Camp Questions: Balancing Act

Cheeks’ challenge: spreading shooters out across 1st, 2nd units

Chauncey Billups
(Editor’s note: We’ll count down the seven days until the opening of training camp with a critical question the Pistons will be looking to address during the preseason. Today: Will the Pistons be able to strike a balance between their first and second units?)

The common thread in media assessments of the Pistons’ off-season makeover was skepticism they would have enough perimeter firepower to open things up inside for their tall and talented frontcourt built around Greg Monroe, Andre Drummond and prized free agent Josh Smith.

But the Pistons have a fair number of proven or promising 3-point shooters, including Chauncey Billups, Charlie Villanueva, Brandon Jennings, Kyle Singler and NBA rookies Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Gigi Datome.

The challenge for Maurice Cheeks will be to spread the shooters out among playing combinations so that the Pistons don’t find themselves with imbalanced first and second units. Among the projected starters – assuming Rodney Stuckey wins out at shooting guard – only Jennings has proven himself to be an average or better NBA 3-point shooter.

The Pistons shot .356 from the arc last year, below – but barely – the league average of .359. They ranked only 24th in attempts, but their 17.6 triples a game were merely 1.5 under the league norm. Brandon Knight and Jennings shot very similar percentages – Jennings .375, Knight .367 – with Jennings attempting more triples (a career high 461 to Knight’s 327), nearly six a game by himself.

Josh Smith also set a career high in triples a year ago with 201, nearly double his total from the previous season and a whopping 194 more than he attempted just three seasons ago. Smith’s career-best 3-point percentage of .331 came two seasons ago. He’s a career .283 shooter from the arc.

That pretty much mirrors the career accuracy of Stuckey (.288), who took 182 last season, easily his career high, topping by 78 his total from the previous season (the lockout-shortened, 66-game season), when he shot a career-high .317.

Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe took a total of six triples last year. Don’t expect that to change much.

It stands to reason the starters will play as a unit for the first six to eight minutes of the first and third quarters – probably no more than one-third of a game’s 48 minutes. One way to balance the units would be for Cheeks to take Drummond out first, shifting Monroe to center and Smith to power forward with a shooter like Datome alongside of them. When Drummond returns to start the second quarter while at least one of Monroe and Smith sits, Cheeks could surround him with shooters like Billups, Villanueva and Datome or Singler plus Will Bynum, or perhaps Caldwell-Pope. Jonas Jerebko, another who could play either forward spot, was a .306 3-point shooter a year ago – not quite a stretch four but a competent shooter at that position.

Cheeks might consider using Stuckey off the bench, where he could be featured more as an attacker than he probably can be as a starter. To truly boost the perimeter threat in the starting lineup, though, would require Billups to start, risking overuse for a player who turns 37 tomorrow. Caldwell-Pope would make Cheeks’ decision easy only if he proves the rare rookie ready to consistently knock down triples.

One thing’s for sure: Jennings and Smith, the two headliner additions, will have the ball in their hands early and often, and how efficiently they score – and how judiciously they launch 3-pointers – will go a long way toward determining the size of the challenge Cheeks has in striking the right balance between first and second units. We’ll get to that in Wednesday’s Camp Questions: Will the change of scenery do as much for Jennings and Smith as they expressed confidence it would over the off-season?