April 19, 2024

Cade Cunningham and his case for the NBA’s Most Improved Award

ATLANTA — No. 1 overall picks are expected to ascend toward stardom. Improvements aren’t often celebrated simply because anything else is considered a failure.

With that, the discourse surrounding players with this status is often unfair. Very few NBA players have jumped onto the scene and altered a franchise immediately. Even fewer have catapulted into Hall of Fame status shortly after their first official dribble. These players get better, too. They improve.

Detroit Pistons star Cade Cunningham, in what is essentially his second season, is no exception. He’s done it under extremely poor circumstances. He’s done it a year removed from having a metal rod put into his leg. For all that has gone wrong this season in Detroit, the most important thing to the franchise’s health going forward has gone right. Cunningham is a piece to build an entire organization around.

If one thing is answered for the Pistons, that’s it. Cunningham’s improvements should be acknowledged. And with 62 games to his name this season, and needing to play just three more to be considered for NBA postseason honors, it’s not impossible for Cunningham to get that recognition on a national level.

The 22-year-old isn’t on the radar for the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award. But should he be? Cunningham has a case. Several of his key base stats are up, so are his efficiency numbers and advanced shooting stats. He has seen an uptick despite being in a situation that hasn’t necessarily been conducive to success.

Getting better under these circumstances isn’t an easy matter. Yet, Cunningham has done it.

“Anytime you have that combination of size and skill, you’re a unique player,” Atlanta Hawks head coach Quin Snyder said of Cunningham. “We forget sometimes how young guys are when they first come into the league and what that means. When you miss a year due to injury, not only do you have to recover from the experience that a year can provide, but everything that goes along with that rehabilitation process.

“He’s a really, really good player, and that’s what you see when you watch him play, playing against him or watching him on tape.”

To show how much Cunningham has grown, it’s worth comparing this season’s stats to that of his rookie year, given that he only played 12 games during his “official” sophomore season before a lingering shin injury forced him to get surgery and miss the rest of the year.

Cunningham’s scoring is up 5.3 points per game, his assists are up 1.9, his field goal percentage went from 41.6 percent to 45.9 percent, and his 3-point percentage has jumped from 31.4 percent to 35.5 percent on, essentially, the same number of attempts per game. Cunningham is carrying a true shooting percentage of 54.6 percent this season (he had a 50.4 true shooting percentage as a rookie and 49.2 true shooting percentage in 12 games last season). Lastly, Cunningham has upped these numbers while being one of just 10 players in the NBA to have a 30 percent usage or better.

Cunningham is carrying the load of superstars, but without the help. His numbers have improved in the process. If there’s anything that should give Pistons ownership, decision-makers and fans hope, Cunningham’s growth is it. Getting “the guy” is the hardest part of rebuilding. Detroit, at the very least, appears to have gotten that part right.

“In today’s world, we look at improved as almost like a negative,” Pistons head coach Monty Williams said. “If he improved, it’s like, ‘Oh, he must have been bad.’ That’s not the way to look at it. It’s even better when you’re talented, have shown the ability to play at a high level and then take it to another level. That should be applauded, and he’s one of those guys.”

The frontrunners for this year’s Most Improved award are likely Houston’s Alperen Şengün, Philadelphia’s Tyrese Maxey, Oklahoma City’s Jalen Williams, Chicago’s Coby White and Golden State’s Jonathan Kuminga. Each player has a strong case. All are on teams likely to make the postseason, unlike Cunningham. And we’ve learned that when it comes to these awards, winning matters.

However, when you break it down individually, Cunningham has as strong of a case as almost any of these names. White and Kuminga aren’t atop opposing team’s scouting reports like Cunningham is. The usage that they carry isn’t in the same ballpark as Cunningham’s. Maxey is an incredible player, but his efficiency numbers have dipped compared to last season. And while Maxey has been impressive in the absence of Joel Embiid, he plays alongside other proven players who help make his life easier. Williams, too, is incredible, but he’s playing alongside a possible NBA Most Valuable Player in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Don’t get me wrong: Williams has entered the conversation as one of the league’s top-25 players and that’s a leap worth making record of. However, Cunningham is asked to do more with far less, and he’s found a way to maintain respectable efficiency numbers in the process. That’s not nothing.

All in all, Cunningham won’t likely win the award. No one has paid attention to the Pistons outside of the team’s historic 28-game losing streak. Detroit is out of sight and out of mind right now. Rightfully so. Cunningham, though, should be in the conversation. If you’ve watched even one game of Detroit basketball at any point this season, you have seen how impressive of a jump he has made.

Cunningham is the rose that has grown from concrete. That’s his case.

Related reading

Eyes on Cade Cunningham: Observing the Pistons’ star in Minneapolis

(Photo: Gregory Shamus / Getty Images)