Tough Call

Kuester’s decision to take Hamilton from rotation not one he took lightly

Kuester's decision to take Hamilton from rotation is not one he took lightly.
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There’s not a single NBA head coach – not Doc Rivers, not Gregg Popovich, not Phil Jackson – who would have lightly undertaken the decision that John Kuester made this week in removing Rip Hamilton from the rotation.

So understand that for Kuester, this was an especially wrenching decision. He was on Larry Brown’s staff when the Pistons won the 2004 NBA title and well remembers all the big shots Hamilton made in their run through the playoffs that year, maybe none bigger than his patented baseline jumper in the final minute to win that clutch Game 6 in New Jersey with the Pistons down 3-2 in the series 48 hours after their crushing triple-overtime home loss in Game 5.

Kuester knows the only NBA championship ring in his possession wouldn’t have been possible without Hamilton’s input. Remember the first thing Kuester did when Joe Dumars named him Pistons coach in July 2009? He skipped the first few days of Summer League, where the Pistons had three important rookies taking their first professional steps, so he could attend Hamilton’s wedding.

“He’s meant so much to this organization,” Kuester said in the aftermath of Wednesday’s loss to Memphis, notable more for Hamilton’s absence from the rotation more than for the result. “Right now we’re searching. We’re searching to find a group that can get minutes and get the job done. Everyone has gotten a chance this season.”

The fact Rip Hamilton – three-time All-Star, go-to scorer for one of the NBA’s elite teams of the past decade – is currently out of the rotation is a sign of the Pistons’ current plight, nothing less. When you’re 12-26, pretty much anything has to be on the table, even this.

Kuester isn’t saying the new starting lineup – Rodney Stuckey paired with Tracy McGrady in the backcourt, Chris Wilcox and Greg Monroe next to Tayshaun Prince up front – will have any more permanence than the last one, which included Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva in for Hamilton and Jason Maxiell.

The real news, though, wasn’t the starting lineup but the rotation’s reshaping. The glut of perimeter players has made it difficult for Kuester to find the appropriate number of minutes for seven players at three positions who can make a case they belong in the playing group: Stuckey, McGrady, Hamilton, Prince, Gordon, Will Bynum and Austin Daye.

Five is the far more practical number, but Kuester has routinely tried to work at least six into the mix, and through 37 games that yielded a 12-25 record. If there’s one thing everybody could agree on, it’s that 12-25 isn’t where the Pistons expected to be and some sort of change was in order.

Many of the Pistons’ familiar problems were apparent in Wednesday’s loss to Memphis, the first with the new rotation. Most maddeningly, the new lineup had no effect on the Pistons’ sluggishness to start third quarters. The NBA’s worst third-quarter team – the Pistons are now being outscored by 4.0 points per game in third quarters – saw a three-point lead turn into a nine-point deficit. They got hurt inside, Zach Randolph denting them for 34 points and 17 rebounds, another issue that seems beyond the realm of rotation adjustments.

But one thing that felt right about the Memphis game was the rotation pattern and the amount of minutes doled out. Ben Gordon went scoreless in the first half, but with the backcourt rotation pared to three, it gave him enough rope to work his way out of it, Gordon erupting for 25 points in the second half. Had Kuester tried to work Hamilton into the perimeter mix as well, chances are the pattern of the first half – both players struggling to find a comfortable rhythm – would have been extended.

Kuester tried about every conceivable blueprint to give both Hamilton and Gordon opportunities to get their shots and scoring chances, but the continuing reality was that in the attempt to accommodate both, neither was flourishing. There’s no guarantee that choosing to include Gordon and exclude Hamilton from the rotation – or vice versa, for that matter – will jump start Gordon, but it’s hard to argue against giving it a shot. What else is left to try?

If Kuester looked at what he had with the rest of the perimeter candidates, you can see where he’d balk at cutting anyone else out. The impact of McGrady’s playmaking skills and overall feel for running the offense has been palpable. Stuckey’s slashing ability and perimeter defense are two qualities no one else on the roster provides in tandem.

Hamilton can and has provided minutes at small forward, but the only credible alternative for using him at that spot require Daye to be removed from the rotation and give Hamilton the 10 or 12 minutes a game Prince rests or any other minutes Kuester chooses to use Prince at power forward.

And that remains a possibility, I would imagine. For now, Kuester is committed to staying with Wednesday’s rotation at least for Friday’s game at Toronto, he said.

Taking Hamilton out of the rotation wouldn’t have been a consideration, of course, had he exhibited signs that the 18-points-a-game, 45-plus-percent shooter who’s led the franchise in scoring for eight straight years was about to bust loose.

But save for a handful of games this year, sprinkled a few weeks apart from each other, and never generating any carrover momentum, Hamilton hasn’t been the guy who knocks down 17-footers like others shoot layups. He’s suggested it’s because he hasn’t been used the same ways he has in the past, and he undoubtedly believes that to be the case. Yet the shots he’s been getting don’t seem all that much different than the shots he’s always gotten. They’re just not falling with the regularity that made him one of the game’s most reliable scorers for nearly a decade. Nothing else about Hamilton’s game seems amiss – except the shots aren’t falling and his frustration mounts accordingly.

It was a pattern that stretched out over nearly half a season, underscoring exactly how gut-wrenching the decision to exclude him from the rotation was for Kuester. Like all the other changes the Pistons have experienced this year, there’s no guarantee this one will help them turn the corner.

Hamilton, who can’t help but be distracted as trade rumors with him at the center of them swirl, said after Wednesday’s game that he would stay professional, stay ready. If there’s anything the first half of this season has proven, it’s that your turn is never far off. Unless that trade pops soon, the last chapter of Rip Hamilton’s Pistons career is still his to write.