Aside from the handful of future Hall of Fame point guards dicing up NBA defenses, most teams in today’s NBA make playmaking and running the offense a shared responsibility.
The Pistons remain convinced that Rodney Stuckey is more than capable of manning the position and they succeeded in their off-season priority of retaining restricted free agent Will Bynum to compete for minutes at point guard. But with veterans like Tayshaun Prince, Rip Hamilton, Ben Gordon and Tracy McGrady, they go into the season confident that they have plenty of offensive firepower and options to explore as facilitators of the offense.
“There are a lot of options we’re going to have this season,” Pistons coach John Kuester said. “But the big thing is seeing how everything plays out in training camp, to give these guys an opportunity. We’re going to take a look at a lot of different lineups so we can get a better feel of what our team is going to be about. We have a tremendous amount of flexibility.”
Stuckey averaged 16.6 points and 4.4 assists a game last year, though his role changed dramatically over the course of the season. He began it with three veteran scorers at his wings as the focal points of the offense – Hamilton, Prince and Gordon – and a dynamic Bynum behind him who often allowed him to play off of the ball as Kuester used him at shooting guard and even at small forward with Bynum and Gordon in the backcourt.
But when all four of those players missed major chunks of the season due to injury – they averaged 28 missed games apiece – Stuckey suddenly became the team’s primary scorer. Given the demands Kuester had put on him to spearhead perimeter defense, as well, Stuckey had bouts of erratic play, looking brilliant for stretches and confused and frustrated at other times.
This year, given better health around him and stability in place – this will be the first time in Stuckey’s four-year career he’s had the same head coach and playbook in successive seasons – the Pistons think Stuckey could take a big leap forward.
Stuckey changed his diet during the season last year and was noticeably leaner over the summer, though he says he won’t step on a scale until he takes his training camp physical on Sept. 27. Better conditioning and a better jump shot, together with experience and familiarity, could have Stuckey delivering on the vast promise he showed as a rookie – the promise that led USA Basketball to tab Stuckey for the Select Team in the summer of 2008 when he appeared on the fast track for a 2012 Olympic berth.
“My main thing was just coming in to training camp in better shape and just get a lot more shots up,” he said earlier this month. “Pretty much what I have to worry about is making my shot more consistent. I think if I do that, I’ll be fine.”
That’s been Stuckey’s focus this summer – getting up hundreds of shots to extend his shooting range and to become a more consistent shooter so opponents no longer can get away with ducking under screens and taking their chances with Stuckey’s perimeter game.
“With his ability to attack and score in the low post, obviously he’s very good in transition when he’s coming at you with a full head of steam,” Sullivan said. “If you think about it from the other side, if you’re game planning for Rodney Stuckey, you’re probably going to say, ‘Hey, we’ve got to protect the paint first with this guy. If you’re going to give him something, give him the jump shot.’
As ripped as Stuckey looks coming into training camp, he’s got nothing on Bynum – one of the NBA’s most committed gym rats. Bynum reported to camp at 185 pounds last season and played at a little over 190 during the season, but he dipped below 180 this summer despite, he says, becoming smarter and more conservative in his training.
Bynum joined the Pistons two years ago after two seasons in Israel as their No. 3 point guard. His 26-point quarter against Charlotte in April 2009 told the Pistons they had at least a solid No. 2 and his 20-assist game last season made the case even stronger. Bynum played dynamically to start last season, averaging 14.9 points in 28 minutes through the season’s first 11 games before first spraining his right ankle. In December, he twisted his left ankle. Only in the season’s last few weeks did he feel he had regained his trademark explosiveness.
The Pistons fully expect to see the pre-injury Bynum when camp starts and Bynum, given peace of mind by the three-year contract he signed over the summer, is now focused on pushing Stuckey – the two have become fast friends and go at each other hard in practices – for minutes, perhaps even the starting position.
“I’m ready to excel at what I do,” he said. “I’m not content with being average or just being a player to come off the bench or (be) the spark plug. My goal is to be the starting point guard for the Pistons. That’s my goal. I’m willing to sacrifice and do anything for us to win, but that’s one of my main goals. I’ve been working my tail off. I want to master this game. I’m not comfortable with just being regular or being normal or average. I feel like I’m truly blessed to do the things I can do on the court and I’m going to make the most out of it.”
“You think about a guy who over the last two years has scored 26 in a quarter in one game with 20 assists in another,” Sullivan said. “There aren’t too many guys in our league who can do that. I know he’s only done it once, but that’s pretty darn impressive to do that.
“The fact we signed him, I think he feels great about that. I think that’s a huge weight off of his shoulders. Now I think he can just relax, because that’s a kid that cares. That’s the thing I love about Will – he cares about winning. And I think Will is vocal enough now, going into his third year in Detroit. I think he’s a guy who will say something to people if guys are out of line. He has the capability of doing that because he cares so much about winning.”
Bynum’s strength is his ability to exploit pick-and-roll defense with his quickness and uncanny ability to finish at the rim.
“He is such a different look,” Sullivan said. “You’re going to see him in a ton of pick and rolls. That’s what he thrives in. He’s a very, very good pick and roll player. The biggest thing is defensively, just challenging Will to make sure he’s up the floor and being as much of a pest as he is offensively.”
The Pistons last year added Chucky Atkins to their training camp roster in late September and wound up keeping him when Joe Dumars and Kuester decided they needed a steady No. 3 in the event that Stuckey or Bynum got hurt. Atkins wound up starting 11 games and played in 40 due to the rash of injuries to perimeter players. This year, they’re sticking with only Stuckey and Bynum.
That’s in part due to the veterans – Hamilton, Prince, Gordon, McGrady – who can either direct the half-court offense in a pinch or have proven playmaking ability, and in part due to the promise shown by second-round rookie Terrico White.
White was the starting point guard for the Pistons’ Summer League entry, coached by Sullivan, and he impressed by taking care of the ball and not trying to make flashy plays to exploit his extreme athleticism.
“I was very impressed with him this summer,” Sullivan said. “He didn’t try to do too much as a point guard. If it was pick and roll and he came off and somebody showed, he just made the right play. I liked that. I liked the fact he wasn’t looking to split pick and rolls or turn the corner. He did what he was asked to do.”
At 6-foot-5, White might eventually prove to be better off of the ball. But he’s more comfortable and much more assertive with the ball in his hands so far. There are two ways White could offer immediate help to the Pistons: He’s a gifted natural scorer with a promising shooting stoke, and his size and athletic ability suggest he can eventually become a very solid perimeter defender.
“I’m really impressed with his ability to shoot the ball,” Sullivan said. “I didn’t know he can shoot it the way he does.”