Cade Cunningham
(Nic Antaya/Getty Images)

Pistons Mailbag - WEDNESDAY, August 31

With training camp opening in less than four weeks, this week’s Pistons Mailbag looks at the likelihood of more moves before then, what improvements are in store for Cade Cunningham and how the crunch for minutes might play out.

@DonJuan_Junya: Do you think the Pistons will make a move to get more wings and shore up that frontcourt? Is Ivey/Cunningham the day one backcourt? What’s the situation with Walker?

Langlois: Possible on adding wings, but I don’t think they look at it as something urgent and wouldn’t make a move just to better balance the depth chart unless they felt they were upgrading the overall talent level. The Pistons have five big men and that’s a lot these days, but Kelly Olynyk and Nerlens Noel could be on the last year of their contracts – Olynyk is only partially guaranteed for 2023-24 and Noel’s deal for that season is a team option – so it’s not a long-term logjam and both deals are very easily movable. Since both would likely have trade value for teams with a specific need – Olynyk as a versatile offensive player and Noel for his upper-tier defensive value – it’s quite possible the Pistons won’t end the season with all five big men. I expect Isaiah Stewart, Jalen Duren and Marvin Bagley III to be the long-term building blocks of the frontcourt. The Pistons, ideally, would have another wing in the mix, but they aren’t in any danger of a numbers shortage there with Saddiq Bey, Cade Cunningham, Hamidou Diallo, Isaiah Livers and Kevin Knox plus jack-of-all-trades veteran Rodney McGruder and Braxton Key available on a two-way deal. Then you can add Killian Hayes and Jaden Ivey, given their size, to help cover the gaps should a run of injuries thin the corps. As for a Cunningham-Ivey backcourt, I think that’s the likeliest scenario heading into training camp. It makes too much sense, especially since the best basketball Hayes played came when he was moved to the second unit down the stretch last season. My guess is that’s the preferred lineup and what Dwane Casey goes with initially. If circumstances dictate a change, they could always go with veteran Cory Joseph next to Cunningham. But I would expect they’d give Ivey a pretty long rope to settle in, given his talent, on-paper fit and importance to the future. As for Walker, nothing’s changed. The buzz is still about other teams considering bringing him to camp, the assumption being a buyout will get done before camp. If you’re the Pistons, it makes sense to delay that process until the possibility of using his contract in trade to your benefit dries up.

Langlois: I settled on Livers as the likeliest to join the starting lineup when I looked at the big picture last month. He makes a lot of sense given his 3-point threat and the fact he’s earned Dwane Casey’s trust for his defensive feel and overall basketball IQ. Cade Cunningham and Saddiq Bey are the two locks to start. After that, Isaiah Stewart is a heavy favorite and Jaden Ivey seems likely to slot in next to Cunningham. I looked at six players as possibilities for the fifth spot – Cory Joseph, Marvin Bagley III, Kelly Olynyk, Hamidou Diallo and Alec Burks in addition to Livers – and you could make the case for any of them. But Livers makes the most sense to me at this point when you add it all up and consider the balancing of the first and second units. I think starting two bigs could be problematic defensively. Starting Burks is tempting but he might be too valuable as the scoring anchor of the bench unit. Joseph is a security blanket but if he starts, the likeliest player he replaces is Ivey, which would still leave an opening for Livers. I don’t know that it rises to even money – I listed Livers at 30 percent likely to start – but starting Livers eliminates more questions than starting anyone else in my mind.

@stephane.lebaron93/IG: What has Cade been working on this off-season and is he ready to make an All-Star leap?

Langlois: The first thing Cunningham mentioned when he was asked that question in July after a Summer League practice was cutting down on turnovers. That’s a little tough to do in the off-season, of course, when the focus is on individual skills improvement and you’re not playing against live defenses in five-on-five settings nearly as much. But Cunningham alluded to doing as much as possible in a more sterile setting to simulate defensive pressure. He said, “Taking care of the ball, for sure. Just being solid in my space. I want to be comfortable owning my space in the paint, in traffic, wherever. That was super important to me and we’ve been doing a lot of real things that will help with that. And then shooting the ball, for sure.” Cunningham put up virtual All-Star numbers – 21.0 points, 6.4 rebounds, 5.8 assists a game – after the All-Star break last season but did so despite shooting just 29 percent from the 3-point arc and with little 3-point shooting around him to help. If Cunningham can shoot closer to league average this season, 35 percent, and get to the line more often – and being more comfortable “owning” his own space, as he put it, will spur that – then, yeah, he can make an All-Star leap. Whether it results in him actually making the All-Star team, of course, comes down to how much improvement the Pistons make as a team. We know coaches are historically very stingy with All-Star votes for players from teams outside the playoff field.

@nagol__87/IG: What’s your record prediction this season?

Langlois: I’m not one for making such projections and I’m not a gambler – but, that said, I’d take the over on the Las Vegas line which is generally around 27 or 28 depending on the oddsmaker. The Pistons are going to be one of the NBA’s youngest teams with three of their youngest players – Cade Cunningham (20, turning 21 the week before training camp next month), Killian Hayes (21) and Jaden Ivey (19) – doing the bulk of the ballhandling and decision-making. One thing we know about young teams – and especially teams with young guards – is that it’s tough to win and especially tough to win close games in the final five minutes. So there’s a learning curve there that has to be experienced. How quickly the Pistons can bend that curve will determine when they establish themselves as a legitimate playoff contender. They’re also competing in an Eastern Conference that’s deeper than it’s ever been.

@flagrant_Elbow: Defensively, I think our backcourt off the bench of Killian Hayes and Hamidou Diallo will be a great duo to put defensive pressure on opposing starters and bench players. Kind of like Lindsey (Hunter) and Mike James did. Your opinion on the bench’s defensive potential? (Not to mention Nerlens Noel and Alec Burks.)

Langlois: If I’m right on the starters – Cade Cunningham, Saddiq Bey, Isaiah Stewart, Jaden Ivey and Isaiah Livers – then what’s the likeliest makeup of the bench unit? That’s even more speculative than determining who starts. Alec Burks would be a lock. I can’t imagine either Marvin Bagley III or Kelly Olynyk not being in the rotation, though it’s conceivable that playing them together is enough of an issue that it’s not a staple. Killian Hayes is very likely to be the point guard. Hamidou Diallo brings a jolt of athleticism and defensive energy. In that scenario, on the outside looking in are Jalen Duren – he’s 18 and there are four rotation-worthy veterans ahead of him – as well as Nerlens Noel (his defensive ability is going to give him a chance to win minutes under Dwane Casey, for sure), Kevin Knox, Saben Lee and Rodney McGruder. One of the concerns, I would imagine, of a frontcourt of Bagley and Olynyk would be rim protection and the matchup for whichever of the two has to guard a modern-day four man out at the 3-point line. Yeah, you’d feel best about Hayes and Diallo on the defensive end. If Noel is the center, the unit has a chance to be very good defensively. But Burks would be left carrying a very heavy scoring load for a unit that includes Hayes, Diallo and Noel.

Darrell (Detroit): If the Pistons use a 10-man rotation with the starters presumed to be Cunningham, Ivey, Bey, Stewart and Bagley and Hayes, Burks, Livers and Olynyk being pretty much a given off the bench, then who gets the remaining spot between Noel, Diallo, Joseph, Knox and Duren?

Langlois: That’s what training camp and the preseason are for, though I would expect the back end of the rotation will be something of a revolving door as it almost always is. Injuries have a way of clarifying options, too. I speculated on rotation possibilities earlier this month and listed four players – Cunningham, Bey, Stewart and Ivey – as rotation locks and four others – Burks, Olynyk, Bagley and Hayes – as good bets. I think Isaiah Livers makes a lot of sense to start, as I wrote above, but I also think it’s possible he doesn’t open the season in the rotation if Dwane Casey wants to maximize the use of the rotation-worthy big men on the roster and winds up starting two of them. But, yeah, I think Livers’ 3-point shooting and lineup versatility he affords at both ends make him a pretty good bet to see the floor. Of the five players you identify to get the remaining spot, I’d go in this order: Diallo/Joseph, Noel, Knox/Duren. But I wouldn’t consider any of them crazy long shots.

@mbmiotto/IG: How much confidence do Troy Weaver and Tom Gores have in Dwane Casey as a head coach? Is he part of the long haul?

Langlois: Gores has said or done nothing to give any impression other than of being supremely supportive of Casey. Weaver and Casey are very clearly on the same page. There hasn’t been the hint of discord between them on matters of any consequence. They added a year to Casey’s contract when the 2020-21 season ended and Weaver was laudatory of Casey at the time. When Gores was asked in April on the night of the home finale whether Casey would be back in 2022-23, he responded with: “I want to see Dwane more than next year. … His ability to keep everybody’s spirit alive I just think is such a talent. He’s a great man. … He really understands how to keep these guys engaged while they’re going through a hard time, so he’s really threaded the needle. He really has this ability just to keep everybody inspired and the players love him and I do, too – but the players really love him.” That’s about as strong an endorsement as a coach could hope to get from his owner.

@b_the_myth: They’re making the playoffs this year. No, not the play-in. I don’t drink Kool-Aid. I’m extremely critical and unbiased and have gotten into multiple arguments with fans who get too hyped over nothing. Pistons and Lions. On that note, this lineup is scary.

Langlois: I am not here to quell your optimism. It’s possible that the Pistons’ ascent is orderly and starts with a modest improvement in win total this season followed by a more noticeable jump the following season and beyond. The overwhelming majority of observers see what’s going on with the Pistons and project a bright future. But they aren’t playing in a vacuum, either. I think this is the deepest the NBA has ever been, which stands to reason. The league has added three franchises since 1992 – the year the Dream Team’s odyssey put basketball’s globalization into overdrive. We’ve had a few generations of players from every corner of the globe come of age since then, all striving to secure one of the 450 roster spots available in the NBA (480 if you include the two two-way contracts each of the 30 franchises can award). There are far more good players today than there were 30 years ago but only 50 or so more job openings. Sometimes progress is very linear and sometimes it skips a few steps. We’ll see how it comes together for the Pistons this season.

@notoriousr.o.b/IG: You think that Kevin Knox will impress enough to get more minutes in the regular season?

Langlois: The Pistons came to terms with Knox relatively early in free agency, which tells me they combed through their free agency board and zeroed in on Knox before free agency opened. It wasn’t the second or third waves of free agency where the Pistons looked around, shrugged and said, “Why not this guy?” No, they clearly had an eye on Knox as an undervalued talent. He was a highly coveted recruit and Weaver probably first saw him when he was early in his high school days. Dwane Casey has an affinity for players who went to his alma mater, Kentucky, which won’t count for much once training camp starts but can’t hurt, at least. What that all means is that the Pistons are giving Knox an opportunity and they have some skin in the game, but the rest is up to Knox. Knox has four years in the NBA but he’s still very young, having just turned 23 this month. It isn’t crazy to think he has enough upside to work his way into the rotation. As I’ve written, the Pistons can certainly find room for the idea of Kevin Knox – a 6-foot-7 wing with enough athleticism and skill level to establish himself as worthy of a lottery pick after one year of college basketball.