(Editor’s note: In the week leading to the opening of Pistons training camp on Oct. 1, Pistons.com will look 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: Balancing the first and second units.)
Let’s start with this: Way too much is made of who comprises a basketball team’s starting lineup.
The more telling indicator of a player’s value to his team is whether he’s on the floor in the last five minutes of coin-flip games. If Derrick Rose is the player the Pistons expect him to be – the player who averaged 23.7 points per 36 minutes in Minnesota last season – there’s a decent chance he’s on the floor late to help them win games.
But will he start? That’s less likely. Reggie Jackson – who figures to be at Rose’s side in those late-game situations – makes a lot of sense in the starting lineup. Jackson’s 3-point shooting – he shot 7.4 threes per 36 minutes last season, and at a clip above the league average, to Rose’s 3.8 – is a key ingredient to the floor spacing Dwane Casey wants around Andre Drummond and Blake Griffin.
The Pistons go to camp with two dead-solid locks to be starters (Griffin and Drummond) and two odds-on starters (Jackson and Tony Snell). Casey could go a number of ways with the fifth starter, but the two front-runners are Bruce Brown and Luke Kennard.
Brown goes into training camp in the pole position based on Casey’s comments earlier this month. And it has everything to do with how Brown complements the first unit and how playing on a second unit without ball-dominant stars like Griffin and Jackson gives Kennard the breathing room to best apply his offensive diversity to the team’s benefit.
“That’s the key – keeping the balance for both units. The issue with Luke in the first unit – it’s not an issue, it’s a good thing – but it’s just you kind of take away one of his strengths as far as his pick-and-roll game, his ballhandling game,” Casey said. “There’s only so many pick-and-roll games with that first unit.”
Keeping Brown with the starters also allows Casey defensive flexibility. Brown’s size and strength make him a viable defender against all three perimeter positions. Quite often he’ll wind up guarding point guards, allowing Jackson to assume a less strenuous defensive matchup.
Brown doesn’t need to be Kennard offensively to maintain his place with the starters, but a more efficient and threatening Brown would inevitably help the starters become a more effective offensive unit. Brown played point guard with the Summer League Pistons and opened eyes by averaging more than eight assists a game, easily leading the league. He won’t get as many pick-and-roll opportunities with Griffin and Jackson dominating the ball, so the challenge for Brown will be to show the same crisp decision-making with far fewer chances to exercise such judgment available.
Boosting his 3-point shooting and becoming a more effective finisher are the two immediate areas of concentration for Brown. He made just 30 percent of his shots between 3 and 10 feet a year ago and shot just 26 percent from the 3-point line while attempting 30 percent of his shots from the arc.
Kennard, after dealing with an off-season knee injury and an early-season shoulder separation, finished his second season with a flourish. He’s got a full toolbox offensively – elite 3-point shooting, the ability to put the ball on the floor with either hand, deceptive shot fakes, a sophisticated mid-range game, above-average vision and the threat of scoring with either hand inside 10 feet.
With a second unit that Rose figures to quarterback, Kennard will be put in frequent pick-and-roll situations – far more than he’d get on a first unit that funnels most of its offense to Griffin and a big chunk of what’s left over through Jackson. Developing chemistry with Rose will be a big piece of Kennard’s preseason.
Kennard’s defense picked up over the second half of last season, too, his anticipation and hands helping him make up for whatever deficiencies in lateral speed and strength he faced. Moderate strength gains over the summer will further propel Kennard at that end.
The scenario that would have Casey considering Kennard over Brown might look something like this: Rose stands out and dominates the ball for the second unit while Svi Mykhailiuk – who has some of the same breadth of offensive skills as Kennard – wins minutes at small forward, effectively duplicating Kennard’s role within that unit. Training camp will start to address the answers, but lineup and rotation tweaks are a season-long condition.
Coming Wednesday, we’ll look at the next camp question: Getting a handle on the pecking order past the top six or seven players.