14 Jan

What would losing ‘franchise player’ mean for NBA’s worst team?

Detroit Pistons guard Cade Cunningham entered Sunday’s game against the Denver Nuggets averaging 28.7 points, 8.1 assists, 4.4 rebounds and 1.2 steals with a 28.7% usage rate and a 62.1% true shooting percentage in his previous 10 games. The Pistons, who have one win since Oct. 28, were down by only two points against the defending champs when Cunningham exited with what the team called a left knee strain halfway through the second quarter. The Nuggets almost immediately broke the game open after that, and Detroit trailed by as many as 24 points in the 131-114 loss.

“It’s pretty clear: He’s important. Franchise player. So when a guy like that can’t play, it has a trickle-down effect across the board,” Pistons coach Monty Williams told reporters. “You have different guys stepping up in the pecking order and having to handle the ball and make plays and that kind of thing, so pretty clear how important Cade is to our program.”

Williams said he had “nothing right now” to share about the injury. “We don’t have anything official. Just has a bit of a left knee issue, so we’ll give an update once we have an official report.”

The Pistons are 3-33 and set the all-time record for consecutive losses in a season prior to a Dec. 30 victory against the Toronto Raptors. For the past few weeks, though, Cunningham’s individual brilliance has kept them competitive in the majority of their games. Since Dec. 16, they’ve had an above-average offense (117.6 points per 100 possessions) with Cunningham on the court and an absolutely abysmal offense (106.8 per 100) without him.

Individually, Cunningham has quieted early season concerns about inefficiency and turnovers. Some of this is because he’s been playing in a more functional offensive environment since the returns of Bojan Bogdanovic (on Dec. 2) and Jalen Duren (Dec. 26). If he misses time, though, things will likely get even uglier for a Detroit team that, besides a timely matchup against the shorthanded Raptors, cannot seem to catch a break.

The Pistons will host the Sacramento Kings, San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets this week. If Cunningham is not in the lineup against Sacramento on Tuesday, will Killian Hayes return to the starting five? This is the likeliest scenario — Hayes started the second half against Denver — but Detroit does have other options. Veteran Alec Burks has rediscovered his 3-point shot lately (17-for-31 in his last five games), and Williams has started Kevin Knox II on five occasions this season.

Regardless of who might start, a potential Cunningham absence would shift some of the playmaking burden to Bogdanovic and second-year guard Jaden Ivey. It would also clear the way for rookie Marcus Sasser, who logged 11 second-half minutes on Sunday, to return to the rotation.

Cunningham has appeared in all 36 of Detroit’s games in 2023-24. He missed all but 12 games last season because of a stress fracture in his shin that required surgery. The Pistons, with a .083 winning percentage, are on pace to finish 7-75, which would be the worst record in NBA history.

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