Detroit Pistons: Cade Cunningham great, but not quite Rookie of the Year

(Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports)
(Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports) /

If you have been following one year of Cade Cunningham on the Detroit Pistons, it would appear evident he is more than capable of leading a team.

If you tuned in more recently, you would have caught the Bally Sports graphics department hard at work, highlighting some of the more notable accolades which put Cade in rarified air. For instance, joining Isiah Thomas as the only Pistons rookie to score at least 25 points in 10 or more games or even Michael Jordan as the only other rookie ever to notch 34 points, eight defensive rebounds, eight assists, four blocks, and a couple steals. Moments like that.

Individual instances are all well and good, but Cade also put together a complete enough season to be considered one of the three finalists for Rookie of the Year. He had a spectacular debut season for the Pistons, which puts him in the conversation for the prestigious award.

Detroit Pistons’ Cade Cunningham has put himself into the Rookie of the Year conversation.

Individually speaking, Cade was tremendous. He led all rookies in points per game (17.4), was second in assists (5.6), and fifth in rebounds (5.5). He also hit the third-most threes, although he did so at a middling 31% clip. Cade also demonstrated great wherewithal by being able to drive to the basket and either score it himself or pass to the outside for a waiting shooter.

According to the Second Spectrum stats, his most common shots came from less than ten feet out and with closer defense. This sounds like a standard driving layup in which he draws in defenders. These were some of his most effective shots, as well. Having that defense drawn in then opened up several three-point opportunities for shooters like Saddiq Bey or Jerami Grant.

Cunningham was good according to raw numbers, but he also made his team better. The team’s offensive rating was 3.5 points better when Cade was on the court. This bears out in the end results, too; he played in 20 of their 23 wins (they went .313 with him). For perspective, the Pistons were 3-15 (.167) in games without him.

Now that a roadmap to Rookie of the Year (RoTY) is laid out, there are also some explanations why Cunningham might not win the award, which–to be fair–is the likelihood. At the end of the season, Cunningham had the third-best odds (10 to 1) behind Evan Mobley (-210) and Scottie Barnes (+155).

The first strike against Cunningham is his total games played. Cade played 64 games after missing all of the preseason and the first two weeks of the year to an ankle injury. He also missed a handful of games in December due to virus concern and another few games in February to a hip injury. While he appeared in roughly 80% of the team’s games, both Mobley and Barnes appeared in more and averaged more minutes in them.

The other issue Cunningham is up against is that his team simply was not very good. The Detroit Pistons won 23 games in 2021-22. Meanwhile, the Raptors are a 5-seed in the Eastern Conference with Barnes, and Mobley’s Cavs improved by 22 wins from the year prior and just missed a playoff berth by losing the play-in game.

Now, team success does not directly affect this individual award, but it does have some fallout. The award is decided by voters, after all, and it is easier to highlight a particular rookie’s impact on a competitive team. Thinking logically, top rookies are typically high draft picks, and high draft picks are usually taken by teams who were bad in previous years, so it stands to reason top rookies will end up on below-average teams. Twenty-three wins, however, is worse than below average. If Cade were to win the award, we would have to go back to Andrew Wiggins in 2015 to find a RoTY on a worse team.

In the end, Cunningham plays a different position, primary guard and ballhandler, than either of the two big men, Mobley and Barnes. As such, his general usage was so much higher, which may have hurt him in the end. It was not all spotless, either. His high turnover rate, for example, will have to improve in the coming seasons. He may have led in some of the basic statistics, but his overall win shares were far lower than his peers.

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Whether or not Cunningham wins Rookie of the Year, one thing is hard to deny: the Detroit Pistons have a solid cornerstone upon which to build the future. As he continues to improve some of the fundamentals, he can be a leader on a competitive team.