What to Watch
5 questions to sort out as Pistons camp set to open
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Training camp opens Tuesday and Lawrence Frank has many other questions to sort out before those big-picture items will resolve themselves.
Here are five storylines worth watching over the days and weeks before the Oct. 31 season opener when the Pistons host Houston at The Palace:
Will Lawrence Frank tinker with his starting lineup?
After sputtering to a 4-20 start, complicated by the lockout that prevented Frank from meeting any of his players until training camp was days from opening, the Pistons played at a .500 clip over the season’s final two-thirds. That streak coincided with Jason Maxiell’s inclusion in the starting lineup. All five starters return.
Frank is on record as saying he doesn’t believe in incumbency, but he also believes in playing the five players who best fit together. The five of Maxiell, Monroe, Rodney Stuckey, Brandon Knight and Tayshaun Prince clicked last season. Will preseason give anyone enough time to make such an impression that Frank is convinced to alter that group of starters?
Who takes the lead in the battle behind Tayshaun Prince at small forward?
Let’s start by conceding it’s unlikely that anyone but Prince, entering his 11th season, will be the starter at small forward come Oct. 31. Who wins the backup spot: Corey Maggette, an irrepressible veteran scorer coming off an injury-riddled season, or Kyle Singler, an uncommonly seasoned rookie who displayed in Summer League the uncanny knack for consistently making the right plays?
In different ways, both can help the Pistons win games. Maggette’s proven ability to get to the foul line is a trait Frank especially values, not just for the free throws it produces for Maggette but for the entire team as fouls accumulate on the opposition and puts the Pistons in the bonus earlier in quarters. Singler shows the promise to serve as a small forward, not unlike Prince, through whom the offense can be funneled, plus he brings great size to the position at nearly 6-foot-9 and a great motor.
Can Austin Daye or Charlie Villanueva force their way into the rotation?
Daye and Villanueva are likely the two best shotmakers on the team with great range and the ability to shoot off the dribble. Villanueva has a lightning release, while Daye’s outside ability is complemented by an in-between game enabled by his ability to pump fake and put the ball on the floor.
But neither one goes into the preseason assured of cracking the rotation. Daye fell out of it last season when his shot betrayed him, taking his confidence with it. Villanueva never could catch up after a lingering ankle injury finally cleared midway through the season.
Both fit the profile of the classic stretch four, a power forward who opens driving lanes that Stuckey, Knight, Maggette and others might exploit. Yet with Maxiell and Jonas Jerebko giving the Pistons qualities Frank (and pretty much every coach) covets – Maxiell’s physical presence and toughness, Jerebko’s motor and fearlessness – there’s no clear opening for either Daye or Villanueva. They’ll try to change that, coming to camp off of tremendous off-seasons that leave both in the best shape of their careers.
Can either Andre Drummond or Slava Kravtsov win the backup job to Greg Monroe?
Frank won’t ever concede that a team can’t play winning defense without great size and a shot-blocking presence, but there’s little sense denying that the size and athleticism the Pistons added with 7-footers Drummond and Kravtsov would give them a dimension they haven’t had since the heyday of Ben and Rasheed Wallace.
In both cases, it’s a matter of how fast they can bend their learning curve into a straight line up. Drummond spent just one year in college, but even that overstates his experience, enrolling at UConn days before classes started and missing the summer conditioning experience. Kravtsov not only has to adjust from the Ukrainian Superleague to the NBA, but also to a culture he’s never experienced.
If both prove ready to contribute, the Pistons would immediately go from one of the league’s most undersized teams to one that could match up with virtually anyone in the frontcourt. If neither is rotation ready, Frank might go with Maxiell as Monroe’s backup and find ways to use Daye and Villanueva in the power forward mix.
Can Kim English or Khris Middleton give the Pistons quality minutes behind Rodney Stuckey?
The Pistons go into training camp with only three veteran guards on the roster: Stuckey, Knight and Will Bynum. The trade of Ben Gordon to Charlotte for Corey Maggette created an immediate opening for their second-round rookies, English and Middleton, to fight for a rotation spot.
English came out of Summer League with the upper hand, not at all surprising despite the fact he was drafted five spots behind Middleton, who went 39th. English, at 24, is three years older than Middleton, who was still getting over the effects of in-season surgery to repair knee damage during his junior year at Texas A&M.
English plays with a high motor, can knock down 3-point shots and engages defensively. Middleton’s advantage is his great size and pure shotmaking ability. He came on strong in August and September workouts at The Palace to put himself in position to challenge for a spot this preseason.