you don’t enjoy and embrace adversity, you’re not going to come out on the good end,” Dwane Casey said. “That’s what we’re learning. Some guys brought it, but not enough when we faced adversity.”
The Pistons played reasonably well defensively against the NBA’s No. 4 offense and a Portland team that’s now won 10 straight home games. But a sputtering offense puts undue stress on a team’s defense and that’s where the Pistons are. Take away Cunningham’s 3-point shooting and the rest of the Pistons were a dismal 4 of 28 or 14 percent. That just isn’t going to cut it in a league where success is increasingly linked to efficient 3-point shooting. It’s a big reason Cunningham, averaging 6.4 assists over his last eight games, finished with just one assist and the Pistons with only 17.
“Some of it was just we had made the right decisions and at the end of the day we didn’t make the shots,” Casey said. “One of the year-long things we’ve had. You still have to knock ’em down.”
A big part of why the Pistons ultimately decided on Cunningham with the No. 1 pick over a breathtaking field of prospects was his makeup. It was a window into that aspect of Cunningham when he turned a question over his shooting display into a critique of his game management.
“I think I shot the ball well. Taking care of the ball, I feel like I’ve got to take the lead and help cut down our team turnovers,” he said. “That starts with me. Having the ball in my hands a lot, if I can take charge and make sure I cut mind down, I feel like that’ll rub off on the rest of the team.”
Cunningham’s struggled along with everyone else with his shot so far in a rookie season initially derailed by an ankle injury that sidelined him for all of training camp plus the first 10 days of the regular season. He came into Tuesday’s game shooting 33.5 percent overall and 24.5 percent from the 3-point line even as he made an impact in all the ways that set him apart as an NBA prospect.
“He’s coming around,” Casey said. “He can’t do it by himself. We’ve got to get some people to join the party and join the shot-making club. He’s doing exactly what he’s supposed to do as a young player in our league.”
Stewart went against one of the NBA’s strongest and most physical centers in 290-pound Jusuf Nurkic and – no surprise – didn’t back down an inch.
“A lot of it is offensive rebounding, getting in and mixing it up,” Casey said of Stewart, who grabbed six of his team’s seven offensive boards. “They play a defense that forces your big to handle the ball and make decisions. I thought he did a good job of that when he caught it in the middle. Isaiah did a good job of handling that and also rebounding the ball.”
Hayes has been one of the Pistons better 3-point shooters on the season despite Tuesday’s 1 of 5 showing, but he made two tough shots inside the arc, rebounding well with six and played a big role in the subpar shooting night of Portland’s starting backcourt, a combined 16 of 40 for All-Star C.J. McCollum and Anfernee Simons, subbing for All-NBA star Damian Lillard.
“I thought Killian is doing an excellent job defensively,” Casey said. “He missed some shots we want him to take – and make. We’ve got to be consistent with our shooting.”
That’s a historically tough ask of teams who rely as heavily on 20-year-olds as the Pistons do on their three precocious starters. But on another night where shooting woes sunk the Pistons, it wasn’t hard to see a significantly different and brighter future beckoning them.