Pistons seemingly have plenty of assets, but no clear direction

For a team that entered Thursday night’s clash with the New York Knicks mired in a 15-game losing streak, the longest in franchise history, there’s been plenty of attention focused on the Detroit Pistons’ guard rotation. There is Cade Cunningham, the 6-foot-7 former No. 1 pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, a supersized floor general assigned with lifting Detroit back into the playoff picture when this Pistons rebuild is finally ready to come out of the oven. And then there’s the mix of options that new head coach Monty Williams has deployed alongside Cunningham in the backcourt.

Williams has certainly switched combinations with Cunningham on the perimeter, all to varied results. He re-inserted Killian Hayes, plus Isaiah Livers, into the starting lineup against New York, after opening the past five games with Jaden Ivey sharing the ball-handling duties and rookie swingman Ausar Thompson on the flank.

Ivey’s place has been the most curious piece of the Pistons’ puzzle. He wasn’t the first guard off Williams’ bench against New York. Nor the second. Ivey’s inconsistent run under Williams, who signed a five-year, $78.5 million contract this offseason that marked the richest deal in NBA history upon agreement, has sparked some tension among Detroit decision-makers this season, league sources told Yahoo Sports, as well as drawn the ire of Pistons faithful online. There was early word during training camp that Williams’ affinity for Detroit’s pair of rookies, Thompson and Marcus Sasser, was shoving Ivey onto the backburner, even after Ivey started 73 games in Cunningham’s long absence because of a shin stress fracture, and Ivey’s 16.3 points and 5.2 assists per game helped him finish sixth in Rookie of the Year voting. Ivey would play just 5:27 in the first half against the Knicks on Thursday, partly saddled by foul trouble. He didn’t return in the third quarter, checking back in with 10:57 remaining in the contest for a seven-minute stint.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 30:  Killian Hayes #7 of the Detroit Pistons reacts after he is called for a foul in the first half against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden on November 30, 2023 in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Killian Hayes of the Pistons reacts after he is called for a foul in the first half against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Thursday in New York. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

A year ago, Williams lost Jae Crowder in Phoenix when he told the veteran swingman he was essentially demoting him to the bench for Cam Johnson. These are vastly different circumstances, with the coach then hoping to optimize the rotation of a championship contender. But this time around, Williams didn’t hold any meeting or direct communication with Ivey at the beginning of the season to share he would be playing off the pine.

“There wasn’t anything said,” Ivey told Yahoo Sports. “Once I saw what was going on, coming off the bench was no problem for me. I love every single one of these dudes in here. I’d ride for them any day. Coming off the bench isn’t a confidence thing or a downer for me. I’m still confident in my game and play the same way.”

There’s also no denying Sasser’s electricity with the ball and his shiftiness to get downhill and sidestep into 3-pointers. Thompson has shown flashes of historic defensive impact for a rookie wing. Hayes is in the final season of his rookie contract before he enters restricted free agency, and Detroit will have to make a real decision on the 2020 No. 7 pick. There was little talk of a Hayes extension this fall.

If Ivey remains on precarious footing, rest assured rival front offices will be dialing the Pistons, wondering what it would take to acquire a former top-five selection with two more seasons before he reaches a critical campaign like Hayes'. There were a handful of teams, including the very Knicks that extended Detroit’s losing streak to 16 games Thursday, that attempted to trade up and acquire Ivey during the 2022 NBA Draft, even after the Pistons had made the pick official, sources said.

It would be a rather stunning development to part with the Purdue product so soon. As of now, Detroit is only expected to factor into this winter’s upcoming trade window as a potential seller of veteran talent, most notably combo guard Alec Burks and sharpshooter Bojan Bogdanović. Burks was of particular interest to the Rockets, league sources told Yahoo Sports, when Houston was navigating trade scenarios for Kevin Porter Jr. prior to this season, and Houston still has Victor Oladipo’s $9.5 million salary to play with before February's trade deadline. There’s also veteran point guard Monte Morris, who’s been sidelined with a quad strain and has one season left at just $9.8 million.

Bogdanović’s absence with a calf strain is one of the hurdles the Pistons have had to overcome throughout this tough stretch, and he should bring valuable floor spacing for Cunningham’s burgeoning pick-and-roll attacks with Jalen Duren and Isaiah Stewart in the coming days upon his return. Bogdanović posted a career-high 21.6 points per game in 2022-23.

If the Pistons are actually willing to part with him is a much bigger question than what he can provide on the floor. His was one of the hotter names on the trade market last season, with Detroit fielding interest from practically a dozen known teams vying for better playoff odds. But the Pistons maintained a steep asking price of a first-round pick and a prized young player, sources said, after Bogdanovic signed an extension that pays him an average annual salary just under $20 million for this season and next but is only guaranteed for $2 million for 2024-25.

The decision tree that governs the Pistons’ roster adjustments will stand as one of the more intriguing leadership constructs across the league, born out of Detroit’s coaching search that resulted in Williams’ lavish hiring this summer. General manager Troy Weaver was known to be a proponent of former UConn head coach Kevin Ollie, league sources told Yahoo Sports, while vice chairman Arn Tellem, formerly a longtime agent at Wasserman, was backing longtime NBA assistant Jarron Collins, with former Bucks assistant Charles Lee considered to be the finalist who served as a middle ground. Yet after none of those candidates ultimately satisfied the wishes of ownership, it was governor Tom Gores who was credited with opening his checkbook and persuading Williams to come aboard after he was fired in Phoenix and was initially set on taking this season off.

His pricey deal has led to plenty of speculation from rival personnel regarding what type of say Williams will share in shaping Detroit’s roster. On Thursday, the head coach said he doesn’t plan to hold an inordinate voice in whatever process the Pistons follow between now and the trade deadline Feb. 8.

“Troy tells me stuff, but that’s not my job,” Williams said. “I trust his ability to evaluate talent. He’s one of the best in the league. He’s gonna ask me about a guy. Does he fit our style? Is he the kind of player we want? That kind of thing. But I’m not one of those coaches that’s gonna be like, ‘No’ or ‘Yes,’ that kind of thing. I gotta trust his judgment. But him and I do have talks about the roster. We talked all summer about different players.”