Much to ponder for SVG as he looks at Pistons frontcourt rotation

Andre Drummond produced big numbers while coming off the bench as a Pistons rookie. Will that influence Stan Van Gundy as he ponders how to stagger minutes for the 2014-15 frontcourt?
NBAE/Getty Images
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

When Michael Curry was weighing how to best configure his starting lineup during his only season as Pistons coach, he eventually decided he needed Rodney Stuckey to be his starting point guard. That meant he had to bring one of Rip Hamilton or Allen Iverson off the bench. When a reporter asked Iverson what it would say if Curry asked him to be his sixth man, Iverson replied, “It would say he thinks I’m not one of his five best players.”

Not all NBA players think that way, of course. John Havlicek, one of the greatest in a long line of great Boston Celtics, spent a big chunk of his career coming off Red Auerbach’s bench. Manu Ginobili is headed to the Hall of Fame based largely on what he’s meant as the anchor of second units for Greg Popovich’s championship teams in San Antonio.

But most NBA players of a certain stature are accustomed to starting and loathe to anything but. In debating the move to bring a customary starter off the bench, there is more than ego and bruised feelings to consider. When sitting back down with your warmups on following lineup introductions is a completely foreign experience, what follows might be just as unrecognizable for certain players.

All of that is by way of getting to what faces Stan Van Gundy if his stated goal of retaining Greg Monroe in restricted free agency is achieved and he rejoins Andre Drummond and Josh Smith when Pistons training camp opens. Van Gundy has made it clear at every opportunity that he’s disinclined to play all three of Monroe, Drummond and Smith together based on last season’s results. He’s even talked about how it could work so that all three would get 30-plus minutes a game without any complete overlap.

But … that also means one of them comes off the bench.

Because Smith and Monroe have basically known nothing but starting over their NBA careers and because they would certainly rank 1-2 or 2-1 on the team’s salary chart, conventional wisdom suggests Drummond – who adapted seamlessly to coming off the bench as an NBA rookie not so long ago – would be the most likely to not start.

There is a compelling countervailing argument to be made on Drummond’s behalf, of course. If he’s destined to be the foundation around whom the Pistons build their future, as Van Gundy has also strongly intimated, it’s logical that he should start. His PER last year ranked 16th in the NBA; the next-closest Piston, Monroe, was 62nd. One of the stated reasons Drummond didn’t start as a rookie was to manage his minutes as he acclimated to NBA-level conditioning; he played 32 minutes a game without a problem last season.

Van Gundy almost surely will explore every combination during the preseason, but somebody has to line up with the second unit in the first scrimmage of training camp. Let’s just suppose for the sake of argument that it’s Drummond and how things might unfold from there.

One argument in favor of bringing Drummond off the bench would be to limit his early foul trouble, which was less than a persistent problem for him last year but more than an occasional one. Bringing him on with three or four minutes left in the first quarter, when the opposition might often go to its bench, figures to reduce the number of times he has to defend accomplished post scorers or step in front of dynamic penetrators.

Much of the decision of which of the three big men to bring off the bench will come down to compatibility. If Van Gundy stacks his starting lineup with the perimeter shooters he acquired in free agency – D.J. Augustin at point guard, Jodie Meeks at shooting guard and Caron Butler at small forward – that might argue for Drummond as a starter.

But Brandon Jennings remains the incumbent starter at point guard and Butler, at 34, is probably best suited to coming off the bench. So Van Gundy could group all three of those shooters on a Drummond-anchored second unit that would allow the Pistons to re-create – and elevate – the success Drummond experienced as a rookie surrounded by shooters like Charlie Villanueva and Austin Daye with Will Bynum running the pick and roll.

Van Gundy cited Augustin’s pick-and-roll acumen as a leading reason to pursue him in free agency and he adds a 3-point element as a 40 percent shooter from the arc. Go under the screen with Augustin and run the risk of allowing open triples. Step over it and Drummond is running free to the rim. Spot Butler in the far corner and have Meeks on the wing and a defense is stretched to its breaking point.

Of course, Van Gundy could just as easily be looking to sprinkle his shooters among both units, perhaps favoring Meeks as a starter and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope on the second unit with Drummond where his speed and transition skills would also play well.

And, I suspect, even given the diplomacy it will require to sell a bench role to one of three worthy starters, Van Gundy’s greater concern is how the Pistons will finish games. And that could change from night to night, given the lineups they’re asked to defend, whether the Pistons are ahead or behind, or the way various combinations have performed for the first 45 minutes.

All of it is what goes into making the early days of the Van Gundy era intriguing stuff as the days until training camp open dwindle.