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Pistons face 'big' dilemma with new-look frontcourt

POSTED: Oct 16, 2013 8:14 AM ET

By Steve Aschburner,


The addition of Josh Smith (left) could force new roles on Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond.

Like Teamsters trying to pile into a Corvette for a boys' night out, it's all about the fit. Two? Sure. Three? No way.

That's the challenge facing the Detroit Pistons as they sift through their frontcourt options and try to find both the lineups and schemes -- the best fit -- for Josh Smith, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond.

In sheer talent and size, few NBA teams can match the Pistons' truly Big 3. They'd win it all, if the league were nothing but walks through airports. But on the court, there are redundancies to address, at the least wrinkles to iron out through the preseason and early schedule and possibly hard decisions to be faced that range from how best to rotate their playing time to which of them might have to be traded.

Pistons Preview: Frontcourt

In a recent Q&A with the Detroit News, new Pistons coach Maurice Cheeks challenged the premise of those who see the team's frontline glass as half-empty simply because it is overly full. Cheeks wasn't conceding anything, given Detroit hadn't even played a tuneup game at the time.

"We have to be on a collective string," he said. "If it means one of those guys sits out and we're winning games, that's what we'll do. If that's the recipe -- I don't know if that's the recipe, but if it is -- one of them will have to sit.

"The only thing about that, those guys are young. It's hard to tell a 20-year-old [Drummond], 23-year-old [Monroe] or 27-year-old [Smith], one of you have to sit down. [At] 35? They'll sit down with no problem. That's the hardest part, that's my job. I have to figure that out."

The dilemma stems from overlaps in their size, in their skills and in their experiences. Drummond, the Pistons' second-year, man-child center, is set in the middle, as far as where he'll play. But questions of how much and alongside whom still haven't been answered.

Monroe, 6-foot-11 and 250 pounds, is capable of manning either the center or power forward spot, but for Pistons president Joe Dumars' plan to work and Monroe and Drummond to be on the floor together (a rarity in 2012-13), the Georgetown product has to dwell mostly at forward, facing the basket, while his buddy bangs down low.

Then there's Smith, the pricey (four years, $56 million) summer acquisition who sees himself as a franchise player capable, in his own mind, of handling any of five positions. At 6-foot-9 and 225 pounds, along with his portfolio of video clips and career achievements, Smith clearly is the most mobile and versatile of the three. But that doesn't necessarily mean he's a legitimate small forward.

"I can't see that consistently," one longtime Eastern Conference scout said. "Guys will drive by Josh but he's so fast, he can recover and come back to swipe the ball. But it's his jump shot. You want him shooting from outside? Coaches tell him, 'The ball is finding you out there for a reason.' "

Pistons Preview: Brandon Jennings

Opponents who can't match Smith's physical tools or talent have delighted through the years in his overestimation of his perimeter game. They send his defenders under screens and, if they leave him at all, they leave him outside, tempting him to launch the shots that hurt them the least. Smith last season made barely 30 percent of his mid-range jump shots, and with his wing status validated by the Detroit crowd up front, that's like flashing a green light to a dragster missing one wheel.

Truth be told, Smith's best position is power forward, unless he's teamed up with a so-called "stretch 4" whose court location would open space for Smith to post up near the paint. But since the Pistons have too much invested in their big bodies and aren't adding Dirk Nowitzki, Ryan Anderson or even Steve Novak anytime soon, the best alignment for the frontcourt guys might be to rotate them, using one off the bench the way Atlanta presumably will now with Al Horford, Paul Millsap and Elton Brand.

For a sense of how the current trio might happily co-exist, or even dominate, we checked in with Tayshaun Prince, the former Detroit small forward who was traded to Memphis last January after 10-plus Pistons seasons. Prince knows all three, their personalities and their games, better than most. He's not as discouraged by the prospect of using them in a trio rather than an ever-rotating tag team.

"Obviously Greg is going to have to be quicker on his feet, as far as [defending] pick-and-pop 4's," Prince said after a Grizzlies-Bulls preseason game. "His advantage is against the 5's because he's quicker and he has a great first step. If it's a 4 guarding him, it will be a little tougher, but he has a great basketball IQ and knows how to play the game, so it doesn't really matter. He's great at making adjustments on who's guarding him.

"Josh's abilities, at his best, are at the 4 because of the mismatch problem. If he's at the 3, I think he'll post up a lot more, having smaller guys on him. But it will be sort of a disadvantage, because he's been at the 4 so long in Atlanta and it gives him the ability to help off and get steals, stuff like that. When he's guarding the 3 and the guy's a shooter, you've got to stay home -- there ain't no going for blocked shots [in help defense] or they'll pick you apart."

Pistons Preview: Best/Worst Case Scenario

As for Drummond? "Sky's the limit," Prince said. "He just needs more experience. He's got a big body, so he should be able to create some space and get some easy opportunities. He's a great rebounder, he has great hands and he can run the floor like he's 220 pounds."

It's typical, probably, that sports fans and media want to anticipate, even predict, what can and what cannot happen in a proposed situation. But that doesn't factor in some creativity from Cheeks and his staff, or the resourcefulness and commitment -- assuming it's there -- of the three guys themselves.

All of the hand-wringing about trading Monroe now rather than later, that can wait.

"There's pluses and negatives to everything," Prince said. "I'm pretty sure one way or the other, they'll figure it out. I think whatever suits them best, when they figure it out 15 or 20 games into the season, then they'll make the necessary adjustments."

That is to say, why panic now when there's plenty of time to panic later.

Three points

1. Rodney Stuckey once was the Pistons' future, a backcourt player who was supposed to make Chauncey Billups expendable. Yeah, and Darko Milicic was the next Arvydas Sabonis, too. Now Billups is back and might be around long after Stuckey exits. Stuckey's development stalled, and now he and Charlie Villanueva loom as trade possibilities to teams enticed by their expiring contracts.

2. Brandon Jennings was boasting even before camp opened that he has big men in Detroit who are more capable offensively, with better hands to catch the ball, than those with whom he played in Milwaukee. That prompted Bucks center Larry Sanders to fire back, "He has to pass the ball first." The onus is on Jennings, a score-first type who never embraced his true point guard self with the Bucks, to sacrifice and impose some order on the Pistons' talent.

3. Detroit's backcourt mostly is a collection of point guards, and first-round pick Kentavious Caldwell-Pope will be given every opportunity to claim the shooting guard spot. Whether he can hold his own defensively against some of the NBA's most dangerous scorers, while attending to his own perimeter shooting, will dictate the outcome.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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