BROOKLYN – This will go down in history as the night Cade
Cunningham was drafted No. 1 overall by the Detroit Pistons. It
will not be remembered as the night Russell Westbrook was
traded to the Los Angeles Lakers.
Says Cunningham, who was unafraid to answer a direct question
about what fans will remember about July 29, 2021 a decade or so
down the road.
“I think it will be Cade Cunningham's night, that he got drafted
by the Pistons, because when people look back, that will be the
start of whenever the Pistons restored their franchise and brought
greatness back to the city," Cunningham said from the interview
room at Barclays Center. "That's my whole goal stepping into
Detroit, to restore that city. They've already had championship
teams. They've already witnessed greatness. I want to be able to
bring that back to the city."
It was a genuine answer to a question a lot of athletes might
have dodged or ducked. But Cunningham is clearly as intelligent as
he is confident and talented, and he answered without hesitation.
Props to him for that.
He is only 19 years old and was not even out of diapers the last
time the Pistons were relevant in the NBA-championship discussion.
But his brother, Cannen, played for Larry Brown at SMU, and he
spent three years hearing about what Chauncey Billups, Ben Wallace,
Rip Hamilton and Rasheed Wallace meant to the Detroit area a
generation ago when LeBron James was still climbing the hill in
Cleveland, trying to get past their rivals one industrial city away
in a neighboring state.
Cunningham’s geographical history includes growing up in
Arlington, Texas, attending high school there for two years and at
Montverde Academy in Florida for two years before spending a season
in Norman, Oklahoma. So he will encounter culture shock and
architectural shock as he makes the move to Michigan and gets to
know the city the Pistons have returned to after their long stint
in the suburb of Auburn Hills.
He has already met with general manager Troy Weaver and coach
Dwane Casey. What struck him about those sitdowns was the genuine
level of commitment both men have to restoring glory to a franchise
that has been on the skids for the past dozen years, making the
postseason just two times and never getting out of the first
“More than anything, they're locked in and they're stuck on
restoring them. I heard that so many times throughout my visit in
Detroit, and it stuck with me just because it makes sense,” said
Cunningham, who knew all day that Detroit would be selecting him
first overall, but had to wait until just after 8:00 p.m. ET to
make it official.
“Seeing the two guys that are leading that organization as far
as the head coach and general manager having that type of
motivation to bring the team back, I mean, I know it's their job. I
know that technically they're supposed to feel that way. But to
really feel the genuine feel that I had from them, it meant a lot
to me and it gave me a different confidence going in because I know
I'm going to be in a good situation.”
Pistons fans, Cavs fans, Knicks fans and fans of several other
teams (such as those in Milwaukee who waited 50 years between
championships) know that the road back to relevance can be an
excruciatingly long one. Somewhere along the way, you must have
luck, and the Pistons will learn soon enough whether hitting the
proper ping-pong ball combination in this pandemic season was what
turned things around for them.
Cunningham is considered a can’t-miss prospect in a particularly
strong draft year. However, he is joining a franchise that still
seems at least a player or two away from postseason contention, no
matter how good rookies Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart were last
season, and no matter how great of an addition Jerami Grant was in
There is always a balance that must be found between youthful
exuberance and talent along with veteran leadership and savvy, and
the Pistons currently seem to have more of the former than the
latter. They jettisoned Mason Plumlee in a deal that sent the
veteran center to Charlotte in what appeared to be a salary dump to
make room for an acquisition of a replacement backup center whose
identity was not immediately clear.
When you are in Weaver’s shoes, picking a player of Cunningham’s
caliber is the easy part. Filling in the blanks around him is
“He’s sharp,” Weaver said of Cunningham. “He’s very aware.”
“If you look at our team, he's a human connector, on the floor
and off the floor," Weaver said. “He’s been an elite player at all
levels, and I think he’ll continue that because of his sharp
Cunningham spoke with the same level of self-confidence that
Billups used to display when the Pistons were making it to the
Eastern Conference Finals for six consecutive years under Rick
Carlisle, Brown and Flip Saunders. Back then, even though the
action was some 33 miles north of Detroit, it was the center of the
Eastern Conference universe, despite those great Pistons teams
producing only one championship.
Compared to their irrelevance of late, those were halcyon days
for the franchise, simply because everyone in the NBA respected
their talent and knew the road to the NBA Finals would eventually
roll through Michigan.
It is rare nowadays for any franchise to remain as powerful as
those Pistons were for so many consecutive years. The Sixers were
supposed to be that way, but Ben Simmons' confidence waned. The
Lakers were supposed to be that way, but LeBron James and Anthony
Davis got hurt. The Warriors were that way for a while, but Kevin
Durant is long gone and it has been two seasons since Klay Thompson
was able to play. The Celtics dropped off the contender map. The
Rockets reminded everyone over the past year-and-a-half that the
NBA can be a fickle league and once one guy jumps ship, others
quickly follow. The Raptors were damn good three years ago. Same
for the Heat two seasons ago. But nobody has mentioned either of
them for months, with good reason.
“I feel like stepping onto the court with the greats that I've
watched for a long time, the LeBrons, Giannis -- I mean, Giannis is
great right now, but the LeBrons, the Kawhis, the guys that have
been in the league for a while that have been killing, I'm excited
to be able to step on the court and see them in person and learn
from them and take as much as I can from them,” Cunningham said.
“And then the Giannises and the young guys, Lukas, Ja Morants, all
those guys in the league right now giving the NBA a spark and the
young core, I'm excited to try to add onto that and be the next guy
that's coming in and making a real impact.”
What happens short-term and long-term with the Pistons remains
to be seen. In the headlines, the Lakers won this night simply by
virtue of adding a former MVP and future Hall-of-Famer to a core
led by James and Davis. Their window will be tighter than
Detroit’s, and it’ll take years to know whether Cunningham’s
prediction of what history will remember ends up being accurate.
But the kid clearly has a sharp brain and you cannot fault him for
being confident enough to peer into a crystal ball that had his own
He is going to be fun to watch.
Fun in May and June? That could be years away … or maybe not.
Some No. 1 overall picks make a difference quicker than others.
Only time will tell what’s truly the truth.