Greater change comes below the surface. The only constant to the second unit from the start of November to its end: rookie Andre Drummond.
Rodney Stuckey asked to come off the bench in favor of Kyle Singler, the one tweak Lawrence Frank has made to the starting lineup. Charlie Villanueva moved in behind Jason Maxiell at power forward in place of Jonas Jerebko and Corey Maggette recovered from a leg injury that cost him the season’s first seven games.
Suddenly, synergy abounds. Drummond’s athleticism and rim protection up front complement Villanueva’s versatile scoring ability, whose 3-point range in turn opens up wider driving lanes for Stuckey. Maggette has given them scoring as opportunities arise, both as a slasher and a shooter.
Instead of a five-man unit that also included Will Bynum, the bench at present runs four deep. In order to stretch out the minutes of Stuckey and starting guards Singler and Brandon Knight, Frank has pared Bynum from the rotation for their last three halves of basketball.
It’s a sliver of a sample size, to be sure, but in those three halves, the Pistons – who average 47 points per half – have averaged 57 points per half with their revamped units.
Stuckey and Villanueva have been especially effective, combining for 58 points in wins over Portland and Phoenix since Frank implemented change, including 37 on a combined 16 shots in the 40-point thrashing of the Suns.
“It definitely helps us out a lot when you’ve got guys like that who come off the bench and play how well they played. They really lift us up,” Knight said. “You guys talk about the offensive end, but those guys, they really got after it on the defensive end, as well, and really stepped it up on that side of it. They played with energy and it translated to them having a great game. I’ve got to congratulate both of those guys.”
“It makes it a lot tougher for the defenses, because he can pick and pop or he can post you up, so you never really know what he’s trying to do,” Drummond said of his new frontcourt sidekick. “It kind of frees me up, as well, because a lot of defenders shift over to him to help their teammates out.”
Just as it was Stuckey’s idea to come off the bench, he also asked about engineering more opportunities for him to have the ball in his hands after he said he felt like a bystander too often in the early going.
“For the last probably nine games, we’ve been trying to get the ball in his hands more,” Frank said after Thursday’s practice before the Pistons hit the road for a back-to-back weekend set at Memphis and Dallas. “Even when him and Brandon are playing together, we’ll let Rodney initiate different offenses, but the key is now who his matchup is. Instead of going against twos, he’s going against ones and being able to take advantage of that the last couple of games. Rodney is at his best in an attacking nature. Eleven free-throw attempts (in the Phoenix win) is a great reflection of that.”
For Maggette, there’s no doubt where the second unit’s effectiveness starts.
“Rodney Stuckey at the point guard position,” he said. “That’s the biggest difference. I think coach did a great job of moving him into that position where he has the opportunity to get to the foul line. That’s what we did – just change the whole demographic and also bring in Charlie Villanueva, who’s shooting the ball extremely well. That just opens up another dimension for our team.”
“We’re just trying to experiment with the second unit,” Stuckey said. “We’ve made some minor adjustments. Charlie’s coming off the bench and he’s helping us phenomenally. It changes it a lot. Other teams have to respect that he’s a pick-and-pop player. He’s a knock-down 3-point shooter and it opens up the lane so much that it’s ‘pick your poison.’ He really helps us out.”
Villanueva has adopted new workout regimens in the past year, starting last December when an ankle injury flared that cost him half the season. Strength coach Arnie Kander devised a sauna-based workout routine for him that helped him shed weight. Over the summer, Villanueva on his own began taking boxing lessons that further enhanced his conditioning level while also helping with his quickness.
Frank said Thursday that Villanueva’s doggedness in staying ready, awaiting his opportunity, has allowed him to seize it so assertively.
“It’s a true credit to Charlie and other guys – Austin (Daye), Kim (English), Khris (Middleotn) – for staying with it,” he said. “Especially Charlie, as a veteran player who has been able to do things in this league and for him to stay the course. Give a lot of credit to (assistant coach) Charles Klask. Every day he prepared both him and Austin like they are playing big minutes. They go through game plan, scouting reports, watching film and extra conditioning. That’s part of being a professional.”
It makes it easy for teammates who witness the extra work put in by players who become an afterthought at tipoff to root for their success when their time comes.
“Any time a person like that comes in off the bench and can knock down shots like that, it’s always a boost,” Greg Monroe said. “He’s definitely given us a boost since he’s been in the rotation and I hope he continues to play well.”
If Villanueva is the Pistons’ most versatile and naturally gifted scorer, Stuckey might be their most irrepressible. When he’s right, he attacks the paint and puts defenses in scramble mode that can open up scoring opportunities for others – provide Drummond lanes to crash for offensive rebounds, for instance, or Villanueva extra space at the 3-point line, or give Maggette an opening to exploit against a defense in rotation to stop Stuckey.
“Like I’ve always said, he’s always going to be very important to our success,” Monroe said. “He’s always going to be a big part of it. Whenever he plays like he did (against Phoenix), when he’s always attacking and being aggressive, we’re always a better team.”
It’s a constant balancing act, one the Pistons have turned to their favor. Now comes balancing home and road success.
“It’s all state of mind and confidence,” Frank said. “To me, momentum is an everyday thing.”