Monty Williams’ best night as Pistons coach, what’s next for Killian Hayes, more

CLEVELAND — Here are some thoughts and observations after the Detroit Pistons’ 128-121 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Wednesday night…

Despite the defeat, this was Monty Williams’ best coaching night

This one is on the players.

For the majority of Detroit’s 41 losses this season, the blame could be evenly split up into thirds — shared among the players, coaches and front office — or with more weight leaning on those in charge. This wasn’t one of those nights.

Williams was experimental with his rotations, going as far as playing Danilo Gallinari heavy minutes at center. Williams prioritized spacing with all of the combinations he and his staff concocted. He played a big lineup to combat the Cavs’ size. He even played the smallest Pistons lineup we’ve seen all season — Marcus Sasser, Monte Morris, Alec Burks, Ausar Thompson and Gallinari — and that group held its own. There was a great blend of Cade Cunningham and Jaden Ivey taking turns initiating actions.

Playing Gallinari, who scored 20 points after getting DNPs the last three games, gave Detroit a real chance to win. Williams didn’t play James Wiseman. He didn’t play the struggling Killian Hayes for the first time all season. Williams continued to roll with the momentum Sasser has built in recent games.

Though some might have tried some of these things sooner, and the fact Williams didn’t might have contributed to several losses earlier in the season, he did give his team the best chance to win with its best defender, Isaiah Stewart, sidelined with an ankle injury.

The experimentation and emphasis on spacing put Detroit in position to be successful Wednesday night.

“We just have to continue to find those lineups that give teams trouble,” Williams said after.

If you want to nitpick Williams, you can point to down the stretch when his team didn’t trap a red-hot Donovan Mitchell. You could point to the fact he went back to the starters late as opposed to leaning more heavily on the bench, which was outstanding most of the night.

“We didn’t execute the coverage on Donovan,” Williams said. “We were trying to get up and blitz the pick-and-roll. He was coming off one or two dribbles and raising up. That’s on me to make sure that we know what we’re supposed to be in. We had three opportunities to go get him, and he was just setting us up for opportunities to get his shots off. Just execution issues, and that comes down to me making sure everyone knows what we’re in, in those situations.”

That sounded like a coach taking the blame for his players. I find it hard to believe the staff didn’t communicate that regularly in the final minutes. Regardless, Detroit shouldn’t have been in a shootout with the Cavaliers down the stretch, needing to make a shot or stop Cleveland from scoring on every possession.

The Pistons had 14 turnovers for 25 Cleveland points through the first three quarters. That was the ballgame.

These turnovers are … wild

I’m not sure how else to put it.

If you didn’t watch the game, or the majority of games this season, let me just show you how egregious Detroit’s turnovers are night after night after night.

This was the worst:

This was bad, too …

This is the last one, which was backbreaking for two reasons …

I just showed you three clips that featured Cleveland scoring 4 easy points, the Pistons missing a wide-open 3 from one of the best shooters this last decade and Detroit unable to get shots of its own because of the turnovers in a game it lost by 7.

I wouldn’t have had any trouble showing you four more turnovers that led to easy points from this game that are almost as bad as these ones.

The Pistons are at a talent and experience disadvantage almost every night. Those two things alone make it an uphill climb to win a basketball game. Factor in a 29th-ranked 15.5 turnovers per game (Detroit had 17 in Cleveland), and that’s how you end up with a 6-41 record. The turnovers are as often unforced as they are baffling. The turnovers are more often than not live-ball turnovers, giving opponents a runway to points within seconds.

The Pistons starting group combined for 10 of the team’s 17 turnovers against the Cavaliers, and Cunningham didn’t have any. When one hole is plugged, another one opens. That’s just how it seems to be with this team.

Before Detroit can learn to beat other teams, it has to learn to not beat itself. The Pistons shouldn’t have been in a shootout with Cleveland late in the fourth quarter Wednesday night. They were, though, because they didn’t cherish every possession in the 36 minutes before the final frame.

“You got to give yourself a chance at least to shoot the ball,” Gallinari said after the game. “Turnovers are killers, especially against a team like (Cleveland) that can turn turnovers into points. You want to give yourself a chance to shoot the ball. Turnovers are going to happen, but you’ve got to control them better.”

Is Killian Hayes’ time in Detroit over?

This feels like the unofficial end to Hayes’ time in Detroit, whether it becomes more formal sometime between now and the Feb. 8 trade deadline or this offseason.

The writing was on the wall this summer, when the Pistons drafted yet another guard in the first round of the NBA Draft, which was their third time doing so since taking Hayes No. 7 in 2020. They also traded for Morris. It is my understanding that Detroit was close to trading Hayes before Williams’ arrival, but the coach, who had been intrigued by Hayes from afar during the first two seasons of the Frenchman’s career, wanted a chance to work with the 6-foot-5, 22-year-old guard. Hayes and the Pistons weren’t close on extension talks earlier this year and, with that, it felt like Williams’ intrigue in Hayes was the last attempt at trying to salvage his time in the Motor City.

Williams seemed to look to Hayes to provide stability. Hayes doesn’t turn the ball over. He is a big guard with the ability to defend. Detroit’s biggest issues this season, Hayes, in theory, did help address. However, Hayes has just not progressed enough offensively over the last four years for those first two things to outweigh his scoring struggles.

Despite averaging over 20 minutes per game in January and December (and starting many of those games), Hayes has only scored 72 points total since Dec. 11. Furthermore, he’s averaging 4.1 shot attempts per game in January, exceeding five or more shot attempts in just four of 14 games. When on the court, Hayes is rarely ever looking at the basket.

Hayes’ 3-point shooting hasn’t made any significant progress. He’s converting on less than 28 percent of his 3-point attempts for his career. And despite being a big guard, Hayes doesn’t attempt many shots at the rim. In 2024, it’s hard to be a lead guard, not do either one and play.

Hayes is young and does process the game well as a setup man for others, so maybe things will click somewhere else, with a fresh start. It’s just become clear his time in Detroit is coming to an end. Wednesday night felt like the unofficial ending.

Williams played Cunningham, Ivey, Morris and Sasser in the loss to Cleveland. When asked why Hayes was left out of the rotation, Williams said this:

“It’s just hard to play four point guards. Sasser is playing off ball just to get him on the floor. I talked to Killian (before the game) and told him this was the route I was going to go.”

Up until now, Hayes was someone for whom Williams always carved out minutes.

(Photo of Danilo Gallinari: David Liam Kyle / NBAE via Getty Images)

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