Decisions, Decisions

On eve of Pistons opener, Cheeks still mulling lineup, rotation choices

Maurice Cheeks
Cheeks has tough roster decisions to make before his first game as Pistons head coach
Nathaniel S. Butler (NBAE/Getty)

If you’ve ever put together a jigsaw puzzle, you know the frustration of getting close to finishing only to discover a few missing pieces. Now imagine putting it together without an idea of what the finished product looks like.

Maurice Cheeks had a few months to contemplate how he would utilize eight new pieces handed to him by Joe Dumars, but the NBA demands the puzzle be completed by 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and he’s still scrambling to figure out what form the completed picture should take.

What’s certain is that Josh Smith, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond will start in the frontcourt. Drummond will be the first to come out of the game, probably with about four minutes left in the first and third quarters. He’ll likely be replaced by Kyle Singler, nudging Smith to power forward and Monroe to center.

Unless Singler starts at shooting guard, one of the options Cheeks probably never imagined until recently.

For as long as Cheeks is without Brandon Jennings, who’ll probably miss at least the first week and four games with his broken jaw still wired shut, and Rodney Stuckey, who will likely miss at least the opener with a broken right thumb, he’ll have to cobble together a backcourt rotation.

“I’m going on as if he’s not playing tomorrow,” Cheeks said of Stuckey, who is still sporting a plastic protective device over the tip of his thumb and has yet to compete in five-on-five scrimmages. “I think that’s the best way to do it. Then, if he’s ready to play, we’ll go from there.”

It’s clear Cheeks would prefer to bring Will Bynum off the bench, either late in the first and third quarters or early in the second and fourth, where he’ll get to spend nearly all of his playing time paired with Drummond – with whom he developed exquisite pick-and-roll chemistry a season ago – and surrounded by shooters like Chauncey Billups, Gigi Datome and Charlie Villanueva.

He might not have that luxury, though. It would be a tall order to insert rookie Peyton Siva into the starting lineup to go against Washington’s John Wall, though Bynum and Cheeks both said Siva and fellow rookie Kentavious Caldwell-Pope earned their trust in the preseason.

“I’m not afraid,” Cheeks said of the prospect of playing the rookies. “I thought the preseason gave these guys a lot of valuable experience to be able to go out on the court and let me know they can play in an NBA game. I don’t have reservations if I need to put either one of them in the game.”

“If you didn’t trust them, they wouldn’t be in the NBA,” Bynum said. “They’re in the NBA because they’re one of the best players in the world. The NBA is about opportunity. Now there’s an opportunity for a lot of guys and they’ve got to step up and get the job done.”

So the backcourt Cheeks likely envisioned for his second unit, Bynum and Billups, is now odds-on favorites to start, and the shooters at forward, Datome and Villanueva, might not be in the rotation. Datome didn’t play a second in the preseason while rehabilitating hamstring and foot injuries, and Villanueva shot 21 percent from the 3-point arc during the preseason.

Datome, at least, returned to practice on Monday and, by all accounts, has looked impressive.

“Gigi can shoot the hell out of the ball,” Bynum said. “I didn’t know he could shoot it like the way he’s shooting it. I knew he could shoot, but not like that.” Bynum’s eyes twinkle at the thought of what might be with Drummond setting picks and Datome spotting up.

“He’ll probably be on that same side with us and that’ll make it that much more dangerous,” he said. “Gigi’s ready to play.”

“He’s been good,” Monroe said of Datome. “Getting up and down. It looks like he’s moving fine. The shot is there. He made a lot of shots. He’s definitely going to add another shooter if he’s in the rotation.”

Mo Cheeks was always good at last-second decisions when the ball was in his hands and the clock was winding down. He’s got a considerable list of last-second decisions on his plate with the clock ticking on Pistons opening night.