All the pieces he needs – now SVG plots best ways to use Pistons bench

Ish Smith is the catalyst for a second unit with a full array of skills as Stan Van Gundy figures out the best way to use a deep Pistons bench.
Fernando Medina (NBAE/Getty)

NEW YORK – Within his nine-man bench, Stan Van Gundy possesses a virtual Swiss Army Knife. Every part has a purpose, every player a specific role. And sometimes it takes a minute to figure out how to put some of them to best use.

“It’s certainly taking me time,” Van Gundy said before the Pistons third game, a win at New York in which Van Gundy used a vastly different second-half rotation than he did in the first half, when the Pistons dug themselves a 21-point hole before coming back to win 111-107.

“I’m not so sure it should, but it is. It’s taking me time to figure it out. We’ll just keep going at it every night and trying to learn guys and learn our unit as we go. Hopefully, I’ll make better decisions as time goes on.”

Van Gundy used Eric Moreland to back up Andre Drummond in the first two games, then went to Boban Marjanovic against the Knicks in the first half before settling on Jon Leuer for the second-half rally.

Henry Ellenson was the top backup at power forward in the season-opening win at Charlotte, but Leuer played that role at Washington. Ellenson got first crack behind Tobias Harris at New York, then Leuer and finally Anthony Tolliver, whose contributions helped change the dynamic of the game.

Harris swung to small forward to give Stanley Johnson brief rest during his 40-minute outing in the opener, but rookie Luke Kennard got the call in that role at Washington. Langston Galloway was Avery Bradley’s replacement at shooting guard for the first two games, but sat out at New York – Van Gundy thought he looked tired at Washington as Galloway works his way back to peak conditioning levels off of a late-summer knee injury – while Kennard backed Bradley.

Reggie Bullock has yet to appear as he completes his five-game NBA suspension, but he’ll further complicate the equation at small forward and shooting guard when he returns Saturday at the Los Angeles Clippers.

The only position where the same pattern has held for all three games is point guard, where Reggie Jackson starts and finishes and Ish Smith fills in for every minute Jackson sits.

While Van Gundy beats himself up to pull the right levers, he’s enthused about the possibilities of a bench with plenty of shooting and young players with their best basketball ahead of them.

“There’s definitely good potential there,” he said. “I’ve just got to figure out the best way to use those guys. I don’t think there’s any doubt there’s good potential on our second unit.”

Smith is the constant, a point guard who’ll push the pace and punch holes in a defense with his quickness and feel for pick-and-roll angles. Leuer is another every-night staple, a versatile defender valued by Van Gundy for the subtle ways he helps the offense function and a good transition player, as well.

Newcomers Tolliver and Galloway plus holdover Bullock, who missed a big chunk of last season while recovering from knee surgery, provide outside shooting punch last year’s Pistons lacked.

Ellenson and Kennard add even more shooting plus another dimension – playmaking off the dribble at positions other than point guard, an increasingly coveted commodity.

Marjanovic and Moreland are a yin and yang combination at center: Marjanovic a scoring and rebounding machine with defensive limitations in an era of relentless pick-and-roll attacks; Moreland a nimble defender who won’t score much but caught Van Gundy’s eye for his passing and offensive rebounding skills.

“We’ve got a bunch of professionals,” Jackson said. “You’ve got guys like A.T. – you can go up and down the line. It’s a deep team and we continue to find a way to come out and fight and get the best out of each and every guy.”

Van Gundy knows it’s not easy for players to thrive without a defined role, perhaps more difficult still for young players like Ellenson and Kennard. That’s why Tolliver’s example of readiness and how that figures to affect his less experienced teammates was so appreciated in the glow of the win at New York.

“I think as long as guys are willing to accept their roles and continue to adjust,” Tolliver said of the key to this group realizing its promise. “Especially as role players. Sometimes I’m going to play, sometimes I’m not. I just have to accept that. As a competitor, I want to play every game and every night. But sometimes matchups are better maybe for other guys. So if we can have everybody on the same page and do like Stan said, I think we have a chance to be a really, really good team.”