It's a facile activity, dreaming through a rebuild. There's not much dignity in it. You'd like to be an architect or moral philosopher, describing the dimensions of what could be, but watching losing ball is boring and painful. It dulls the senses. Any inspiration gestating in you at tip-off has been eradicated by halftime, as your team takes another 17-point deficit into the locker room. At this stage of evening, you're barely an intelligent being. It's as if you're laid up with a bad back; your thoughts don't extend past the pain and its alleviation.
There are empirical ways of defining the Detroit Pistons two-win, 28-loss season so far, but beyond the record itself and the fact that they're on a 27-game anti-heater, the numbers don't completely line up with what we're seeing. This is to say the Pistons don't rank dead last, or somehow 45th of 30, in every statistical category. Clicking through NBA.com's team stats as of December 28th, both the traditional and slightly advanced stuff, the Pistons actually aren't the worst-performing team at any particular thing except committing fouls. It's as if the math is trying to be polite.
This is an illusion that falls away after watching Detroit for more than a quarter or two. They are miserable—bad, yes, but also complicated. They're struck by rare ailment that teams on really awful runs acquire. Failure compounds itself. Your confidence drains to nothing. You lose your resilience and winning—which is an ordinary thing even for pretty lousy teams—begins to seem like an impossible accumulation of solid execution and luck. You're just never going to make enough baskets, nail enough defensive rotations, get enough calls.
Monty Williams recently said he's been "blown away" by "the way [the players] come back the next day [after a loss]." Coaches say a lot of broadly meaningless stuff to the media, and you're inevitably going to seem a little bit silly when part of your job is putting an optimistic spin on what everybody knows is a bad situation, but Monty made it sound like he's impressed that his players are even alive. Which is funny, and not entirely off base.
You can always look toward the draft, though the experts in that field will tell you there isn't a franchise-shifting talent in the upcoming one. And the lottery odds for the league's worst record aren't what they used to be. And further, even the most promising 18- and 19-year-old talents are only vaguely defined. American amateurs and semi-pros, and the Europeans playing in good but meaningfully lesser leagues, are highly theoretical, several coincidences and a few years away from tangibility. It's not that you shouldn't affix your hopes to them; it's that you truly can't. They are ephemeral. So are fake trades and slightly less fake rumors. So is cap space.
All that can provide real solace to a morose outfit like the Pistons is what's within their grasp right now. Jaden Ivey, for little discernible reason, is being brought along slowly by Monty Williams, who it seems worth noting resolutely did not want to coach basketball this year until the Pistons offered him Fortune 500 CEO money. Isaiah Stewart is delightfully burly and tough, but he's got hard limits. Ausar Thompson has played 786 minutes of NBA ball.
Which brings us to Cade Cunningham, two-and-some-change years removed from being selected first overall and coming off a sophomore season that barely qualified as such. We're willfully stupid about young players. We know a guy isn't done developing at 22, but we're anxious to render a verdict as soon as we've got something like a body of work to evaluate. The consensus on Evan Mobley and Scottie Barnes has already whipsawed several times over the course of those guys actually playing. Cade basically sat out last season and in some abstract sense got worse within the interval. His game has noticeable holes—the outside shooting isn't where it needs to be, the playmaking lacks precision—but he wasn't going to get better at those things sitting out with a bum leg. There is not still time for him to improve, in the sense that it's running out on him. Rather, time will fuel his improvement, however vast or meager that might be.
There is definitely something to build on, with Cade. It's difficult to measure the significance of awesome offensive performances in the modern NBA. The skill level of the average player is much higher than it was even a decade ago, everybody's shooting lots of threes, and the refs are easy marks for the phantom contact generated by clever ballhandlers and jump-shooters. Ray Allen had 13 career 40-point games. Clyde Drexler had 21. Devin Booker, who turned 27 this past October, already has 26. Whatever they're worth, Cade notched his first two against Atlanta on December 18th (43 points) and against Brooklyn the day after Christmas (41), both relatively narrow losses within the context of this dismal streak the Pistons are on. He got those buckets honestly, not just due to uncharacteristically hot nights from behind the arc. He got them through driving and twisting, and pulling up, and swerving in baffling ways that landed him at the line. He added assists to those buckets. He did everything he could to pull the Pistons out of their stupor, and it wasn't quite enough. Not his fault. He was spectacular.
Those outbursts, whether signs of a genuine breakout or aberrant peaks in a more modest climb, represent the only substantial hope that Detroit fans have. They are what you look for and what you hold onto, in the midst of a season like this. Probably things are going to change significantly for the Pistons, at the end of this year. But all of those developments will be preliminary. New GM, maybe a new coach, who will draft plans, which will change depending upon this and that. They'll acquire players who may or may not be any good. Some of them are 14, 15 years old right now. We don't know their names, the shapes their games will finally take. For now the Pistons have Cade Cunningham, ambling forth from the horizon, more sharply defined with each step. He is at a wonderful basketball age, where he's proven some but can still, maybe, do a lot more. He at least has ample room to prove as much. Put another way: without him, there is only the blank space of dumb yearning and defeat.