Lineup Logic

Cheeks admits the case for change grows as wins prove elusive
Mo Cheeks has considered altering the Pistons lineup, moving Caldwell-Pope to the bench.
Glenn James (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

Mo Cheeks has thought out loud for the past week, admitting that lineup changes are possible. When losses mount – the Pistons have dropped four straight and 11 of 14 since Christmas – Cheeks says the stronger the case becomes to tinker.

He’d probably have done so already but for one critical factor: There’s no obvious change to make.

Check that. The obvious change – the one that Cheeks hinted at broadly last week – is Rodney Stuckey in and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope out. Stuckey, at least until knocked back by knee and shoulder injuries, has been the team’s most consistent offensive force; Caldwell-Pope, a rookie who wasn’t counted on for the type of role he’s assumed, figures to have less trouble accepting a move to the bench than more established teammates.

But “obvious” doesn’t mean “certain to help.”

There was a logic, after all, to bringing Stuckey off the bench. In that role, the thinking went, Stuckey would have the ball in his hands more often and get more frequent opportunities to do what he does best – attack the rim, draw fouls and score.

Put him in the starting lineup and Stuckey shares shots with three other scorers: Brandon Jennings, Greg Monroe and Josh Smith. And who succeeds him as the scorer off the bench? There’s nobody really suited for that role, not with Charlie Villanueva out of the rotation and making less than a quarter of his 3-point shots when he has played.

The other half of the equation is that Caldwell-Pope has turned in his best basketball over the past few weeks. In three of the last five games, he’s led the Pistons in minutes played, topping 40 in each instance. So you have two players, Stuckey and Caldwell-Pope, thriving in their current roles. Why mess with that?

Well, as Cheeks tells it, it’s about what it could do for the team.

“(Caldwell-Pope) and Rodney both (are thriving), that’s why I think it’s a little difficult,” Cheeks said Sunday morning in Dallas, before the Pistons lost 116-106 to the Mavericks. “Ken has played good basketball and Rodney has played good basketball, both in different roles. I don’t necessarily know it’s because of this particular guy, just to give a little boost to the team itself.”

In other words, change is sometimes only for the sake of change. He’s close to that point.

The other avenue for Cheeks: start Kyle Singler and bring one of Andre Drummond, Monroe or Smith off the bench.

The logic is that the Pistons would better balance the floor and give everyone – the two remaining big men plus the shooters and slashers surrounding them – more room to operate.

But Cheeks, without altering the starting lineup, has jiggered his rotation to limit the amount of time the big three spends together with mixed results. When the Pistons have squandered late-game leads, a common theme in a string of recent home-court losses, they’ve invariably done so with one of Drummond, Monroe or Smith on the bench.

In other words, sitting one to start each half is no guarantee of a cure, either.

But Cheeks has all but declared a change is coming simply because, as he’s said, you can’t keep pushing the same buttons when the results keep falling short. The Eastern Conference’s general malaise has allowed the Pistons to remain on the fringe of playoff contention despite their month-long struggle. Cheeks knows he can’t rely on the continued free fall of a long list of teams to keep the bottom from falling out on the Pistons.

They’ll need to play better defense, protect leads more vigilantly and become better decision-makers – symptoms that plague all young teams. To be sure, the one change Cheeks surely would most like to make is beyond his control – adding a few years of experience to players like Drummond, Caldwell-Pope, Monroe and Jennings. Not even a lineup switch can change that. But, he’s hoping, it might help with some of the other issues dogging the Pistons.

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