Camp Questions: How do Pistons make the most of key free-agent pickup Kelly Olynyk?
(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 concludes 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 IV, we’ll look at how the Pistons might integrate their major free-agent acquisition, Kelly Olynyk.)
When the Pistons gathered for training camp last December, name tags were as essential an item for distribution as uniform tops and shorts. Of the 20 players who opened camp, only four were holdovers from the 2019-20 Pistons.
Less than 10 months later at the launch of the 2021-22 season, the Pistons are a relative island of stability. Among players certain to be in the rotation, the only newcomers are No. 1 overall pick Cade Cunningham and free-agent acquisition Kelly Olynyk.
How Olynyk is to be used is one of the pivotal issues the Pistons will start to address when camp opens next week. Does he start or come off the bench? Does he play center exclusively or split his time over two positions?
Olynyk essentially is replacing Mason Plumlee in the rotation. The Pistons, driven by the desire to field more credible 3-point shooting units, shipped Plumlee to Charlotte on draft night to open the cap space that allowed them to target Olynyk when free agency opened a week later.
Olynyk, an eight-year veteran, is a career .367 3-point shooter who’s taken a healthy 43 percent of his shots from the arc. But he’s capable of scoring from every level and, based on his 2020-21 season, perhaps more effective if put in position to be a more diversified scorer.
In 43 games for Miami last season, Olynyk took 65 percent of his shots from the 3-point arc and had a true shooting percentage of .549, well below his career norm of .591. Traded to Houston at mid-season, Olynyk in 27 games for the Rockets took 39 percent of his shots from the 3-point line and finished with a true shooting percentage of .674, the best of his career by a wide margin.
Olynyk, 30, is comfortable putting the ball on the floor. On a Miami team with Jimmy Butler, Goran Dragic, Bam Adebayo, Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro, Olynyk finished eighth in both minutes per game and shot attempts. In Houston, where there was a greater need for him to play a central role, he was a primary option often. He averaged 19.0 points, 8.4 rebounds and 4.1 assists in 31 minutes a game.
His role with the Pistons will fall between those two extremes but probably a little closer to the Houston end of the equation. The Pistons have lofty expectations for 20-year-old Isaiah Stewart, but Dwane Casey might well decide it’s in the best interests of his development and the team’s fortunes to bring him off the bench and insert Olynyk as the starting center, at least early in the season.
If the starting backcourt winds up consisting of Cunningham and Killian Hayes, a pair of 20-year-olds, then having a veteran with Olynyk’s scoring versatility might prove the more prudent way to go.
Olynyk’s versatility could also allow Casey to pair him with Stewart, either as a rotation staple or to be used against teams that play with more traditional two-big lineups. That would also be a way for Casey to get the most playing time for two of his top six players. On a depth chart, free agent Trey Lyles would be nominally considered backup to Jerami Grant at power forward – and it might well play out that way if Lyles, 25, has a strong camp.
But Casey could start Olynyk, bring Stewart on for him midway through the first and third quarters, then bring Olynyk back to start the second and fourth quarters at power forward to give Jerami Grant a break. Saddiq Bey could also swing to power forward as a way to open more playing time for the glut of wings that starts with Bey and Cunningham and includes Josh Jackson and Hamidou Diallo, who give the Pistons a jolt of athleticism and defensive ability at those spots.
Olynyk, the 13th overall pick in the 2013 draft out of Gonzaga, has started 165 of 570 career games and appeared in 48 playoff games. Only fellow Canadian Cory Joseph, with 82 career playoff games, has more postseason experience than Olynyk. Olynyk’s combination of experience, versatility, size and basketball IQ will make him a critical piece of Casey’s rotation puzzle this season. Figuring out the right ways to make him fit into that puzzle is a process that begins in training camp.