AUBURN HILLS – Since the NBA went to a 13-man active list during the lockout season of 2011-12 and kept it when coaches strongly endorsed the idea, Pistons coaches have rarely had to agonize over the identity of the two inactives for each game.
There have almost always been young second-round picks like Spencer Dinwiddie, Darrun Hilliard or Michael Gbinije as obvious candidates. Or tender rookies like Henry Ellenson, a choice made easier on those times when he was off playing with the D-League’s Grand Rapids Drive.
But for the 2017-18 season, Stan Van Gundy is going to have to apply a little more analysis to the decision of whom to make inactive every night.
The process will be streamlined by the fact the Pistons are likely to leave one roster spot open, going with 14 instead of 15 players. That choice is influenced mostly by the ability to sign two players to two-way contracts that limit their time spent with the parent NBA team to 45 days during the D-League calendar.
When the Pistons finished building the 2017-18 roster last week with the free-agent signings of Reggie Bullock and Anthony Tolliver, it gave them a 14-man roster filled with players who have a plausible path to the playing rotation. There will be nights – Van Gundy hopes not many – when the decision is taken out of his hands by injury. But when he has a fully healthy roster, somebody – and perhaps somebody who played the night before – capable of helping to win a game is going to be in street clothes.
It didn’t just happen that way. One contributing factor: The Pistons didn’t have a second-round pick in the June draft. But Bullock and Tolliver weren’t signed last week just because free agency was winding down and the Pistons found two bargains with the cap space or exceptions they had remaining.
“That’s what we wanted,” Van Gundy said of having a roster full of players capable of winning a spot in the rotation.
Aside from their two most recent No. 1 picks, Ellenson and Luke Kennard, only Eric Moreland hasn’t been a regular part of an NBA rotation before. So Moreland might seem the most logical candidate to be inactive if Van Gundy goes into the season opener with a fully healthy roster, but not so fast.
Center and point guard are the two positions where Van Gundy won’t want to get caught short. With Andre Drummond’s foul-shooting vulnerability and Boban Marjanovic’s similar challenges in certain defensive matchups, having Moreland available gives the Pistons cover. What he showed in Orlando, prompting the Pistons to lock him up before another team pounced, is the ability to defend a variety of opponents while also helping facilitate offense in some of the ways Aron Baynes did – setting solid screens, minimizing mistakes, finding open teammates.
The two most recent No. 1 picks, Ellenson and Luke Kennard, might also be logical candidates given their youth – except Van Gundy left Orlando’s Summer League convinced of each one’s readiness to compete for minutes. And for a team that finished 25th in offensive rating a year ago, the ability of both to manufacture points is hard to overlook.
Yet Van Gundy’s default position – and this goes for most coaches – is to roll with consistently trustworthy defensive players. Ellenson, in particular, is competing at power forward against two veterans who’ve earned Van Gundy’s trust at the defensive end, Tolliver and Jon Leuer.
Kennard starts out behind Avery Bradley for sure and likely Langston Galloway, as well, at shooting guard. But Van Gundy raised the possibility last week of fairly frequent use of three-guard lineups where Bullock or Kennard would be on the floor with one of the point guards and Bradley.
Tobias Harris is practically guaranteed 30-plus minutes a night and Van Gundy is going to give Stanley Johnson a wide berth to prove himself as a third-year player. But if the Pistons again struggle collectively from the 3-point arc, lineups featuring Bullock or Kennard at small forward might become more staple than occasional.
Drummond, Harris, Bradley and Reggie Jackson are slam dunks to be in uniform every night they’re available. Ish Smith, Johnson, Leuer and Galloway are safe bets. One from among the group of Moreland, Marjanovic, Ellenson, Tolliver, Bullock and Kennard will sit. On a roster filled with quality depth, who that is might depend on the opponent more than anything else.