You can make a strong case for any number of Pistons who’ll most benefit from the return of Cade Cunningham. Take your pick from any of the four young big men – Jalen Duren, Isaiah Stewart, James Wiseman or Marvin Bagley III, all of whom project as beneficiaries of Cunningham’s pick-and-roll feel and open-court vision.
Then there’s Jaden Ivey, Cunningham’s likely running mate into the distant future as they strive to put their names in the same paragraph as gilded Pistons predecessors like Isiah Thomas & Joe Dumars or Chauncey Billups & Rip Hamilton.
But low key, you know who might benefit most from Cunningham’s return? Isaiah Livers. They’ve barely played together despite being 2021 draft classmates and teammates for two seasons after Livers was limited to 19 games as a rookie and Cunningham to 12 in the season just completed.
But Livers has seen and experienced enough to know. As a rookie, he got his first insight into Cunningham’s impact.
“It was like my third game,” Livers recalled after his rookie season. “He knew a little about me, but he didn’t know everything. But he saw how I was always ready to shoot. This dude was watching film one night – it was about 11, midnight – and I get a text from Cade. ‘Hey, I see you over there ready to shoot. I’m going to hit you next game.’
“And he did. I remember having like four threes the next game and two of ’em were those cross-court passes he was making. So we work perfectly together.”
They’ll hope to put dozens of more games together under their belts in year three.
Here's a look at Livers’ past, present and future:
PROFILE: 6-foot-7 forward, 24 years old, 2 NBA seasons
2022-23 STATS: 6.7 points, 2.8 rebounds on 42.6 shooting and 37.8 3-point shooting in 23 minutes a game over 53 games
STATUS: Livers signed a reported three-year contract after being drafted 42nd overall in the 2021 NBA draft and is entering the final year of that deal in 2023-24.
DID YOU KNOW?: Livers was named Michigan’s Mr. Basketball in 2017 in one of the closest votes in award history. Livers, who played at Derek Jeter’s alma mater Kalamazoo Central, actually received fewer first-place votes than Xavier Tillman of Grand Rapids Christian, 363-333, but made up for it with more down-ballot votes to finish with 2,811 total points to 2,739 for Tillman. The two teams met in the Class A quarterfinals that year with Tillman’s prevailing only to lose in the title game to Clarkston, led by 2018 Mr. Basketball winner Foster Loyer. Tillman would go on to Michigan State and play three seasons there before entering the 2020 NBA draft and being picked 35th overall by Memphis.
A LOOK BACK: Livers started 69 of 119 career games at Michigan including all 44 in which he suited up over his final two seasons. Livers’ college career ended abruptly in the 2021 Big Ten tournament when he suffered a foot injury that would eventually require surgery and likely cause him to fall to the middle of the second round of the 2021 draft. The Pistons used the pick acquired from the New York Knicks in the Derrick Rose trade to pick Livers, who missed a big chunk of his rookie season – he debuted in December but was shut down with pain from the recovering stress fracture and then came back in late February – and ultimately appeared in only 19 games. But Livers quickly won the favor of Dwane Casey for his high basketball IQ, positional size and versatility plus an advanced 3-point stroke. Livers hit on 42.2 percent of his 3-point attempts as an NBA rookie and established himself as a reliable defender and effective two-way transition player.
THE SEASON THAT WAS: Injury again delayed the start of Livers’ season, this time a hip injury incurred during a training camp in which he was a standout and earned raves for strides in strength and athleticism over the off-season. Livers missed the first two games but returned and played 22 consecutive games, starting the last seven of them and becoming Casey’s top perimeter defender after a battlefield promotion resulted in Livers effectively defending Trae Young during an October match with Atlanta. Then on Dec. 1 while guarding Dallas star Luka Doncic, Livers suffered a shoulder injury while navigating a screen and missed 20 games over the next six weeks, aggravating the injury midway through his rehabilitation during a workout. Livers immediately resumed his role as a rotation staple and defensive stopper, alternating between starting and coming off the bench. His 3-point shooting dipped slightly over his rookie showing though remained above league average. Livers has taken more than 70 percent of his shots from the 3-point arc in each of his first two seasons, though he showed more off-the-dribble panache during his second season.
A LOOK AHEAD: Livers goes into the off-season in position to claim a bigger role in 2023-24, though general manager Troy Weaver said in April that he would address the wing position over the summer to bolster the depth chart. “We can use another wing defender,” he said. “We’ve got Livers, who fits that bill. We’d like to get another guy, wing defender, probably, that can shoot the ball as well. A wing defender that can shoot it, I would say. That’s maybe the one tool we don’t have.” About to turn 25 and with restricted free agency looming for Livers a year from now, it will be a critical year for him to prove he can stay healthy for prolonged periods and conclusively establish himself as a rotation staple for a rising team.
MONEY QUOTE: “The thing about the NBA is, you’ve got to find your role. Find what you’re good at and then work on weaknesses in the summer. I plan on taking the next step in my career next season. Come back not completely different, but elevated. You take that belief into the off-season and come back a better player.” – Isaiah Livers after the season as he looked ahead to 2023-24 and beyond