Cade Cunningham, Kelly Olynyk, Saben Lee, Saddiq Bey, shooting woes and what would make for a successful Pistons season – we touch on it all in this week’s edition of Pistons Mailbag.
Steven (Detroit): Why does Cade Cunningham continue to shoot threes when he’s not good at it?
Langlois: The Pistons drafted Cunningham for a lot of reasons, but one of them is that he was about as complete an offensive prospect as the draft had produced in years. He was a 40 percent 3-point shooter in his only college season. He’s been a good 3-point shooter with USA Basketball. It’s not the only part of his game, not by a long shot, but it’s always been a part of his game and it will continue to be. And he made 5 of 7 at Portland on Tuesday, after your question was submitted, so perhaps that answered it better than anything I could offer here. Look, rookies typically struggle with shooting from three. The exceptions are usually players who take the vast majority of their threes in catch-and-shoot situations where the variables are reduced. Cunningham isn’t that type of player. He’s a primary creator. He’s shooting 27.4 percent on threes so far, obviously below average. He’s taking a little more than half his shots (52 percent) from the 3-point arc and my guess is Dwane Casey and staff are fine with that mix for him. I think it’s encouraging that he’s taking 7.3 attempts per game and still doesn’t appear at all hesitant to let it fly. Cunningham’s mental toughness and his clutch ability are big parts of the makeup that elevated him to the draft’s top prospect last summer. He’s been a clutch fourth-quarter player already. https://www.nba.com/pistons/news/the-moment-is-never-too-big-for-cade-cunningham. Keep in mind the enormity of the transition he faces, going from one atypical year in college – games played in empty arenas and everything else that the COVID-19 pandemic altered – to an abbreviated NBA off-season to missing all of training camp and the preseason with an ankle injury to getting thrown into real games after giving everyone else a big head start and becoming an immediate starter with the ball in your hands nearly full-time. It’s a lot to process. It’s like watching a video at double time and trying to keep up. Once it all becomes second nature to him and there aren’t surprises on every possession, I’d expect the shooting percentages to respond accordingly. Get back to me if he’s still shooting below 30 percent next season at this time.
Langlois: Shooting is down across the NBA. I saw a stat last week that all 30 teams were shooting worse from the 3-point arc this season than they did last season. That’s an astounding reality and speaks to some fundamental change. The NBA is using a new ball this season and I don’t know how that couldn’t be at play with something so widespread. Dwane Casey said a few weeks ago that he thinks the fact that more and more teams are switching almost universally on defense this season is also a factor. Take the leaguewide trend and layer on the fact the Pistons are starting a rookie and three second-year players, two of them extremely young second-year players, and I don’t think there’s much mystery in why the Pistons are at or near the bottom of a leaguewide trend. Jerami Grant is 27 and leads the Pistons in minutes per game. The ages of the next four players, in order: 22, 20, 20, 20. No mystery why the Pistons struggle on offense generally and shooting more specifically. To suggest John Beilein, one of the most respected offensive minds and shooting gurus universally, is somehow at the root of the Pistons shooting woes is laughable.
Tads (@_tads_): Does John Beilein work with the Pistons and the Motor City Cruise? And what is stopping the Pistons from bringing up Diallo?
Langlois: Yes, though his work with the Cruise is really about the players who cross over and were with the Pistons in training camp – two-way players Jamorko Pickett and Chris Smith and camp invitees Cassius Stanley, Derrick Walton Jr., Deividas Sirvydis and Jared Cunningham. The Cruise practice at the Henry Ford Pistons Performance Center, same as the Pistons, and Beilein is at Pistons practices so it wouldn’t be unusual for Cruise players to be around and perhaps interact with Beilein. As for your second question, I assume you’re talking about Cheick Diallo and not Hamidou Diallo. The Pistons have no rights to Cheick Diallo. He was signed by the Motor City Cruise, but any NBA team is able to sign him if they have a roster spot for him. The Pistons don’t. They have all 15 standard and both two-way roster spots filled currently. In order to sign Diallo, they’d have to create a roster opening.
@adam_peterss/IG: What would constitute a “successful” season in your eyes?
Langlois: Sometimes the simplest of questions demand the most layered answers. This is one of them. The most direct answer to your question is tangible progress for the young players central to the franchise’s future – Cade Cunningham, Killian Hayes, Isaiah Stewart and Saddiq Bey most prominently but also Saben Lee, Frank Jackson, Hamidou Diallo, Luka Garza and Isaiah Livers and on to Jamorko Pickett and Chris Smith on two-way contracts. We know that rosters turn over by one-third or more every season, so not all of those players will still be around in a few years. But especially with the first four, how they progress will go a long way toward determining the shape of the first phase of rebuilding – restoring, in Troy Weaver’s parlance – and what comes next. It’s likely the Pistons will have another lottery pick this season, potentially another top-five pick, and that player will become part of the nucleus, as well. You want to end the season feeling as or more confident about the career trajectory of the players you’ve bet on as you were when it began. If that’s the case for the collective – and especially if that’s the case for each individual – then it will have been a most successful season.
@dareal_broray/IG: Any trade rumors?
Langlois: No. Should we start some? There have been reports that the Pistons have kicked the tires on Ben Simmons and Marvin Bagley III, perhaps the two players most widely known to be desirous of being traded – so, no surprise if that indeed is true. The list of teams who haven’t discussed Simmons and Bagley would be shorter than the list of teams that has. You can expect the rumor mill to start churning at a greater clip soon. Dec. 15 is the date that the vast majority of free agents signed in the off-season are eligible to be traded and that lifts the dam for many teams. I don’t think the Pistons feel any undue urgency to get something done, but upgrading the talent base is always an imperative when you’re in the position they are. So they’ll have their radar up for ways to do that. It’s still more about talent right now than roster fit.
J Roze (@Det2UP): Is there any update on Olynyk?
Langlois: No. And I wouldn’t expect any until he’s re-examined six weeks after the announcement of the injury and the recovery protocol. He was injured Nov. 10 in Houston and two days later the Pistons announced Olynyk would be re-evaluated in six weeks, which is Dec. 24. Maybe that evaluation gets pushed a day or two either way given the timing of the holiday, but we’re at least three weeks away from hearing anything, I would assume. The best-case scenario, I’d guess, is that his recovery is going well and he’s cleared to resume basketball activity on some level at that time. He’d need at least a week and probably more to be OK’d to return to game action, in all likelihood. Olynyk’s loss was a big one for the Pistons. His all-around offensive skill set – as a 3-point threat, as a big man comfortable putting the ball on the floor, as a passer, as someone who can serve as a playmaker, as a screener and high IQ player – is sorely needed for a team relying on so many young players. Olynyk can help save a lot of sunk possessions for Dwane Casey’s team.
mc saint nick (@419mcsaintnick): Shouldn’t Saben Lee be getting all of Cory Joseph’s minutes? Seems to me he’s getting valuable development time taken away and is very capable of playing the position. We should have never re-signed him.
Langlois: There’s no right or wrong answer here. The Pistons have committed to developing young players and, other than Jerami Grant, their top five players in minutes per game are all first- and second-year players. Two of them, Cade Cunningham and Killian Hayes, have the ball in their hands a ton. I don’t know if the team’s interests are served by adding a third young primary ballhandler to the mix. Dwane Casey loves Joseph and Joseph’s ebullient personality is an underappreciated asset for a young team that risks having its psyche trampled by frequent losing. In stretches where the Pistons have trouble limiting turnovers or executing effective possessions, Casey turns to Joseph as an extra ballhandler and calming presence. The Pistons were always going to add a veteran ballhandler in free agency over the off-season. That they were able to retain Joseph at a more team-friendly price made it an easy call. Lee, meanwhile, is getting plenty of development during his stints with the Motor City Cruise. As everyone accrues a little more experience, perhaps later in the season the Pistons will alter the balance and start giving Lee some of Joseph’s turns. They’ve got Lee under contract for three more seasons, so they’re clearly invested in maximizing his potential and feel the current course is the proper one.
CubicalLake7 (@CubicalLake7): At what point does Saddiq Bey start to have his minutes cut in favor of young players who are outperforming him? Not benched or relegated to the second unit, but cut until he starts to perform – Hamidou Diallo in particular?
Langlois: Bey’s shooting, like a lot of players around the league, has fallen off this season. In addition to whatever factors might be affecting all players, Bey’s shooting is perhaps being affected by the more varied responsibilities he’s been handed this season. While the shooting is off, his per-36 rebounding and assist numbers are both up and he’s taking a significantly lesser percentage of his shots from the 3-point arc, falling from 66.6 percent of last year’s attempts to 47.2 percent this season. He’s scuffling at the time, for sure, and his minutes were indeed cut in Tuesday’s loss at Portland. Bey is a very close second to Jerami Grant (32.8 to 32.2) in minutes per game but he was fifth among starters in minutes at Portland with 26.