Youthful Pistons visiting familiar-looking Rockets
From afar, the similarities between how the Detroit Pistons and Houston Rockets are approaching rebuilds are readily apparent, but the clearest view might come Wednesday.
The Rockets will host Detroit in what is billed as a showcase for the top two picks from the 2021 NBA Draft: Pistons guard Cade Cunningham and Houston wing Jalen Green. However, Cunningham and Green merely represent two primary pieces of the larger puzzle for two franchises that have opted to lean into allotting playing time to a youthful core.
While Cunningham is the lone rookie in the Detroit starting lineup, he is joined by two other 20-year-olds in guard Killian Hayes and center Isaiah Stewart, both second-year players. Starting forward Saddiq Bey is just 22 and, like Hayes and Stewart, was selected by Detroit in the 2020 draft.
The Pistons have dropped three consecutive games and are last in the Eastern Conference standings. But their hope is to maximize the potential of their youngsters by letting them grow together, doing so by logging significant minutes and without the crutch of coming off the bench.
“It doesn’t feel like it right now but what we’re building is something that’s going to be sustainable,” Detroit coach Dwane Casey said. “But there’s no participation awards in the NBA.”
The Pistons entered Tuesday last in the league in points per game (94.9), defensive rating (96.4 points per 100 possessions) and field goal percentage (39.4). One rationale for their struggles is experience, but a few fortuitous bounces would serve Detroit well moving forward offensively.
“It’s nothing like making shots at the right time, making layups and dunks and tip-ins,” Casey said. “Just every way there is, we’ve got to get that monkey off our back where those shots are falling.
“Our margin for error is small, but I do like the growth, I like the development.”
The Rockets are following a similar course of action with Green and rookie forward Alperen Sengun entrenched in the rotation as 19-year-olds. Kevin Porter Jr. and K.J. Martin are rotation fixtures as well, with Porter only 21 years old and Martin set to turn 21 in just under two months.
The corresponding growing pains were expected. The Rockets have dropped eight consecutive games and closed a recent five-game road trip without a victory. However, the Rockets flashed an enticing competitive spirit, losing those five games by an average margin of just 7.6 points against four Western Conference title contenders: the Los Angeles Lakers, Phoenix Suns, Denver Nuggets and Golden State Warriors.
The Rockets had game-winning shot attempts against the Lakers and Nuggets, and their sheer talent has enabled them to push more veteran and cohesive teams deep into the second half. There is no participation award forthcoming, but the effort resonated and is impossible to ignore.
“When we got this schedule, we saw it and we knew this trip was coming, this stretch was coming,” Rockets coach Stephen Silas said. “It was definitely daunting. And we’re definitely a much better team as a result of going through these road games that we had to deal with.
“I’ve seen a lot of growth. I think the guys know how we need to play to play winning basketball.”