AUBURN HILLS – Stan Van Gundy knows who’ll start when the Pistons open the Little Caesars Arena era against Charlotte. He has a handle on who’s most likely to come off the bench – and when – if the game unfolds without any violent twists.
But he’s a little murkier on the permanence of that plan. And he’s prepared to be vigilant about how players who inevitably fall on the wrong side of the rotation dividing line respond to their disappointment.
Because it’s one thing to come off the bench if you’re backing up LeBron James and it’s one thing to get shoved to the back of the line if the backup at your position has a far more decorated resume.
But those conditions don’t apply to Van Gundy’s roster. Not this time around.
“It’s a hard thing for players,” he acknowledged Tuesday, the final tuneup before Wednesday’s opener. “I don’t think it’s clear cut at a lot of positions, particularly at the backup positions. That makes it tough. When you’ve got a lot of guys who are fairly equal, just with different strengths and weaknesses, it’s a little harder. We’re going to have to deal with that and that’s going to be a big part of our team moving forward – if guys can handle those roles and then adapt and continue to stay ready and play.”
As much as anything – and hand in hand with wins and losses – it’s that situation that will test the bonds that began to form when the Pistons gathered in Las Vegas in early August for a week of players-only training and shoot-the-breeze sessions. The signature moment of the week was a team dinner where cell phones were put in the middle of the table – and then everybody’s hopes and visions for the season ahead were dumped there, too.
“Through this preseason and even before that, we’ve built some great chemistry together off the court, on the court,” Tobias Harris said. “A lot of guys really bonding together and having fun and just being excited. That’s always a really good sign going into the year.”
With the departures of two players ahead of him in tenure, Marcus Morris and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Harris – expected but not yet confirmed to be one of Van Gundy’s starters – is filling a more active leadership role this season.
Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson will have full voices given their status. The respect Avery Bradley commands for his focus and reputation for playing hard will make him an important member of the leadership council. Langston Galloway is another newcomer who’s already left an impression. And Anthony Tolliver is a willing and responsible leader who is always first in line to put his thoughts to words.
They’ll be tasked with keeping the locker room from splintering as playing time organically resolves itself. Van Gundy has braced them for the coming reality. While they’ve all made a case to be in the rotation, there are going to be four or five of them that won’t be – but likely will be called on situationally. Harris is ready to do his part to keep everyone’s head in a good place.
“Just make sure that everybody continues to stay ready,” he said. “We have a lot of depth on our team and guys that can play different roles and really help our team in different ways. When your name is called, it’s your duty and the duty of you as a teammate to help our team be better and be ready to play when you’re asked to.”
Van Gundy ticked off the anguished choices facing him. At power forward, Harris gets first call, but then what? Jon Leuer is the best defender with plus size for the position, but both Tolliver and Henry Ellenson offer scoring punch in different ways.
“It’s possible two of those four guys don’t play very much,” he said. “Who is that? Those guys have all played well.”
Behind Drummond, Boban Marjanovic is a scoring and rebounding machine, but Eric Moreland is the more nimble defender and grabbed 13 rebounds in 21 minutes in his extended preseason opportunity.
“Which one of those guys should play ahead of the other?” Van Gundy wondered aloud. “I don’t know.”
Behind Bradley, is it going to be Galloway? Or rookie Luke Kennard? Or, after he serves a five-game suspension, Reggie Bullock?
“It’s hard to look around at our roster and see a guy who hasn’t made a case for being the backup,” Van Gundy said. “I think at times it’s going to be hard for guys to accept and that’s where you’re relying on your individual character of players and then your team leadership.
“I think it’s a good group and I think they’ll monitor each other pretty well in the locker room. But it’s not easy.”
Van Gundy and general manager Jeff Bower made the conscientious choice to fill the roster with legitimate candidates for playing time, a choice made a little easier by having a lottery pick and no second-round pick. The coach understood full well coming into training camp that there would be no obvious calls unless injuries settled the debate for him. There’s no real down side to great depth. But it does come with its own set of quandaries. The Pistons start navigating them for real now.