5 Guards, 4 Spots

Stuckey draws high praise from Cheeks for his defensive showing

Will Bynum and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
Bynum and Caldwell-Pope
Allen Einstein (NBAE/Getty)

The Pistons have five guards, each offering Maurice Cheeks something a little different, for four spots in his rotation. That means somebody from the group of Brandon Jennings, Chauncey Billups, Rodney Stuckey, Will Bynum and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is destined to be on the outside looking in.

“You can’t,” Cheeks said of squeezing all five into the rotation. “How can you do it? I don’t think you can do it. It wouldn’t be fair to the guys that are playing.”

Jennings is the likely starter at point guard and Billups offers shooting and game management hard to replace. It might not be conclusive of anything that they lined up as the starters in Tuesday’s preseason opener, but neither should it be dismissed. They’re the two surest to include in Cheeks’ four-guard rotation.

You can pretty much move Rodney Stuckey into the same category, based on Cheeks’ unsolicited praise of him after Wednesday’s practice.

“All I can say is that Stuckey has been … concepts, the way he’s played, has been very good,” Cheeks said. “Very conscientious of the things we’ve been doing. It would be easy for me to say that he’s probably been the best defensively, in terms of knowing where to be, what to do. Defensively, he’s been very good.”

Befitting of a player recognized as one of the premier defenders of his era, Cheeks will weight defensive value appropriately in doling out minutes and rotation spots. He wants his guards to pressure for 94 feet. He’ll encourage his perimeter defenders to play aggressively, but short of recklessly, in creating turnovers.

“You’ve got to be up the floor,” he said. “I want to take time off the clock defensively. I don’t expect Chauncey to do it, but I expect everyone else to be up the floor, take some time off the clock. Not to get beat, not to steal the ball, but to be up the floor and take some time off the shot clock so they’re not just running freely. I don’t like guys to bring the ball up and run freely and run the offense the way they want to run it.”

Even demanding full-court pressure and its accompanying fatigue doesn’t sway Cheeks to believe there’s room for all five guards. He scoffs at the notion that players will go harder in shorter bursts and volunteer to exit the game for a breather.

“They say when you get tired, raise your hand. You’ll go back in. No, that’s not true,” he said. “If a guy’s doing well, you leave him in the game. I just feel guards should always be up the floor and then other players will be up the floor, as well. If you drop back over half-court, then they drop back. Even guards that cannot defend as well, I always say, you may get a turnover just being up there, by accident, and you never will get one being back here by accident.”

Jennings had five of Detroit’s 14 steals in the 91-69 win over Maccabi Haifa on Tuesday. A better barometer will come Thursday when Miami – accustomed to doing to others what the Pistons did to their Israeli guests Tuesday – comes to The Palace. Cheeks’ perimeter defenders no doubt will feel a little more at liberty to take prudent chances this season with the presence of Andre Drummond and Josh Smith, both elite shot-blockers and active athletes, on the back line.

“I like to create steals in the open court,” Cheeks said. “Get out, get some deflections. But if you don’t get ’em, you can put your big guys in a lot of trouble. I’m not opposed to perimeter guys being a little aggressive defensively as long as we do it in a smart way. I don’t want to always think my big guys back there can cover up a lot of sins on the perimeter.”

If the final rotation spot indeed comes down to Bynum and Caldwell-Pope, their minutes in preseason will be precious. Bynum missed Tuesday’s game after suffering a minor hip injury in Monday’s practice, but went through Wednesday’s practice and should be ready for Miami. Caldwell-Pope had an uneven debut. In 25 minutes, he shot 1 of 12 and missed all six of his 3-point attempts, yet was active with seven rebounds, two steals and a highlight-reel blocked shot.

The second unit struggled to get good shots and made just 12 of 48 without Bynum. And Cheeks supported bringing him back in free agency, plugging Bynum’s ability to be a defensive nuisance over 94 feet. But Cheeks has also praised Caldwell-Pope for his poise and defensive tenacity since camp opened. At 6-foot-6, he brings length no one else can offer. And, despite the wobbly shooting debut, he’s a legitimate 3-point threat. Their chase of what appears to be the final guard slot in Cheeks’ rotation will be something to watch over the final three weeks of preseason.

The two other injured Pistons, Peyton Siva (calf) and Gigi Datome (hamstring) went through rehabilitation off the court with Arnie Kander on Wednesday, Cheeks said.

An FYI: With both the Tigers and Red Wings playing Thursday night, the Miami radio broadcast will be available on WWJ-AM 950.