Closing Time

Starting 5 one issue, but who finishes games might be more pressing for Pistons

Greg Monroe
The Pistons will have to decide who finishes games for them this upcoming season.
Allen Einstein/NBAE/Getty Images
Put aside the very few elite teams in the NBA and discard another handful guaranteed to be seated on the lottery dais next May and that leaves a vast middle class whose fates hinge on the resolution of all those games that come down to the last five minutes.

The Pistons figure to be in a lot more of that type of game this season than they’ve been in the last three or four years. And so for all of the Pistons Mailbag questions I’m getting on the identity of the starting lineup – and check in tomorrow, because there’s a bunch of them – here’s what I’m more curious about: Which group of five players will emerge over time to win the trust of Maurice Cheeks as the unit that deserves to close out those games that will determine success or failure in 2013-14?

Let’s start with this: Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings were very strong contenders for the 2013 All-Star game and they’re 27 and 23. Their best basketball is still ahead of them. That’s even more true for Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond, who could stamp themselves as All-Star candidates as soon as this season. It’s safe to say they’re four of the team’s five best players and it would be an upset if Mason isn’t bellowing their names as starters on opening night, Oct. 30, against Washington.

But is there room for all four in the lineup at the end of games? More to the point, can the Pistons play an oversized frontcourt of Smith, Monroe and Drummond in the last five minutes when the growing trend is to play your best players on the floor – with the catch being that for most teams, the Pistons the aberration in that respect, the five best players usually include four perimeter players?

Let’s use the extreme example: Miami. The Heat are likely to finish games with Chris Bosh at center and LeBron James at power forward. Lawrence Frank called it a game of chicken. Who blinks first? The presence of Smith gives the Pistons a real weapon to use against James, but if Smith is in the lineup with Drummond and Monroe, then that means Monroe is going to have to guard someone like Shane Battier.

And even if that’s the extreme example, it won’t be a unique scenario. The Knicks will finish games with Carmelo Anthony at power forward. Houston will do so with Chandler Parsons. The Pacers might do so with Paul George, the Thunder with Kevin Durant, the Nets with Paul Pierce, the Warriors with Harrison Barnes. At some point, the Pistons are going to get a heavy dose of small ball that will force them to stretch their boundaries.

Monroe got a taste of it last month in Las Vegas at USA Basketball’s minicamp, guarding the likes of Barnes, and acquitted himself well. But if the Pistons make it a staple of their late-game strategy, he’ll be tested and game-planned in ways he’s yet to experience.

The roster has churned by more than 50 percent this off-season, eight new faces among the 15 expected to comprise the 2013-14 Pistons. At least two, and perhaps three, new faces will be in the starting lineup. As many as six newcomers – Smith, Jennings, Chauncey Billups, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Gigi Datome and Josh Harrellson – could find themselves in the rotation. The coaching staff is new, as well. Cheeks has no history with anyone on the roster. So the rotation, and the myriad player combinations possible within it, is going to be a work in progress.

Chances are, it won’t be finalized by training camp and eight preseason games. It could take weeks to find the ideal complementary mixes. It could take months. The challenge will be to win games even as the experimentation unfolds.

Maybe there’ll be no definitive “closing five” established. It’s conceivable that the Pistons’ perceived depth manifests itself in enough players winning Cheeks’ confidence that he’ll mix and match as the opposition dictates, though coaches need compelling proof of any unit’s cumulative effectiveness to justify the exclusion of his best players with a game on the line.

Some of the Pistons’ best moments last year, you’ll recall, came with a backup unit of Drummond, Austin Daye, Charlie Villanueva and Bynum out with Rodney Stuckey or Kyle Singler. For a month when they were at their best, Frank frequently let them finish games.

But the talent level is up now. Four potential All-Star candidates give the Pistons their most identifiable core since the dying days of the Goin’ to Work Pistons era. We’re pretty sure that Greg Monroe, Andre Drummond, Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings will be in the starting lineup. It might take a little time before Maurice Cheeks can be as decisive about his best closing lineup.