Camp questions: How do the Pistons make it work with Drummond on the bench?
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(Editor’s note: In the week leading to the opening of Pistons training camp Tuesday, Pistons.com has looked at the five biggest questions they’ll need to start sorting out before rosters are set and the season tips off on Oct. 23. Today: Who wins the job – or is it a group effort? – when Andre Drummond comes out of the game?)
Andre Drummond has suited up for 94.4 percent of all Pistons games since coming to the NBA in 2012 and 20 of the 32 games he’s missed over seven seasons came in his rookie year due to a stress reaction of the lower back.
It’s never been more critical that Drummond maintains his ironman status than it is in 2019-20.
There’s no Greg Monroe, Aron Baynes or Zaza Pachulia to slide into his spot in the middle of the lineup this time around.
With traditional big men a shrinking population, the Pistons go into training camp with only Drummond as a full-time center among the 16 players who’ll determine the final 15-man roster.
Thon Maker spent about three-quarters of his time last season at power forward after coming from Milwaukee at the trade deadline, but he was primarily a center for the Bucks over his two-plus seasons with the team that drafted him 10th in 2016. He’s the likeliest candidate to fill in for Drummond should he miss any time.
But whether that makes him the front-runner to be the second-unit center for this year’s Pistons is up for debate. Casey could just as easily turn to Markieff Morris to fill that role. Largely a power forward over his eight-year career, Morris spent an estimated 54 percent of his time at center a season ago.
Then there’s Christian Wood, claimed off waivers when he became the victim of a numbers crunch in New Orleans following the bounty received from the Lakers in the Anthony Davis trade and winning the lottery for the right to draft Zion Williamson. Wood put up huge numbers in G League games and then averaged 16.9 points and 7.9 rebounds in an eight-game stint with the Pelicans to wrap up the season.
Wood has Maker’s extraordinary length and mobility, making him equally capable of playing center and power forward, and brings more in the way of scoring ability. He comes to camp without a guaranteed contract, setting up an apparent battle with 17-year-veteran Joe Johnson for the final roster spot.
If Casey feels comfortable with his frontcourt depth with only Drummond, Maker, Morris and Blake Griffin, maybe the Pistons decide Wood is expendable and stick with the 38-year-old Johnson.
In any case, Casey left open the possibility that there won’t be a permanent second-team center, instead going with the option that best matches up with opposition big men or with the player who best complements the makeup of the bench unit.
“I see it as being very situational,” he said. “A lot of nights if you look at the league, the rosters have gotten smaller and the traditional five has kind of gone the way of the dinosaur. The flexibility we have with Thon, with Markieff having the possibility of playing there is really important.”
Morris wouldn’t offer the same shot deterrent as Maker or Wood, but he’d bring a vastly different offensive dimension to the table. If Johnson looks anything like the seven-time All-Star on a Hall of Fame path and forces his way into the rotation, a Morris-Johnson combination would give the Pistons firepower up front they lacked in last year’s second unit.
At the other end of the spectrum, a Maker-Wood frontcourt would give the Pistons two players with 7-foot-3 wingspans and above-average mobility. Their offensive fit would be the question. Maker is a willing 3-point shooter but needs to be better than the .307 accuracy mark he fashioned after joining the Pistons. The Pistons feel Wood has the stuff to be an effective stretch big man, too.
Drummond and Griffin are the frontcourt certainties. Morris is almost certain to secure a role, too, and probably can be penciled in for 20-plus minutes a night. If they’re all available, that means Maker and the winner of the Wood-Johnson roster battle will scrap for whatever is left over.
Not many coaches – until recently, at least – have felt comfortable with something other than an established rotation where players know when and how they’ll be used every night. It’s a tricky chemistry exercise to employ a situational rotation model, but it’s one a coach of Casey’s profile can successfully employ. He did it to some extent in Toronto. Gregg Popovich has made liberal use of it in San Antonio.
Players like Maker, Johnson and Wood can take any decision-making out of Casey’s hands by rendering nonsensical any thought of a rotation without them. Barring any clear separation, Casey will keep his options open, using training camp to get a glimpse of as many combinations as possible.