Bullock, Hilliard give SVG more to consider in plotting Pistons rotation

Reggie Jackson, Darrun Hilliard
Reggie Bullock and Darrun Hilliard both offer the Pistons something unique off the bench.
Allen Einstein/NBAE/Getty Images
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

One sign of Pistons progress: Stan Van Gundy has relatively few decisions facing him in training camp this season – though he’ll undoubtedly spend just as much time agonizing about them as his first two Pistons preseasons.

His starting five is back intact. The two constants to last year’s bench – sixth man Stanley Johnson and center Aron Baynes – also return. Ish Smith and Jon Leuer were targeted and landed as rotation staples to join Johnson and Baynes in critical bench roles.

No one would bat an eye if Johnson, Baynes, Smith and Leuer aren’t just the first four off the bench when the Pistons open the season at Toronto on Oct. 26 but the only four beyond starters Andre Drummond, Reggie Jackson, Tobias Harris, Marcus Morris and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to play.

Van Gundy ventured into rotations that went past nine deep last season, but always reverted to form eventually. His repeated explanation was that he found it difficult to get his best players enough minutes when using 10 or more.

“It is. That’s a hard thing,” he reiterated earlier this month as he pondered his depth chart and identified one thing above all others for him to sort out in training camp: a rotation and lineup combinations that serve the Pistons best.

“I think the big thing going forward is getting our rotation right,” he said. “I think we’ve got what we need across our roster to have flexibility, but now it’s who plays with who and when do they play and all of that. I think that you’ve got to get that right to get some better balance in terms of offense/defense and better balance between starting lineup/bench. So figuring all that out and figuring out how all of that fits, that’s going to be a challenge – and who else is going to fit into it.”

And that’s where two players – Reggie Bullock and Darrun Hilliard – and potentially a host of decisions come into play.

While it might be tough to argue for Bullock or Hilliard getting minutes at the expense of the players who’d have to sit to give them a path to a regular rotation spot – Caldwell-Pope, Morris or Johnson, foremost – they offer specific skills that might make their unit better.

“Those two guys are good players on the wings that offer us something unique,” Van Gundy said. “Darrun gives us a guy who can make plays off the dribble probably better than anybody on our team other than Reggie Jackson or Ish. He and Stanley would be the two guys, but Darrun’s probably the best of the non-point guards on our roster. And then Reggie Bullock really emerged as our best perimeter shooter. So that’s two things you really need and how do you fit those guys in and which one of ’em plays? How much do you fit them in? But they’ve both got a lot to offer.”

Bullock had a sensational preseason a year ago – Van Gundy said he’d probably been the team’s best player – but then floundered in an early-season run in the rotation. Bullock, given another shot at playing time, made almost half his 3-point attempts after the All-Star break last season – 21 of 43 in 19 appearances – and also endeared himself to Van Gundy for sound defense, very few mental errors or turnovers and quick decisions with the ball that improved offensive flow.

Hilliard had more ups and downs, but then again he was a rookie dealing with long bouts of inactivity for the first time since picking up a basketball. His ability to put the ball on the floor and make plays – and shots – with either hand has the Pistons excited for his potential. He was robbed of showing off his strides in Summer League by a lower back injury expected to sideline him for another two weeks and maybe that gives Bullock the edge going into training camp.

Are there enough minutes to keep at least one of them in the rotation? Caldwell-Pope averaged 37 minutes last season, Morris 36.

“You’d like to get Marcus and KCP down a little bit, but they’re both capable of handling the minutes,” Van Gundy said. “You’re going to do whatever gives you a chance to win, but I think we’ve got enough depth. Hopefully, if we get the improvement from people that we ought to, get them to more reasonable minutes.”

But Van Gundy, at the same time, expects a noticeable jump in Johnson’s level of play as a 20-year-old. That could mean he’s in line for a bump from the 23 minutes he averaged last season. A five-minutes per game hike for Johnson would be offset by three minutes less for Caldwell-Pope and two less for Morris, putting them both at 34 minutes per game.

Even keeping Johnson’s minutes the same while cutting back Caldwell-Pope and Morris to 32 minutes – and it’s a stretch to think they’d drop that much – wouldn’t leave many rotation minutes for either Bullock or Hilliard.

Those are among the decisions Van Gundy faces in his third Pistons training camp. It’s a shorter list than he’s confronted in his first two. They reflect the fact that the Pistons are in a far better place these days. But they’re not going to be easy calls, regardless.

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