Battles Deferred

Pistons injuries push Cheeks’ rotation decisions off to regular season

Sometime between 90 and 120 minutes before tipoff of every NBA game, head coaches are obligated to meet with reporters. In smaller markets where the home team is scantily covered, those sessions usually don’t amount to much. In media-saturated markets – New York, Chicago, Boston, Washington, Los Angeles – they take on a different tone.

That’s where many writers assigned not to a single team but to the league at large call home base. And so when Maurice Cheeks met the media before Wednesday night’s game at Chicago, there was a fair amount of national NBA writers swooping in to take the temperature of a Pistons team that offers compelling new storylines – Andre Drummond’s ascension, the free-agent additions of Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings, and, of course, how Drummond, Smith and Greg Monroe will manage to simultaneously thrive in an oversized frontcourt.

Somebody asked Cheeks about the training camp battle at shooting guard – the only starting position seemingly up for grabs, when everyone’s healthy.

But “when everyone’s healthy” doesn’t apply to the Pistons right now. Within minutes of each other a week ago, Rodney Stuckey slammed his thumb in a car door and Brandon Jennings heard from an oral surgeon that there was a very real reason for the tooth pain he was experiencing – an impacted wisdom tooth and a hairline fracture of the jaw at the base of that tooth.

“It hasn’t really been a battle,” Cheeks said. “Guys got hurt.”

Chauncey Billups told me last week that the Pistons’ playoff chase starts on opening night. They don’t have the margin for error, he said, to take half the season to figure out all their moving parts.

And with eight new players in the mix, the reality is that it’s likely to take some time for Cheeks to strike the right balance with this roster. There are plenty of teams – the ones with firmly established identities – that can use training camp for nothing more than fine tuning. Miami and San Antonio are the shining examples. Chicago, now that Derrick Rose is back, fits. Even Brooklyn, infused with major new building blocks, will figure it out sooner rather than later because the newcomers are Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, who’ve seen everything there is to see.

If Billups’ were the Pistons’ major addition, there’d be few worries. He’s sat out three of the four preseason games, but nobody doubts that Mr. Big Shot is savvy enough to learn as much about how he’ll fit by watching from the bench than he would have by playing. Trouble is, what he’s watching isn’t what he’ll experience once Jennings and Stuckey and Italian sharp-shooter Gigi Datome, out nearly two weeks with a hamstring strain, are good to go.

The ripple effects have delayed or impaired Cheeks’ decision-making process at other positions that go far beyond the training camp battle that never was at shooting guard. Kyle Singler has played almost all of his minutes at guard, not at small forward, where he was supposed to compete with Datome for the primary backup spot behind Smith. There could well be room for both Singler and Datome at small forward, since Smith probably will play there for no more than 16 or 18 minutes a game, the rest of his time spent at power forward. But the chance to learn about Datome in low-stakes preseason games and what lineups work best with him as opposed to Singler has been lost.

Jonas Jerebko, in turn, has played mostly at small forward in the absence of Datome and the move of Singler to guard, meaning his expected head-to-head battle with Charlie Villanueva for backup minutes at power forward also has been skewed.

The Pistons need to hit the ground running, too. They open the season by hosting Washington, a team that ended last season hot and expects to vie for one of the final three or four playoff spots in the East, a team many see as similar in expectations to the Pistons. Then they go to Memphis, a top-four team in the West of late, and get title contenders Indiana and Oklahoma City the following week.

If all goes well, Stuckey and Jennings will have returned and perhaps Datome, as well, somewhere along that time line. Then the battles Maurice Cheeks expected to be waged in training camp can commence at a time when the consequences of experimentation can be harsh.