AUBURN HILLS – And the Pistons starting lineup for their first game at Little Caesars Arena is …
Well, not so fast.
Stan Van Gundy didn’t give any hints after Wednesday’s morning walk through at the team’s practice facility. He probably wouldn’t have under any circumstances, but especially given Charlotte’s vagueness given the unknown status of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who’s been away from the team for a week and missed three preseason games due to an excused absence for personal reasons.
Even if Kidd-Gilchrist rejoins the team in time for the 7 p.m. tipoff, Hornets coach Steve Clifford was skeptical on Tuesday that he’d be able to play.
Clifford said Wednesday, according to Hornets beat writer Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer, that he’d start Kemba Walker, Dwight Howard, Marvin Williams and Jeremy Lamb, who stepped in for Nic Batum when he was injured – and lost for several weeks – during the first minute of the Pistons-Hornets preseason game Oct. 4 at LCA. The fifth starter, Clifford said, was up in the air and depended on the preferred matchup with Tobias Harris.
“Part of the problem, quite honestly, with them tonight, we don’t know who they’re starting,” Van Gundy said. “We know Andre (Drummond) will start on Howard. Other than that, we don’t really know, matchup wise, who’s starting on who.”
A best guess Pistons starting lineup: Avery Bradley, Drummond – the two players Van Gundy said last week he was sure would start – Harris, Stanley Johnson and Reggie Jackson. The biggest uncertainty is at point guard, where Ish Smith outplayed Jackson in preseason as the latter worked his way back from a knee injury that kept him out of live basketball until late September after training camp had begun.
The bigger question marks come after that. Van Gundy has decisions to make on backups at center, power forward and both wing positions. While the identity of the starting point guard might be the biggest wild card in the starting lineup, as a whole the 48 minutes at that position encompass the least mystery. If it’s not Jackson on the floor, it’ll be Smith; if not Smith, Jackson.
Here’s a best-guess blueprint for Van Gundy’s rotation tonight:
Jackson starts at point guard, comes out after about six or seven minutes. Harris also comes out around then so he can come back to start the second quarter, likely at small forward for Johnson, and serve as the scoring anchor of the bench unit – the role Marcus Morris held last season.
Drummond comes out a minute or two later, again so he can come back a few minutes into the second quarter and get more overlapping time with Jackson. Van Gundy would like to keep them together as much as possible to maximize the value of their pick-and-roll impact.
To start the second quarter, Van Gundy goes with Langston Galloway at shooting guard; Jon Leuer – who probably enters for Harris midway through the first quarter at power forward – slides to center to back up Drummond; Harris at small forward; and Henry Ellenson at power forward with Jackson coming back at point guard.
Smith and Jackson essentially split minutes in the first half – the first half of each quarter to Jackson, the last half to Smith. The second half starts with the same blueprint but becomes more fluid based on their performances after Smith re-enters.
That leaves Eric Moreland and Boban Marjanvonic at center, Anthony Tolliver at power forward and Luke Kennard on the wing outside of the rotation for now. But the margins are razor thin and it could look significantly different by the end of October, 13 days away. It could just as easily be Kennard over Galloway tonight, or Moreland or Marjanovic at backup center instead of Leuer.
One other note for tonight: The Pistons will have only 12 players available instead of the typical 13. Reggie Bullock – who’d be solidly in the mix with Galloway and Kennard for minutes behind Bradley and Johnson on the wings – will serve a five-game suspension to start the season. By NBA rule, Bullock counts as one of the 13 active players.