DETROIT – It’s been nearly three months since the Detroit Pistons injected new life into their fan base by selecting Cade Cunningham with the No. 1 overall draft pick. Now, we’ll finally get to see this team take the court.
But in typical Detroit sports fashion, there’s a dark cloud hanging over what should be a celebratory evening: Cunningham’s injury.
The new face of the franchise suffered an ankle sprain sometime between Summer League and the opener, and as a result, Troy Weaver’s latest production will debut without its lead actor.
Is Cunningham’s injury a bump on an otherwise smooth road, or an ominous sign of another long season?
Expectations for the Pistons are much higher in and around Detroit than they are nationally. Fans feel cautiously optimistic that the Pistons could overachieve, but nobody outside Michigan gives last year’s 29th-place finisher a second glance.
Cunningham is obviously a beacon of hope, but last year’s draft class is equally responsible for Weaver’s sky-high approval rating. Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart earned All-Rookie honors last season and hope to take another step forward with increased sophomore roles.
Meanwhile, a healthy Killian Hayes can only improve a backcourt that struggled in 2020-2021, even if it’s primarily as a defender and distributor.
That trio, along with Cunningham, aims to compliment one of the league’s breakout stars: Jerami Grant.
In his first season as a primary scoring option, Grant averaged 22.3 points per game on 42.9% shooting and 35% from beyond the arc. He also chipped in 4.6 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.1 blocks per game.
Weaver brought in some reinforcements for Grant this offseason, headlined by Kelly Olynyk, who scored 19 points per game after a trade to the Houston Rockets last season.
While he only played 27 games for the Rockets, Olynyk shot 39.2% from the beyond the arc and pitched in 8.4 rebounds and 4.1 assists.
Weaver’s vision is clear: He wants to build a roster of talented, versatile players. Grant, Cunningham, Bey and Olynyk can all shoot, rebound, pass and defend. Hayes is an excellent passer and defender, and Stewart contributes in all facets of the game.
Slowly but surely, Weaver sculpted the Pistons into a team worth watching. The question on everyone’s mind today is whether that will translate into wins.
Closer to Tigers or Lions?
A best-case scenario for the Pistons would be a reenactment of what the Detroit Tigers accomplished over the summer. Young players such as Akil Baddoo, Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal took steps forward, while veterans such as Robbie Grossman and Jeimer Candelario solidified their roles.
Pistons fans hope to see similar development from Cunningham, Hayes, Stewart and Bey. At the same time, can Grant maintain last year’s pace? Will the Rockets version of Olynyk translate to a full 82 games?
Even the most optimistic fans don’t expect the Pistons to be true contenders in an Eastern Conference captained by the loaded Milwaukee Bucks and Brooklyn Nets. But an improvement over last year’s .278 winning percentage isn’t too much to ask.
As for a worst-case scenario -- because that can never be ruled out these days in Detroit sports -- look no further than the Detroit Lions.
Injuries have sapped the roster of what little talent it has, and the end product is hard to watch. The Lions are the lone winless team in the NFL and face the unenviable task of getting embarrassed by old friend Matthew Stafford this weekend.
Sunday afternoon cider mill trips never looked so appealing.
I would be shocked if the Pistons resembled the Lions, especially under the leadership of Weaver and head coach Dwane Casey. But they won’t be as pleasantly surprising as the Tigers, either.
The Tigers finished 2021 with a .475 winning percentage, which would translate roughly to a 39-43 record for the Pistons. That would probably be enough to get into the playoffs, and I still think the Pistons are a year away from reaching that goal.
This group will mirror the Tigers -- and in some ways, last year’s Pistons -- by being fun and interesting to watch, especially if fans go in with a mindset of looking toward the near future.
Gone are the days of rooting for losses and draft position in an attempt to turn over the roster. Weaver has already done that. Even the bench is stocked with interesting prospects, such as Hamidou Diallo, Isaiah Livers and both Frank and Josh Jackson.
The Pistons won’t be the worst team in the Eastern Conference again. I think 32-36 wins is a fair expectation, and that would be another step in the right direction.
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