The Detroit Pistons are in the market for a new starting guard.
For much of the 2021-22 NBA season, the Pistons started Cory Joseph in their backcourt with Cade Cunningham. Joseph was serviceable. That is to say, he played well enough off-ball to not be a liability in a system where Cunningham was ball-dominant. This past season, the veteran guard shot a career-high 41.3 percent from beyond the arc, including 44.3 percent off catch-and-shoot threes.
When the ball was in Joseph’s hands, he played fine. He dished out 3.6 assists with only 1.3 turnovers per game. Joseph was an all-around solid point guard. However, that is all he was: solid. He does not possess great athletic talent, and he does not create shots for himself very easily. Joseph left a lot to be desired. The 30-year-old is best utilized in a backup role, a role he has played for nearly his entire career.
While Joseph performed admirably as a starter, it was always clear the Pistons need to upgrade at the starting guard spot.
Pistons’ GM Troy Weaver is looking to take some of the offensive burden off Cunningham’s shoulders. The front office is searching for a player who can play a role similar to the one Joseph played this past season, but better. They want someone who can create for others and themselves with the ball in their hands, and someone who is still an impactful player when playing off-ball.
It is easier said than done, but Weaver is not one to back away from the challenge. With a top-five draft pick, plenty of cap space and a fair share of trade assets, Weaver and the front office will explore every avenue to find Cunningham’s new backcourt partner.
Detroit’s in-house option
The plan at the start of the 2021-22 season was to start Killian Hayes next to Cunningham in the backcourt. However, it quickly became clear the Hayes and Cunningham pairing did not work, not yet anyway.
Weaver’s first pick as Pistons GM has had a rocky start to his NBA career. Hayes has struggled to adjust to the NBA game, especially as a scorer. He played in only 26 games as a rookie, missing 46 due to an injury. But, he showed potential in his limited sample size. As a rookie, Hayes was the best passer on the Pistons roster. As a defender, he used his long arms to deflect passes and hound ball-handlers.
With Cunningham joining the team in 2021-22, Hayes needed to improve his abilities as an off-ball player in order to stick in Detroit’s starting lineup.
He did not.
Hayes’ struggles to score with any semblance of efficiency continued at the beginning of his second season. His three-point shooting worsened, and he shied away from contact around the rim. At times, he was a complete non-factor off-ball, which did not mesh well with Cunningham’s ball-dominant style of play. By mid-January, Hayes was shifted to a bench role.
But, something changed when Hayes came bench. The 20-year-old played with more aggression. Hayes was accepting contact around the rim and finishing through it. He shot 51.2 percent off drive attempts compared to 32.5 percent before he went to the bench. His three-point shot still needs work, but he showed improvement there as well.
It seems like everyone is writing off Hayes as Cunningham’s backcourt partner next season. His struggles are well documented, but his improvement should not be ignored. If Hayes can continue improving his scoring, especially from three, he would be a good fit next to Cunningham.
Options for the Pistons in the draft
If Weaver decides Hayes is not the player to pair with Cunningham in the backcourt, the NBA Draft is the obvious place to look for an upgrade. The Pistons hold the fifth pick in this year’s draft, and there are multiple prospects on the team’s radar that could fill that second guard spot.
There is Jaden Ivey, the extremely athletic sophomore from Purdue. Ivey has a burst of speed that no other prospect in this draft class possesses. The 20-year-old attacks the rim with ease and can finish through contact and different angles. He pushes the pace in transition and is certain to posterize his fair share of defenders.
There is room to grow as a shooter and even more so as a defender. Ivey will need to adjust his game to become a better off-ball player at the NBA level. There will be growing pains, but he has star potential if all works out.
Ivey would make a great one-two punch with Cunningham. His explosive drives and pace pushing offense in transition would complement Cunningham’s more methodical post-game and playmaking abilities.
Shaedon Sharpe is the mystery man of the 2022 draft. Sharpe did not play a single minute during his time at Kentucky. His lack of tape is concerning, and that concern is compounded by his unwillingness to showcase his full abilities to NBA scouts. However, Sharpe has the prototypical build of a modern NBA wing. He stands at 6-5 with a nearly 7-foot wingspan.
Sharpe is a natural three-level scorer with deep range. He has even flashed some playmaking chops as well. Defense, on the other hand, oh boy, not his thing yet. But, he has the tools necessary to be a solid defensive player, assuming he can put everything together.
As the enigma of the draft, Sharpe has the most boom-or-bust potential. If he is a hit, the 18-year-old is the All-Star caliber wing you dream of pairing with Cunningham. If he is a miss, the Pistons restoration may be set back another year.
Bennedict Mathurin is the safest pick of the top guards available in the draft, but he is still a solid one. Mathurin is a traditional shooting guard. He does not offer much in the way of playmaking, but he plays extremely well off-ball. Arizona had Mathurin running off screens, dribble hand-offs and cutting to the basket. He has work to do as an on-ball player, but he has some burst and is direct with his drives.
Of the guard prospects available, Mathurin is the best fit with Cunningham right now. In the long term, who knows? Cunningham has to take on a true point guard role if Mathurin is the pick. Taking Mathurin might pass up a potentially more dominant backcourt duo, but the Arizona guard is a sure bet to be solid next to Cunningham.
Of course, the Pistons could very well go with Iowa forward Keegan Murray with the fifth pick, which renders this whole mental exercise pointless. Still, if one of the three guards is the pick, they all offer something unique.
Targets for the Pistons in free agency
May 24, 2022; Dallas, Texas, USA; Dallas Mavericks guard Jalen Brunson (13) makes a layup past Golden State Warriors guard Moses Moody (4) during the second quarter in game four of the 2022 western conference finals at American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
If the Pistons make a move for a guard in the draft, it is unlikely they target one in free agency. At least, not a guard who will garner a hefty salary. However, the team is reported to have a serious interest in Murray. If he is the pick, Detroit is sure to make some offers in free agency.
Dallas Mavericks guard Jalen Brunson is one of the bigger names the Pistons are reported to have interest in this offseason. Brunson showcased his abilities in the Mavericks’ first-round matchup with the Utah Jazz when Luka Dončić missed multiple games due to injury.
Brunson has steadily improved in all four years of his NBA career. This season he is averaging career highs in points (16.3), assists (4.8) and rebounds (3.9). The former second-round pick is on his expiring rookie contract and will enter unrestricted free agency this offseason.
Brunson is the natural option to pursue to pair with Cunningham. The 25-year-old spent the last four seasons playing the exact role the Pistons are looking to fill. Brunson played off-ball during most of his time paired with Dončić in the Mavericks’ backcourt. He played in the corner and shot spot-up threes when Dončić went to work in the paint. When called upon, Brunson displayed great playmaking ability and even some self-creation ability as well.
Of course, Brunson is likely to garner a lucrative contract offer from someone. The Mavericks are likely to match whatever offer comes the point guard’s way. Even though he does not have to accept any offer from the Mavs, coming off a Conference Finals run is an enticing incentive to return. The New York Knicks are also reported to have a vested interest in Brunson.
Potential bidding will likely inflate Brunson’s price tag. The original $18 million-$20 million per year contract he is expected to get could balloon to even more. That overpay is not something the Pistons need to do right now. But, if the price is right, Brunson makes a lot of sense in Detroit.
There are a few other guards the Pistons could pursue in free agency, but none are long-term candidates to be Cunningham’s backcourt partner.
Gary Harris played really well with the Orlando Magic this past season. His three-point shot started to fall again after dipping for a few seasons. Harris is a good veteran presence and solid defender. He plays well off-ball as well. Harris is a Band-Aid option for the Pistons. He would play serviceable minutes for a season while the team gears up to upgrade again the next season.
Detroit could look to reunite with Bruce Brown. Brown took less money to stay with the Brooklyn Nets last offseason, but the 25-year-old could be enticed to move on after the Nets’ dysfunctional 2021-22 season. He offers a lot of versatility. Defensively, he can switch onto multiple positions. He is one of the league’s better perimeter defenders. Offensively, he can play as a pick-and-roll screener, or spot up from beyond the arc. His three-point shot saw a drastic improvement this past season.
Like with Harris, Detroit would likely look to upgrade in the next offseason, but Brown would make for a great defensive stopper off the bench in the Pistons’ long-term future.
The draft is likely where the Pistons will first look to acquire a starting guard to pair with Cunningham. If Murray is the pick at five, Detroit could look to move on from Jerami Grant to land another lottery pick to get a guy like Mathurin. If that fails, the team has cap space to get a guard in free agency. Of course, they could simply trade for someone as well. There is no guarantee which route Detroit takes, but the team has options.
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