One Healthy Return

With Billups back, Singler & Jerebko slide to normal rotation spots

Kyle Singler
Chauncey Billups' return will affect other players in the Pistons' lineup like Kyle Singler.
David Liam Kyle/NBAE/Getty Images
The Pistons are still figuring out exactly what role Chauncey Billups will play this year. Does he start or come off the bench? Will he function as the point guard or play off the ball next to Brandon Jennings or Will Bynum?

And while those aren’t trifling decisions, in a larger sense they won’t really affect the substance of what Billups will provide. He’ll be the guiding force in how the team harmonizes away from the basketball court and he’ll provide a sense of order for them whenever and however he’s used over the course of 48 minutes.

But his return to action Thursday night at Cleveland – after taking three games off as he sets his own path during his 17th NBA preseason – had one subtle yet important effect on how Maurice Cheeks employed the players expected to fill out the rest of his rotation.

With Billups back to join Bynum and rookies Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Peyton Siva, the Pistons didn’t have to borrow from their frontcourt to fill out their backcourt. That meant Kyle Singler spent all of his 26 minutes in Cleveland at small forward, his natural position, and Jonas Jerebko all of his 14 minutes at power forward, where the Pistons expect he’ll line up this season.

“That’s the reason I did the rotation the way I did,” Cheeks said. “I was trying to get guys in the positions they’re going to be at. A three, let him play a three. That’s what I tried to do tonight – get that kind of rotation going with guys who may be in those spots.”

The Pistons still don’t know what to expect from Gigi Datome, who has yet to play a preseason game or practice since incurring a hamstring strain on Oct. 5 during the team’s open practice at The Palace. When he’s healthy, Datome will bid for some of the approximately 30 minutes likely available at small forward when starter Josh Smith either sits or shifts to power forward to rest one of Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe.

But the Pistons can get by, if they must, with Singler absorbing all of those 30 minutes. He proved as a rookie that he’s capable of soaking up starter’s minutes and Cheeks made it known early that “Kyle’s going to be on the floor.

Cheeks isn’t ready to declare anything definitive about his starting lineup or his rotation, but appearances at least suggest that Jerebko is ahead of Charlie Villanueva, who didn’t play in Cleveland, in the battle for what could be about 15 minutes a game as the fourth big man in the rotation.

The absences of Stuckey and Jennings, both of whom played only in the preseason opener, have effectively pushed back Cheeks’ ability to determine his most effective lineups into the regular season. The absence of Jennings, out while his jaw is immobilized until early November to allow a hairline fracture at the base of an impacted wisdom tooth to heal, is especially problematic given his position and newcomer status.

“Brandon’s absence is a little different because getting to play with Andre and Greg and Josh for the first time, I thought it was pretty critical to get those guys out on the court,” Cheeks said. “I wasn’t going to use it like preseason where you play guys here, play guys there and rest guys here. I wasn’t going to do that. I was going to let those guys get used to playing with each other and now that he’s out, it throws a monkey wrench in there.”

Billups’ savvy will be more valuable than the Pistons might have imagined when they signed him as they lean on him to bridge the gap until Jennings and Stuckey are full go, though they’ll have to walk a tightrope with regard to cautiously meting out minutes to a 37-year-old veteran. In the meantime, Cheeks adopts the mentality of all NBA coaches with regard to planning.

“I don’t know when (Jennings and Stuckey) are going to be there,” he said. “Old school – use what you got and go from there.”