Frontcourt Fit

Pistons big 3 learning how to make it work while backcourt mends

Josh Smith and Greg Monroe
The Pistons' frontcourt will have to shoulder a load with an injury-impacted roster.
David Liam Kyle (NBAE/Getty)
The Pistons might not get Rodney Stuckey back in time for Wednesday’s season opener, but they know it won’t be long before he’s in the lineup. Brandon Jennings should follow in short order, hopefully before the first week of November closes.

The Pistons knew from the moment they signed Josh Smith last July that the frontcourt of Smith, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond would be their bedrock. Until their backcourt is fully reloaded, the Pistons will lean on those three even more than they anticipated.

They got a taste of it in Thursday’s preseason finale, when Maurice Cheeks extended the minutes of the frontcourt starters to fully approximate the regular season with Drummond playing 38 minutes, Smith 34 and Monroe 33. They combined for 48 points and 31 rebounds, but more than the raw numbers they’ll produce, their success will be determined by how efficiently the Pistons’ offense functions with them on the floor simultaneously.

Not surprisingly, they like their chances of figuring it out.

“We got a good feel of how we play with each other,” Smith said. “The chemistry is there. We’ve just got to keep working on it. Everybody’s talking about how we’re going to play together; I think we’re going to be pretty good.”

Based on Cheeks’ preseason substitution pattern, Monroe and Smith will be logging most of their minutes side by side. Drummond will come out of games first, usually about seven or eight minutes into each half, while Monroe and Smith usually will finish out the first and third quarters. That allows Drummond to re-enter to start the second and fourth quarters with a second unit spearheaded by Will Bynum at point guard. Getting Bynum comfortable in that role probably explains why Cheeks started rookie Peyton Siva, unlikely to be in the rotation when everyone’s healthy, over the final few preseason games.

The biggest question outsiders have is whether the Pistons can generate enough perimeter scoring to give their frontcourt scorers room to operate. As a small forward, for instance, which Smith will play when he’s out with the starters, he’ll have a size and physicality edge in most matchups. But can the Pistons make that play to their advantage by posting Smith up if the opposition can afford to let Monroe and Drummond’s defenders crowd the paint without fear of their man making them pay by hitting the open jump shots their help defense might create?

One effective countering tactic rests in the interior passing ability of Smith and Monroe, who combined to average nearly eight assists a game last season. Midway through the fourth quarter of Thursday’s win over Minnesota, Smith squeezed a pass through a tight window to find Monroe for a layup that put the Pistons ahead by a point.

“I never had concerns,” Smith said. “It was more so the media that was scratching their head about it, but we knew we could make it work. With a little work and a little practice, I’m a really good jump shooter and I can space the floor really well. And Moose can knock down that elbow jump shot and Drummond is just all over the place being active, so it kind of works. All three of us have different games.”

“It’s coming together fine,” Monroe said. “We still have some spacing to work out, but I think it’s moving along fine for the time we’ve been all together. As the season progresses, we’ll only get better at it. I don’t think it’s a problem at all. I think we’ve learned pretty well.”

Drummond banged the same drum, saying, “The biggest thing we’ve learned with each other is spacing. Josh can post up and shoot the ball, but some of that is going to be a little limited for Josh because he knows me and Greg are in there, as well, so he’s working on his jump shot every day, too. Greg’s been working on his shot, as well. We’ve learned to space the floor really well with each other. We’re starting to look good.”