Cade Cunningham made the right decision for himself and for the Detroit Pistons. But that doesn’t mean it was an easy decision.
Cunningham, who will undergo season-ending surgery to repair a stress fracture in his left shin later this week, took a few weeks to make the biggest decision of his young NBA career. He had been dealing with left shin soreness off-and-on since at least last season, but the team didn’t suspect there was a more severe cause until his shin flared up again toward the start of this season. There was a chance his shin would’ve healed after an extended period of rest, but surgery should ultimately fix the issue for good.
Cunningham will miss the rest of the season. His final game cameNov. 9, and he only played in 12 before the team decided to shut him down. It’s a very unfortunate development for a rebuilding Pistons team that expected to be better this season, with Cunningham, their the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2021, leading the way. While they don’t anticipate Cunningham’s surgery negatively impacting their rebuild long term, they will have to navigate the near future without him.
“We expect him to come back even better,” general manager Troy Weaver told reporters after the Pistons’ practice on Tuesday. “He’d been dealing with the issue a little bit, off and on for a while. We want him to be healthy and be himself. He’s a young player, we don’t want this thing to linger two or three years. We want to get it settled. We expect him to recover well and be the best version of himself.”
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Cunningham was initially slated to miss five games with left shin soreness. But league sources indicated to the Free Press in November that surgery was the likely outcome. It took a few weeks longer than some in the organization anticipated for Cunningham to make a decision, but he eventually got there.
The 21-year-old spent time talking to doctors and weighing his options. He obviously didn’t anticipate he would spend most of this season in street clothes before his shin soreness became too painful to play through. He’ll still be around the team after he undergoes surgery, but won’t be able to develop chemistry with the rest of the franchise’s young core. It’s a setback, but one the team believes will ultimately be best.
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The surgery will sideline Cunningham for the next three-to-four months, and the expectation is he’ll be fully cleared by the time the offseason arrives.
“I told him if he were my son, I’d advise him to do it, but it’s his and his families’ decision to make sure he gets it taken care of,” head coach Dwane Casey said Tuesday. “I feel for him because you can just imagine the hopes and the dreams of coming in this year, and then this happens. You can just imagine the fear. It’s human nature and that’s what’s caused by some of the indecision. But he did a thorough job. He and his agent, and his family did a thorough job with all of our staff of making sure he made the right decision.
“Nobody pressured him to do it. It was Cade’s decision and Cade’s decision only to make. It was the best thing for his long-term career. Let’s get it done now. What happens is you have an opportunity next summer to work and rehab before training camp starts. It ended up turning into something longer. My thoughts and prayers are with Cade and it’ll be over before he knows it.”
The silver lining for the Pistons is Cunningham’s injury has carved out more playing time for Killian Hayes and Jaden Ivey. Hayes has blossomed after a tough first two seasons, and is averaging 11 points, 6.6 assists and 1.3 steals a game while hitting 39% of his 3.7 3-point attempts per game over his last 16 contests since being promoted to the starting lineup. Ivey, who has been in a slump, will benefit from the additional reps.
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Cunningham might be the biggest piece of Detroit’s backcourt puzzle, but Ivey and Hayes remain big parts of the rebuild and could be better off in the long run from not having to contend with Cunningham’s high usage this season.
“In an unfortunate way it gives a guy like Killian a chance to grow,” Casey said.” It gives him opportunities to have the ball to run the show. Also will give Ivey an opportunity to run the show without Cade here. If Cade is here, he’ll probably be our highest-usage guy. Now it gives other people the opportunity to develop into that role, and we’re seeing it right now.”
Nothing can replace live basketball, but Cunningham has done his part to stay engaged. He has been a frequent face around the team during the past month, participating in pregame warmups and post-practice shooting contests. His surgery will prevent him from taking the floor through winter and most of the spring, but he’ll be able to be involved in the day-to-day process.
Until he returns, he and the Pistons will continue to find ways to keep him in the loop and part of the team.
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“As a younger player you need to be around it, breathe it, smell it, be at practice, be on the plane with your teammates, once he’s able to get up and get around, just to experience some of the situations and see, Casey said. “Cade has been great, not good but great at timeouts, huddles, talking positively to players, being a cheerleader on the court. His leadership has been off the charts even while he hasn’t been able to play. That’s going to continue. Once he comes back, it’ll be seamless to come back in and still be a part of what we do.”
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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Why Detroit Pistons’ Cade Cunningham decided surgery was the best option