The Detroit Pistons entered the season with a young nucleus led by Cade Cunningham, the No. 1 pick in the 2021 draft. There was talk of a new phase of their rebuild.
Instead, they appear poised to finish with the worst record in the NBA.
An injury to Cunningham limited him to 12 games this season, and Detroit has lost 14 of its last 15 to fall to 16-56. The Eastern Conference’s second-worst record belongs to the Charlotte Hornets, who have dealt with their own major injury to LaMelo Ball. Instead of showing progress in 2022-23, both teams have had to spend another season being patient.
“We’ve been doing it with young players, and their development is our situation now with our record,” Pistons coach Dwane Casey said recently. “But for me, their growth, a young man like James Wiseman, a young man like Jaden Ivey, Jalen Duren, those guys’ growth is our record. We don’t talk about wins, we talk about having small victories, whether it’s rebounding, transition defense, those little things that probably the everyday fan wouldn’t pay attention to. But for us, that’s growth, because for us, the pot of gold is at the end of the rainbow.”
Pistons fans can be forgiven for thinking they were a bit closer to the end of that rainbow before this season. They’d added Ivey and Duren, two of the top 13 picks in last year’s draft, and Cunningham was coming off a strong rookie season. Detroit had also acquired Bojan Bogdanovic from Utah in a trade.
Casey said at the time the Pistons were young, but the most talented they’d been since he took over in 2018.
But Cunningham didn’t play after Nov. 9 and eventually had season-ending surgery on his shin. The Pistons acquired Wiseman, the second overall pick in 2020, from Golden State. He had 22 points and 13 rebounds against Miami on Sunday, but that was yet another defeat.
The Hornets (23-50) also feel strongly about their future, but this season has been nothing short of a disaster for coach Steve Clifford in his return to Charlotte.
Ball, taken one pick after Wiseman in 2020, was an All-Star last season but has been limited to 36 games in 2022-23 due to three left ankle sprains and a fracture in his right ankle. Ball is currently in a walking boot and on crutches and is done for the season.
He said Monday he expects to be ready for training camp in September.
Charlotte went 43-39 last season. But even before their injury problems, the Hornets’ 2022-23 campaign seemed doomed. Restricted free agent Miles Bridges, the team’s leading scorer last season, was arrested on domestic abuse charges and never re-signed. He pleaded no contest.
Clifford does feel good about the young talent on the roster, including the development of rookie Mark Williams and Nick Richards, the team’s two young 7-foot centers. He’s also high on forward JT Thor and guard Bryce McGowens.
“I think Nick Richards has emerged and he can be in the rotation for a good team, and Mark Williams is every bit the defender, or maybe even more, that people thought he could be, and much better offensively,” Clifford said.
Unlike the Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs, the two teams bringing up the rear in the West, the Pistons and Hornets haven’t had success in the particularly recent past. Detroit hasn’t won a playoff game since 2008. Charlotte made the play-in round last year, but that was the Hornets’ lone winning season of the past seven.
The injuries to Cunningham and Ball have made this season another dreary one for the Pistons and Hornets, but the presence of those two players mean improvement could certainly come quickly if they’re back to full health. And now Detroit and Charlotte can look forward to more high draft picks.
“It’s a rebuilding year,” Casey said. “But in the future, these last two years is really going to pay off for the franchise and for these players.”
AP Sports Writer Steve Reed contributed to this report.