AUBURN HILLS – It’s way too early to predict whether or how much better the Pistons are for their moves in the draft, via trade or free agency over the past three weeks – but they’re decidedly different.
They’ve subtracted two starters in Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Marcus Morris – the two players who’ve led them in minutes per game in each of the past two seasons. They combined to average 65.5 minutes last season – 27 percent of the available 240 minutes to parcel out in a regulation game.
How the Pistons replace those minutes depends on a number of factors, including whether Stan Van Gundy and Jeff Bower have any moves remaining other than the signing of more players to fill out the back of the roster. With the drafting of Luke Kennard, the signings of Langston Galloway and Eric Moreland and the trade for Avery Bradley, the roster has been significantly reshaped.
And that reshaping has left some uncertainty for a rotation that could have looked remarkably similar to last season if the Pistons hadn’t decided the price on Caldwell-Pope was soaring past their comfort level. That was the trigger for the deal sending Morris to Boston for Bradley and leaving the Pistons to sort out how to replace the hole Morris leaves.
Bradley essentially replaces Caldwell-Pope and Tobias Harris more than likely slides over to small forward to replace Morris as the starter. But losing Morris and shifting Harris causes ripple effects that expand the possibilities for lineup combinations. Van Gundy could go a thousand different ways with nearly everyone on the roster in play.
But keep this in mind when you’re trying to add up minutes to get to 240 next season: Van Gundy’s comfort level with his rotation has been nine players. He’s gone to 10 occasionally, but it’s been driven more by a search to find consistently productive role players than anything. When everyone’s playing well, Van Gundy most often plays nine.
That could change as his personnel has. Caldwell-Pope and Morris had his trust and so they soaked up a lot of minutes, in part because they proved their effectiveness didn’t diminish as their minutes rose. Maybe Van Gundy will find it prudent to spread minutes around more with the recast roster.
As that roster stands today, it appears there are 11 candidates for minutes: Andre Drummond, Jon Leuer, Harris, Bradley and Reggie Jackson as potential starters; Stanley Johnson, Boban Marjanovic and Ish Smith as primary backups; Kennard, Galloway and Henry Ellenson as possibilities.
And it’s easy to see a rotation of 10 players that would look something like this:
- Center – Drummond starts and probably plays 32 to 36 minutes most nights. Marjanovic could claim the other 12 to 16, but teams that play smaller second units with a floor-stretching post player could mean it’s Moreland in that role – or even Leuer or Ellenson. So one night’s nine- or 10-man rotation might not be the next night’s setup.
- Power forward – Leuer is the likely starter as the surer thing defensively. Ellenson affirmed his intriguing offensive potential over a Summer League in which he averaged 17.4 points a game and showed signs of progress at the defensive end, but it still might be a tough ask to expect him to start against accomplished veterans rather than come off the bench in more targeted matchups. It’s conceivable Van Gundy could put together a rotation without Ellenson simply by continuing last season’s pattern of splitting the 96 minutes at the two forward spots over three players: Leuer, Harris and Johnson.
- Small forward – That three-forward setup assumes Johnson represents a clearly better option than Ellenson. And that seems more in Johnson’s hands than Ellenson’s. If his starting point in training camp is the rookie who was Van Gundy’s sixth man and he builds off of that, it wouldn’t be a stretch to get 34 minutes or so from Harris and 28 to 32 apiece from Leuer and Johnson. That pretty much eats up the forward rotation.
- Shooting guard – Bradley will start and probably approximate Caldwell-Pope’s minutes. There won’t be room for two backups, so it’s Galloway or Kennard. Galloway could just as easily slot in at point guard, but the same rule applies: it’s either Galloway or Smith behind Jackson. Galloway could split his minutes between the two backcourt positions, but if he does so it will more than likely be in a three-guard rotation – similar to how Van Gundy used his forwards last year – behind both Bradley and Jackson. That’s not a likely scenario.
- Point guard – Jackson’s status remains the most critical factor in any projection of next season’s Pistons. If he’s 2015-16 Jackson, they’re a playoff team again. If he’s not, the addition of Galloway at least gives the Pistons better protection than they had a year ago. Smith, all things considered, probably came as close to meeting preseason expectations as anyone on the roster. There are no indications the Galloway signing had anything to do with looking to replace Smith’s minutes. The expectation is that Smith remains Jackson’s primary backup with Galloway more likely to log most of his minutes at shooting guard if all goes well with Jackson.
The bottom line is that while on any given night Van Gundy might still prefer to keep his rotation at nine, the reshuffled roster could make it more likely that the playing group varies from game to game. That’s a formula that works well for many teams – Boston won the most games last season in the East using it – and prepares a team well for the postseason, when matchups became even more a driver of personnel usage. If their off-season has the desired effect, that’s something that Van Gundy will be happy to ponder.