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A New Dawn of Detroit Basketball

The new-look Pistons are young, hungry, and exciting. Sound familiar? Well, sort of. As the franchise begins a promising new era, it hopes to channel the spirit of title teams of the past. “We’re playing for them,” says Saddiq Bey. “We want to make them proud.”

Cody Pearson

Jaden Ivey takes a deep breath at the free throw line before gathering himself. The Pistons rookie drains two in a row, as Cade Cunningham, Detroit’s franchise point guard, rebounds the ball. They do this for each other after every practice. When you find one of them, you can usually find the other. They lift together. They eat together. And they often shoot free throws, as they are on this late September afternoon.

Many of their teammates are launching 3s at different baskets around the Pistons practice facility. Rebounders snatch the ball out of the net, preventing it from touching the ground, before whipping the ball to the next shooter. Every pass is crisp, each repetition matters, even though practice has long since ended. It’s the second session of a two-a-day during training camp, but nobody is in a hurry to head back to the locker room. It’s almost as if players want to see who can stay out there the longest. Who can make the most shots.

A quiet focus permeates the gym. Third-year forward Saddiq Bey, who spends so much time practicing that the front office sometimes has to tell him to take a break, launches shots from the elbow. Killian Hayes, a third-year guard, tinkers with his stepback 3s. Newly minted assistant coach and 16-year NBA veteran Rashard Lewis, who played for Pistons head coach Dwane Casey when he was with the Sonics, drills rookie Jalen Duren and third-year center Isaiah Stewart in the post. The two bigs practice keeping the ball high above their heads, then tapping it on the backboard, again and again. Then they step out to the perimeter to shoot 3s. After all, it is 2022.

Troy Weaver, Detroit’s general manager since 2020, stands at half court with his arms crossed, tracking the flight of Duren’s shot. He selected the 6-foot-11, 250-pound center out of Memphis at no. 13 in this year’s draft (after selecting Ivey at no. 5 out of Purdue). While many teams were enamored of Duren coming into the draft, Weaver may be the biggest believer of all. He sees great upside in his new center with the relentless motor, who was also the youngest player in his class. “He has all the physical gifts,” Weaver says, “but he’s never gotten credit for how smart of a player he is.”

The 18-year-old might end up being the biggest steal of the draft. He’s focused on improving as quickly as he can. “I still have a lot I can learn,” Duren says. The day before, during a team scrimmage, he tossed an ill-advised, one-handed pass across the court. A defender easily stole the ball and dunked it at the other end.

Casey stopped practice, singling the rookie out: “I got on him about it,” he says. Limiting turnovers is one of the team’s biggest focuses.

Duren nodded, listening to his coach. Then, toward the end of the scrimmage, Duren found himself in a similar situation, eyeing a wide-open Ivey across the court. This time Duren cradled the ball with two hands, leapt forward and snapped a perfect pass. Ivey nailed the game-winner.

Casey beamed. “That, for me,” says Casey, breaking into a wide smile, “is what coaching’s all about.” Those outside these walls can’t see what Casey sees—these quiet glimmers of growth, these teachable moments that hint at the emerging potential this young core has.

The Pistons are one of the NBA’s youngest teams, with all of their core players 23 or under. They burn to be great. But they also constantly make mistakes. They listen intently. They learn quickly. They don’t feel they are close to being a finished product. All of them carry a chip on their shoulders for one reason or another. They all feel they have something to prove this season. Those are the qualities Weaver had in mind when he was hired to take over the team after spending the previous 12 seasons in the Thunder front office.

“Blue-collar mentality. Selfless. Defensive-minded,” Weaver says. “That fits who I am and how I believe in building a team.”

These same qualities, of course, were the backbone of previous championship Pistons teams, particularly the Bad Boys of the ’80s, who won back-to-back titles in 1988-89 and 1989-90. Weaver has revamped the roster, hoping the right personnel can bring the once-storied Pistons franchise back to glory. Many of the young Pistons watch old clips of the Bad Boys. They are inspired by them, curious about them. They study Joe Dumars and Isiah Thomas, Bill Laimbeer and Rick Mahorn, taking in how physical they were, how relentless they were. They have a genuine reverence for those who came before. They understand that Detroit Basketball is as much an identity as it is a style of play.

“We’re definitely trying to hold on to the toughness,” Cunningham says. “The grittiness that the Detroit Pistons, that logo, carries.”

They want to model their playing style after not just the Bad Boys, but the 2003-04 championship team led by Chauncey Billups, Ben Wallace, and Rip Hamilton.

“We’re playing for them,” Bey says, adding later: “We want to make them proud.”

The young Pistons have their work cut out for them. Detroit has made the playoffs just twice in the past decade. It finished 20-46 in 2019-20 prior to Weaver’s arrival, 20-52 in 2020-21, and 23-59 last season.

This team, which recently acquired forward Bojan Bogdanovic from the Jazz, a veteran who can space the floor for Detroit’s youngsters, has to find a way to jell, and each player must take a giant step forward in terms of personal development, for Detroit to start winning again. “They understand now how important it is to be ready every night,” Weaver says. “Nobody is going to give you anything.”

Milwaukee Bucks v Detroit Pistons
Cade Cunningham
Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images

Something about this season feels different. Momentous. Pistons owner Tom Gores, in his 12th season at the helm of the franchise, can feel it, too. “I feel like there’s something really, really special here in this group,” Gores says.

He tries to temper his expectations, but he says: “I’ve never been as excited or optimistic about the future. Not just one year but I think if this thing can come together right, it’s really sustainable.” Gores points to the leadership of Weaver and Casey. The unselfishness of players. “These guys want to win,” Gores says. “We know we’re young, but no excuses. Let’s do it.”

People are excited to watch Detroit Basketball again. To see whether Detroit Basketball is back. They are eager to see the leaps Cunningham might make in his second season. They want to see how quickly this inexperienced team can bloom. But that’s the thing: No one knows when it will happen. How it will happen. What it will even look like. Casey, in his 28th year as an NBA coach, constantly navigates the tricky line between having patience with his young group and demanding more out of them. “You don’t want to give [them] too much,” Casey says, “and you definitely don’t want to give them enough.”

He reminds himself, and his players, that progress can’t always be measured in wins, in records. It’s the messy, difficult, beautiful process of maturation. You can’t speed it up, you can’t slow it down. Things ripen when they’re ready. It’s hard. It’s frustrating. It might take months for this team to find its footing; to figure out its personality, its identity. But Casey can’t shake the feeling:

“We’re getting closer.”

Later that day, Cunningham opens up shop with Ivey on the court, demonstrating the footwork on a dribble pull-up move. He’s acutely aware of what it feels like to be in Ivey’s sneakers; to have all that energy, all that potential. To yearn to be that good. To be great. A year ago, Cunningham, too, was a heralded rookie shouldering immense expectations. The no. 1 draft pick notices when Ivey has that overwhelmed look on his face—that expression every rookie has at some point. “The same look I had,” Cunningham says, “mind’s racing a thousand miles per hour.”

He wants Ivey, an electric guard known for his ability to push the tempo, to feel as supported as possible. Even though Cunningham is only one year older, that year takes on entirely new dimensions in the NBA, where even midway through one’s first season one can feel like a different person. Cunningham is always in Ivey’s ear, imparting wisdom. Little things: how to lull a defender into a screen. When to slow the ball up. When to attack. Bigger things: reminding him that he’s here for a reason. “Everything you were doing in college, the player you are today, is going to be just fine,” Cunningham often assures Ivey. “It’s going to translate.”

“I feel that brotherly love,” Ivey says.

“I feel like me and Cade kind of have similar minds,” Ivey says. Meaning: they both like to study players’ tendencies and pick apart opponents’ weaknesses from an intellectual vantage point. They are both trying to find their place in this league; Cunningham just turned 21 and he has to find a way to lead this team while still learning on the fly himself.

Weaver thought Ivey would fit well next to Cunningham in the backcourt because he brings a speed and athleticism that the Pistons didn’t have. He also has the Detroit Basketball grinder mentality. “He’s a top-shelf worker,” Weaver says. “And if you want to gamble, I’m going to gamble on the guy that works his tail off. He really works. He cares—almost too much.”

Ivey hopes to prove he can contribute to a winning team. “I haven’t won anything my whole life,” Ivey says, recounting his high-school days, EYBL days, college days. “I want to win. You get remembered for winning a championship. This historic organization has won three rings, and we want to get that up to nine.”

As lofty as that sounds, it isn’t hyperbole. The Pistons are determined to build a new era of Detroit basketball, and Ivey and Cunningham could one day soon form one of the league’s most formidable backcourts. “They’re very talented,” Casey says. “But they’re still puppies.” When Casey thinks about the potential of his two young guards, the great Detroit tandem of Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars comes to mind.

Cunningham and Ivey know they have much work to do. So do the rest of their teammates. They see their youth not as an impediment but as a positive. They share a deep-seated hunger to turn things around now. Not somewhere down the line. Not necessarily in two, three years. “Win now. Don’t think about anything but win now,” Bey says.

The closeness and camaraderie of the group almost resembles a college team. Players go out to dinner together often and live in apartments near one another. They spent much of the summer working out together. “You can really put any group together out on the court, and I feel like it’ll be five guys that mess with each other off the court, and that are really cool and care about each other,” Cunningham says. “You don’t find that all the time.”

They’ve all internalized that wearing a Pistons jersey isn’t just about basketball. It’s about being part of the larger fabric of the city. Representing a place of beauty, of love, of community, that has endured its own share of socio-economic hardship over decades. Neglect, bankruptcy—and now revitalization.

Sue DePlonty, who has worked as an usher for Pistons games for 25 straight years, has been here through the winning seasons, through the losing seasons. Through the relocation of the team’s arena from Auburn Hills to downtown. She remembers fans’ exuberance for this franchise in the early 2000s. The face painting, the wearing of Ben Wallace Afro wigs. “I’m starting to see a new generation of young fans with that same enthusiasm,” Deplonty says. “It’s bubbling, slowly. But it is bubbling.”

Last week, Weaver organized a tour of Detroit for the players, something he wants to make an annual tradition. He wants to instill a sense of rootedness and have players appreciate and understand the city’s history and culture and soul—much like the title-winning teams of the past.

Jalen Rose, a Detroit native, led the tour, during which the team visited the historic, red-brick St. Cecilia’s Gym. Founded by Sam Washington in the ’60s amid racial discrimination and unrest, the gym is known as the mecca of Detroit hoops. A proving ground for the area’s most talented players.

The Pistons also visited the famed Motown Museum, “Hitsville U.S.A.,” Motown’s first headquarters and recording studio. Players sang and danced to the Temptations, belting out “My Girl” and swaying side to side. Players clapped and sang and laughed. Cunningham, in the center of the group, raised one arm while holding that last note, grinning ear to ear.

What is being built here, within this franchise and within this city, is a hope for the future that is rooted deeply in the past.

New York Knicks v Detroit Pistons
Dwane Casey and Cunningham
Photo by Chris Schwegler/NBAE via Getty Images

Rick Mahorn sees the potential of the franchise’s new core to embrace a similar tough-minded, defense-first style of play. “I see the needle moving further towards the better,” Mahorn says. He thinks this young core can represent what Detroit is all about: “That means,” he explains, “wear the chip on your shoulder, and get out there and bust your ass.”

Casey reminds the players of one oft-overlooked aspect of the Bad Boys: their high basketball IQ. Many people think of punches and ejections when they think of the Bad Boys, but Casey reminds his players of the team’s defensive instincts on rotations and on the boards. The way

Dennis Rodman, for example, would time a block or an offensive rebound.

This new team has to learn to play as smart, despite its inexperience. Play fast, but not out of control. Play with passion, but keep things simple. “We’re going to be energetic,” Cunningham says. “We’re going to be flying around. And I think we’re going to be fun to watch.”

Casey brings many former Pistons to practice to offer wisdom to the current players. Hall of Fame point guard and former Detroit mayor Dave Bing came to practice earlier this preseason. In fact, the 78-year-old Bing was one of the early supporters of Ivey. Bing, who is good friends with Jaden’s grandfather, had told Casey early on during Ivey’s college career: “Keep your eye on Jaden. He’s a talent.”

Many former Pistons have close relationships with current players and share lessons from their own careers. Rip Hamilton often gives Bey advice about how important recovery is. Cunningham has spoken with Thomas. Mahorn talks with many players, too. “A lot of times it’s not necessarily basketball,” Mahorn says. “It’s more just about life.”

Stewart often seeks advice from Ben Wallace. Wallace, who now serves as the team’s basketball operations and team engagement adviser, has encouraged him to take that next leap in his development. “I think the biggest step for Isaiah right now is just relaxing and playing solid basketball and working on becoming a leader,” Wallace says. “I think it’s time for him to announce, to accept that role as one of the leaders on this team and help motivate and lead the team forward.”

Wallace also tells him about the importance of building a bond off the court. “Once you build that bond and that type of energy, it’s contagious,” Wallace says. “I think that was our big thing, the reason we had so much success, because we was a tight-knit group and that energy spread all throughout the city.”

Weaver wants to restore that connection with this new group. It’s part of what motivated him to come to Detroit to begin the rebuilding process in 2020. Weaver’s own path was anything but straight. He’s worked at all levels of the game, from grassroots AAU to major Division I college hoops to being a scout with the Jazz. “I call it my cheat sheet,” Weaver says. “I’ve been able to see and experience and evaluate and coach at different levels, which has allowed me to look at things probably a little different than some others might.”

He has a unique ability to identify talent, especially with younger, less heralded players, understanding what it may have taken for those kinds of players to rise to the occasion. He is credited with having the foresight to push for drafting Russell Westbrook while with the Thunder when Westbrook wasn’t initially tabbed as a future star coming out of UCLA.

Weaver values character and work ethic. He pays close attention to things others might miss. “He’s always in every single detail,” Gores says. “There’s a lot of people who can evaluate talent and so on, but Troy gets right on the ground. He’s going to the workouts.”

When evaluating prospects, Weaver asks himself, as he did when assembling this group: Are they not just naturally gifted, but do they want to improve? Do they want to put the team ahead of themselves? How good do they want to be?

His mind turns to Bey, and how he surpassed the expectations that were set for him coming out of Villanova in 2020 largely because of his tireless work. He’s reminded of how Bey and Stewart started lifting weights after games during their rookie season. Just the two of them. These days, you can easily see at least 10 players lifting after games. “Saddiq and Isaiah Stewart have really changed the landscape of the program. Just the way that they work,” Weaver says.

Bey, who scored 51 points in a game against the Magic last season, might have the most potential for a breakthrough season. He’s 23 but in many ways an old soul. He’s thoughtful with his words, sometimes speaking so softly he’s barely audible. He’s a spiritual person who believes that as long as he’s alive, he’ll be motivated to fulfill whatever potential God has set for him. He feels grateful to be playing in the NBA. He is a throwback in the purest sense. “I’m obsessed with this game,” Bey says. “I’ll play this game for free.” He asks himself most days: “Did I get better today? Am I moving in the right direction?”

“It’s not about money,” he says. “It’s about, how great can I be?” He wants to maximize his potential, to repay the Pistons for believing in him. For drafting him. “I want to show them, ‘Hey, I think you made the right decision,’” he says. So, he tells himself to play as hard as he can—to do whatever it takes to bring a championship to Detroit.

Rashard Lewis understands better than anyone how hard it is to be a young person playing in a man’s game. He bypassed college and was drafted out of high school at 18. He’s constantly feeding advice to the young Pistons he works with. “Anytime he’s speaking,” Stewart says, “I’m listening.”

“That’s somebody who done it before,” Stewart says. “Already been where we as a team trying to go.”

Lewis often tells Pistons players how challenging his first year was. There were a lot of growing pains. Days when he felt tired. The travel, the back-to-backs. He tells Stewart and Duren, whom he mentors most, that there’s going to be good days. Bad days. “Some days you get your butt kicked,” he tells them. “Just wake up in the morning, come back and work on your game and continue to improve. Don’t put your head down and get down on yourself and your confidence.”

“Eventually,” he tells them, “your time will come.”

He tells them to take care of their bodies off the court—to ice their knees, to spend time in the cold and hot tubs—because they need to think beyond this moment: “You may not feel sore or tired, but do it anyway for the longevity,” Lewis says. “For when you do become an older player, so you’ll still be able to add those extra years onto your career.”

He doesn’t just mentor the forwards, but Cunningham, too, telling the point guard: “You’re the leader of this team. The things you do are going to trickle down to the rest of the guys, so you can’t have bad habits—because they’re going to follow in your footsteps.”

Cunningham has dedicated himself not just to improving on the court, not just to showing he can become a great player, but also to becoming a better communicator. He learns from the veterans, including 31-year-old guard Cory Joseph. He watches how Joseph goes out of his way to compliment Stewart on his 3-point range and encourage him to keep shooting.

Cunningham sees how little moments like that can lift someone’s spirit. Noticing little things, he is learning, can make a big difference. He’s trying to pay attention to what his teammates are going through off the court. And he’s learning that doing his job well isn’t just about speaking up; it’s also about listening.

“Leaning on my teammates,” Cunningham says, “and letting them know that they can lean on me as well.”

It’s not always easy. He has to lead and learn at the same time. He expects so much out of himself, and he understands the bigger picture. How long it takes to build a culture. How long it takes for a team to mature from a rebuilding team to a competitive team to a winning team.

Cunningham often thinks of something his brother Cannen shared with him years ago from one of his former coaches: “For any great leader, you have to have great followers. And to be a great leader, you have to be a great follower as well.”

When Cunningham speaks, he is refreshingly introspective. He understands that he is a work in progress. He’s a high-usage player who knows he needs to make the simple pass. Limit his turnovers. His struggles, particularly at the beginning of last season when the team dropped 14 straight games, have made him a better leader.

“I feel like that was definitely needed for me and the rest of my teammates that were there,” Cunningham says. “I had never went through adversity like that.”

The way he handled it, the tone of voice he used with his teammates, was something Casey noticed. The Pistons had a team meeting after a tough loss to the Wizards right before the All-Star break. Cunningham, despite struggling with foul trouble in the game, was one of the biggest talkers in the meeting.

“He’s got that ‘It’ factor,” Casey says. “He knows what to say and what to do at the right time. You can’t learn that. That’s something that’s a gift.”

It’s especially important this year, as he continues to build chemistry with Ivey. “Me and Cade really jell together,” Ivey says. “He’ll point me out when I’m doing something wrong. And that’s what I love about Cade. He’ll keep it real with you and tell you what you need to do on the floor.”

They are still learning where the other likes the ball. How to play off of each other. One play during the first half of the Pistons’ preseason game against New York last week showed how they’re progressing: Ivey dribbled the ball at the top of the key, sensing Cunningham was on the opposite wing.

Stewart set a good screen for Cunningham, allowing him to shake free of his defender and cut backdoor. Ivey dished the ball to Cunningham, who scored the easy bucket.

It wasn’t flashy. It wasn’t exciting. But it was exactly what was needed. Smart, sound, physical. In other words, Detroit basketball.

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