(Editor’s note: The Pistons open training camp next week with a roster consisting entirely of players acquired within the past 12 months since Troy Weaver was named general manager in June 2020. They’ll be one of the NBA’s youngest teams again and development will be the driving force of their season. Pistons.com today continues a four-part series examining the leading agenda items to begin getting sorted out in training camp ahead of the 2021-22 NBA season. In Part II, we’ll look at the rotation possibilities and decisions facing Dwane Casey.)
There was a time when NBA training camp was primarily about two things: getting in shape to play the season ahead and figuring out who would actually make the team. Now it’s rare when there are real roster battles – most teams go to camp with fully guaranteed contracts already having determined the roster – and players are expected to be in game shape on day one.
Today’s training camp is mostly about figuring out roles and identifying the back end of the rotation. Given that the Pistons again will be an extraordinarily young team – 12 players 24 or younger among the 17 on the known camp roster – there might be a little more uncertainty to it than exists in most of the NBA’s 29 other camps.
But even at that, it’s pretty much a lock that six players, if healthy, will be on the floor at some point in the first quarter on Oct. 20 when the Pistons host Chicago to open the regular season: Olympic gold medalist Jerami Grant; 2020 first-round picks Killian Hayes, Isaiah Stewart and Saddiq Bey; 2021 No. 1 overall pick Cade Cunningham; and Kelly Olynyk, the significant free-agent addition.
After that, another three players count as good bets to be a part of the rotation: Josh Jackson, Hamidou Diallo and Cory Joseph. Frank Jackson’s strong finish to the 2020-21 season give him a solid chance to join that group with a strong preseason. Beyond them, Trey Lyles, Saben Lee, Rodney McGruder and 2021 draft picks Isaiah Livers and Luka Garza will make a bid to be first in line when opportunities arise.
How big will Dwane Casey’s rotation be? There was a time not all that long ago when more coaches than not eschewed rotations that went as deep as 10. But as injury prevention has become a more pressing issue and it’s becoming increasingly rarer for players to average in the high 30 minutes range, more teams are using deeper rotations. Casey went with 10 routinely last season and sometimes 11.
If it’s 10 and it unfolds as appears most likely to start camp, then there’s a little bit of a position imbalance to the Pistons likely playing group. But the way Troy Weaver has built the roster – now filled with far greater size and length in the wing group that the roster he inherited – means the Pistons can field lineups that can function well on both ends without inviting size mismatches.
What it boils down to is the ability of Bey to swing to power forward and the viability of an Isaiah Stewart-Kelly Olynyk pairing to open more minutes for all three players while still allowing the three players nominally considered shooting guards – Cunningham, Diallo and Frank Jackson – to all fit into the rotation.
Grant is very likely to again lead the Pistons in minutes played, probably settling in between 30 and 35. Let’s say it lands at 32. That means the Pistons need to get 16 minutes a game from another player at power forward. If Bey also plays 32 and 24 of those come at small forward, then eight from him and eight from Olynyk covers the power forward minutes. Josh Jackson gets most of the remaining minutes at small forward, though Diallo can also swing there. Cunningham can certainly play there some, as well, when Casey wants to use Frank Jackson to match up with smaller backcourts. A lineup with Frank Jackson, Cunningham and Bey at two through four would also give the Pistons perhaps their best 3-point grouping.
Hayes and Joseph likely will play the vast majority of minutes at point guard, though Lee will come to camp with the chance to force his way into the mix. The presence of the Motor City Cruise, debuting this fall in the new arena on Wayne State’s campus, will give the Pistons the opportunity to liberally split Lee’s time between the Pistons and their G League affiliate to make sure he gets necessary repetitions.
Lyles is something of a wild card in the frontcourt mix. A six-year veteran though still only 25, Lyles might be in line for use as a small-ball five or could push for a spot in the rotation as Grant’s primary backup at power forward with a strong camp. McGruder’s versatility – remember, he served credibly as the emergency point guard last season – and professionalism will have him ready when called upon to fill any role.
Garza starts out on a two-way contract, but with the trade of Jahlil Okafor he’s now in line for minutes as the No. 3 center. Even a minor injury that shelves Stewart or Olynyk for a game or two could elevate him to the rotation.
Livers won’t be cleared for participation in time for training camp, though he’s said that Nov. 1 is the latest he anticipates being fully cleared. His size, shooting and experience as a four-year college player figure to make him NBA-ready for a bench role early on, though like Lee and Garza, Livers is expected to be a mainstay for the Cruise.