21–22 NBA Previews: The Detroit Pistons (#28)

One of the sad facts of lived experience is the primacy of perspective. The present moment is nearly ungraspable, and so, as the poet Gillian Conoley told me in an interview a few years ago, we find ourselves “hinging the present to the future” in order to experience it. The point, I guess, is that the context in which we place the present moment matters. It matters, too, that the forces giving shape to that context might be largely beyond our control.

This is a roundabout way of talking about Saddiq Bey, but I’m doing it anyway, because he seems like a particularly good example of how this phenomenon unfolds in the world of NBA discourse. How you feel about Bey is almost entirely predicated on your particular set of biases and expectations. In the pre-draft process in 2020, the consensus seemed to say that Bey would be able to make 3s and play defense, but that any potential beyond that—admittedly valuable—skill-set would be unlikely. And, agreeing with that assessment, lots of intelligent folks were either optimistic or pessimistic about what that meant. He was old for a first-round pick and not an explosive athlete. You’ve heard this story a thousand times. The 2021 version of this was either Corey Kispert or Trey Murphy. We’ll see how it goes.

Anyway, Bey got a ton of buzz as a rookie, basically for successfully already being what he was supposed to be. He shot 38% on 3s and played credible defense. He was low-usage, and he didn’t pass much, but he also didn’t turn it over. He’s a good player to have on your team. Nevertheless, the discourse around him as a rookie made it seem like he was a budding superstar. In February he played his best game, torching the Celtics—they could have drafted him!—for 30 points and 12 rebounds. Ultimately, when it was all over, he made the All-Rookie First Team. It was a good rookie season!

You can already feel the context shifting, though. The Pistons lucked into the privilege of drafting Cade Cunningham, possibly a foundational superstar. There will be eyes on the Pistons this season, and those eyes will be coming in having heard a bunch about how good Saddiq Bey is. Those eyes could find themselves disappointed. After making, as I said, 38% of his 3s as a rookie, he made just 24% in summer league a few weeks ago. That’s fine; it’s a small sample size. I didn’t watch every minute Bey played. I just understand how time works. Consider the rollercoaster ride of how we have thought about Jae Crowder, for example, over the past decade. Even a small improvement this season won’t be enough. It won’t be long before Saddiq Bey is seen as a limited piece—valuable in his role, but with frustratingly little room for growth.

There’s something sad about this, right? It’s at the heart of sports fandom. It’s why, counterintuitively, it’s often more fun to root for a bad team than a good one. On a bad team, things are often getting better. There’s hope for what the future holds. The future you are tethering to the present moment glows on the present like a warm and rising sun. On a good team, it’s noon. The sun is blaring down on you. Soon, it will start to go down.

I wanted to lay out this reading of Saddiq Bey because I think it’s instructive as we begin to think about this current iteration of the Detroit Pistons and about the NBA career of Cade Cunningham. When a player comes in with superstar potential, expectations are so high it can be difficult to enjoy the experience. Every game feels like a referendum. Every great performance makes you wonder about the ceiling, and every shit performance makes you wonder about the floor. 

Basketball, mercifully, remains mysterious, and one of the things I love about Cade is his malleability. I don’t particularly know what he’s best at or what position he’s supposed to be; I just know he’s got this incredible feel for the game, and that he plays it with an energetic spirit. It’s exciting to think about the ways in which that feel and energy might warp the context around him. It’s exciting, given his talent, to consider the possibility that he could give birth to new paradigms, new ways of imagining how a basketball team works. 

I challenge myself to give Saddiq Bey a break this year. To let the promising rookie comfortably sink into a life as an accurately-appreciated rotation piece. I want to do this because I want to free myself from the burden of prediction. When I watch the Pistons this year, I want to watch them becoming without thinking too much about what they will become.