AUBURN HILLS – There’s an art to being an efficient offensive player within a system that doesn’t present you with many chances. It’s one 95 percent of players would do well to master since those who have offenses designed for them are rare and generally earn eight-figure incomes.
Reggie Bullock is a shining example of one who’s figured it out. Luke Kennard is showing similar signs.
“For all our guys, that’s something they have to get used to because we’re really not running plays targeted to people,” Stan Van Gundy said. “It’s basically movement and there’s options for everybody. The guys who can find their way in an offense and move without the ball and read defenses and things like that, to me it’s right up Luke’s alley. He’s a smart guy who sees the game. I think it should be very, very good for him.”
It was good for both Bullock and Kennard in their most recent game, a 93-79 win over San Antonio in which the absences of both Avery Bradley and Stanley Johnson created a minutes and opportunity vacuum. Both players – each of whom has been out of the rotation at various points this season – filled it robustly, establishing new career highs in points, Bullock with 22 and Kennard with 20.
Bullock excels at some of the things that figure to evolve into strengths for Kennard, off-the-ball movement foremost but also ball movement, quick decision making, gravitating to favorable shooting positions and firing with a hair trigger.
“He’s one of the guys, he’s really locked in,” Kennard said. “He knows where to be. He knows exactly the right cuts and he makes some easy baskets like that. He runs the floor. He just plays with a great pace and when you play with a great pace, good things can happen. Yeah, I’ve definitely picked that up from him.”
Bullock began the season serving a five-game suspension, then replaced Kennard in the rotation upon his return. But Bullock struggled in the area that made him the 25th pick in the 2013 draft – his 3-point shot. He went 3 of 16 over eight games and then fell out of the rotation when Johnson returned from a three-game absence that elevated Bullock to the starting lineup.
Over an 11-game span, Bullock played just twice. During the Pistons seven-game losing streak when their offense plummeted from No. 7 in the NBA to No. 30 over the seven losses, Van Gundy went back to Bullock for his ability to get things moving.
“We’re 9 and 2 with him starting,” Van Gundy said. “It’s been pretty clear – the more he’s played, the better we’ve been.”
Bradley is trending toward a Wednesday return at Miami after missing the past seven games. Johnson could also be back then after sitting out Saturday with a strained hip flexor. There’s certainly not room for all five of Van Gundy’s wings – Bradley, Johnson, Bullock, Kennard and Langston Galloway – in the rotation, though with Reggie Jackson also sidelined by injury Galloway is an option behind Ish Smith at point guard along with two-way player Dwight Buycks.
But Bullock isn’t going anywhere. He’ll start at small forward most games and come off the bench against teams that start with bigger lineups when Van Gundy counters with Anthony Tolliver at power forward to push Tobias Harris to small forward.
“Reggie Bullocks’ going to be in there every night, for now, anyway,” Van Gundy said. “He’s playing really, really well.”
Bullock is flourishing for a confluence of reasons. He’s in his fifth NBA season and he’s a student of the game who continues to improve. He’s in an offense that plays to his strengths with Van Gundy’s off-season lean toward more motion and less isolation. And he’s a fan of the way Van Gundy has handled him.
“This is probably the freest I’ve ever played since I’ve been playing basketball in the league,” he said. “ Just knowing that Coach believes in me, my teammates believe in me and just believing in my skill, too, to defend, run the lane, rebound, shoot threes. I’m just trying to do it all to help my team.”
“It’s easy to believe in Bullock right now,” Van Gundy said. “Sometimes he’s had more opportunities than others, but when he’s played our team has generally played better. The things he does help a team play well. He’s just one of those guys. He moves without the ball, he’s unselfish, he makes very few mistakes, he’s a really low-turnover guy. This year I think he’s given a better defensive effort. He’s never been a bad defender, but he’s never been a guy to really get up into the ball and play. He’s doing more of that.
“He knows this is a critical year in his career. I think he’s playing with more focus, knowing he has to come out every night and prove where he is. And now he’s got a very significant role on a team that can contend to be in the playoffs and hopefully do something. He’s taken advantage of the opportunity.”
When the Pistons re-signed Bullock last summer, they got him on a two-year deal at a reported $2.5 million a season – a major bargain for any veteran with a rotation spot. Next season isn’t guaranteed, but it’ll be an easy decision for the Pistons to pick up Bullock’s option at his current level of contribution.
“That contract’s pretty damn good,” Van Gundy said.
And Kennard’s on a rookie deal for the next three-plus seasons, giving the Pistons two smart, efficient players on value deals. Kennard’s feel for the game is one reason the expectation is that games like Saturday’s will come more frequently over the second half of the season.
“I’m always looking for ways to get better, to learn and that’s how I’ve taken this year,” he said. “I’ve had a mindset where I’m just trying to make an impact and learn at the same time.”