Fresh off an injury that cost him all but 12 games of the 2022-2023 season, Detroit Pistons point guard Cade Cunningham turned heads during Team USA workouts in Las Vegas this past summer, becoming an early favorite for Most Improved Player heading into his third year.
Hopes remained high heading into the season. Yet now, with the 2-15 Pistons in the throes of a 14-game losing streak, Cunningham’s MIP candidacy has hit a bear market as pundits have come to wonder whether he’s getting worse instead of better.
Whereas Cunningham’s MIP odds were as low as 8/1 at Caesars Sportsbook just prior to the regular season, he’s now priced as high as 30/1 at DraftKings, with odds closer to his Pistons teammate, second-year center Jalen Duren (55/1), than current favorite Tyrese Maxey (-105) of the Philadelphia 76ers.
“He’s 20/1 at PointsBet now and I wouldn’t back that,” said Kevin Lawler, head of U.S. trading for PoinstBet, a Fanatics Experience. “There are way better ways to spend your money on Most Improved. Cunningham is the brightest spark on the Pistons team, but he also doesn’t do himself a lot of favors. He leads the league in turnovers and field goals missed. I don’t think it’s fair to say Cade needs to be surrounded by better pieces. He’s actually regressed in his efficiency since last season.”
“I get that he’s got the ball in his hands a little more, but the turnovers are astronomical,” added Jonathan Von Tobel, lead NBA analyst for Vegas Sports & Information Network. “He’s taking more shots and his efficiency is dipping again. It’s dipped each season he’s been in the NBA.
“Cunningham really doesn’t have the talent around him from a shooting standpoint and he’s turning the ball over trying to make stuff happen. I think he’s gonna be out of the mix for Most Improved.”
Isle of misfit toys?
While Detroit’s record to date is objectively awful, the team seems to have unearthed a pair of gems in Duren and rookie Ausar Thompson.
Of the former, Lawler offered, “I think he’s gonna be the Pistons’ center going forward. With respect to whether he’s a contender for MIP, he’s probably just as much of a contender as Cade is. But nobody’s winning MIP averaging 12 points per game, so he’s not somebody I’d be interested in backing for the award despite being a very functional center.”
For his part, Von Tobel said, “I like Duren a lot. From an offensive rebounding standpoint, he’s one of the better ones at his position. In terms of overall rebounding, he’s up there as well. He’s just been tremendous. He’s so athletic that if he needs to, he can switch out and stay in front of certain guys.”
Von Tobel is similarly bullish on Thompson, praising the versatile wing’s elite defense and rebounding. But neither Thompson nor Duren have developed respectable outside shots, which is something at least one of them will have to do when playing alongside fellow lottery picks Cunningham and Jaden Ivey, who also struggle to consistently score from range.
While this season may already be a lost cause, if this core four can find some cohesion and more effectively space the floor, there may be a silver lining in the offing for Pistons loyalists.
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