The fearless Detroit Pistons won back-to-back titles during the late 1980s by eventually overcoming the great Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Detroit’s physical play, nasty edge, ability to intimidate, and aptitude for committing hard fouls branded them the “Bad Boys”. Unfortunately, their glory days are long gone, and the current iteration of the team appears to have taken that nickname literally. The Pistons own a 23-game losing streak with no end in sight. Is their core fundamentally flawed? If so, what moves can they make?
Detroit Pistons Roster Construction Woes
Despite Detroit’s record, former first overall pick Cade Cunningham has proven his worth as a tantalizing foundational piece to build around. Every roster construction plan is unique because every franchise player possesses distinctive strengths, weaknesses, and teammate needs. Therefore, to quote Marcus Aurelius, Detroit must ask “this thing, what is it in itself?” and meticulously identify the environment that would enhance Cunningham’s provided value.
To start, what is Cunningham in itself? Standing 6’6” tall, he’s a jumbo ball handler that excels attacking via drives and high ball-screens. Getting downhill is the name of the game for Cunningham, who has morphed into an elite finisher. Per Basketball Index’s advanced metrics, he ranks third across the NBA in Finishing Talent, which considers rim shot making, rim shot quality, and rim shot creation. He possesses a semi-reliable pull-up jumper to counter sagging defenders, but scoring at the rim will always be Cunningham’s premier skill.
Detroit’s front office has failed to appreciate Aurelius and instead targeted individually talented pieces that don’t quite fit with Cunningham. The depth chart’s glaring flaw is a complete lack of spacing, which allows opponents to aggressively shade inside to protect the paint. For example, in the clip below, Los Angeles disregards Detroit’s spot up shooters and builds an impenetrable wall inside to prevent Cunningham from getting to the basket, thus forcing him to settle for a jumper.
This will be Cade’s future until Detroit surrounds him with elite spot up shooters and chaos-creating motion shooters. It’s why I am skeptical that a Cade-Ausar-Duren trio can co-exist pic.twitter.com/xOeWURbljo
— Braxton Reynolds (@BReynolds200) December 18, 2023
Although he made the shot, Los Angeles succeeded because they blocked Cunningham’s premier skill (finishing at the basket) and instead forced him into a pull-up mid-range jumper. Cunningham is not a special off-the-dribble shooter, so this fundamental roster issue essentially morphs him into a non-special player.
To understand how toxic the environment has been for Cunningham, consider this shocking metric. Of the 273 players with at least 250 minutes this season, he ranks dead last in Rim Shot Quality, which “measures how difficult a player’s shot attempts are at the rim based on the quality of contest and type of shot attempted” (per Basketball Index). Dead last! It’s truly a rare sight these days to see Cunningham have an open driving lane and only face one defender on his way to the rim.
Essentially, he will never be put in a position to succeed as long as Detroit continues to collect talented but ill-fitting pieces instead of building the roster around Cunningham.
This notion raises a painful realization: Detroit may be forced to trade Ausar Thompson. The fifth overall pick has been extremely impressive in terms of perimeter defense, secondary playmaking, and rebounding; however, he cannot hit the side of a barn. Thompson entered the draft with serious shooting concerns, and he’s currently 8 for 52 from deep on the year, or 15.4 percent. Not only is the efficiency horrendous, but the minimal volume means opponents don’t even have to respect a shot attempt, much less a made shot.
Detroit already features a non-shooter in Jalen Duren, which allows opposing centers to comfortably play a deep drop during the pick-and-roll (as seen by Anthony Davis in the clip above), so fielding a second significant spacing liability brings a long-term death sentence to this offense.
Isaiah Stewart is another player that should be on the chopping block. Despite his positives, he owns a career 33.7 3PT% and cannot attack off the catch. Finally, Detroit may consider trading former fifth overall pick Jaden Ivey. He’s not necessarily a flawed piece next to Cunningham, but they do not enhance each other’s games.
Overall, moving top five picks still in the first half of their rookie contracts is typically a ludicrous and damaging practice, but Detroit is an equally damaged franchise at the moment. Cunningham only has one more season on his rookie contract, so the front office has to immediately remedy the situation and construct a flourishing environment for him. Otherwise, given his obvious frustrations, it’s extremely feasible that he turns down the extra money and leaves for greener pastures if nothing changes with the current core. That’s simply a risk that Detroit cannot take.