(Editor’s note: Pistons.com today starts a five-part series examining the top five storylines of training camp, which gets under way later this month. Up first: Will Stan Van Gundy break up his starting five?)
From the All-Star break on last season, no five NBA players spent more time on the court together than Stan Van Gundy’s starting lineup: Andre Drummond, Reggie Jackson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Marcus Morris and newly acquired Tobias Harris.
It was the same before the break, only with Ersan Ilyasova – sent along with Brandon Jennings to Orlando in the pre-deadline deal for Harris – in at power forward.
Stan Van Gundy liked what he had in his starting lineup, in other words.
But in striving for better balance between his first and second units, will Van Gundy consider using one of his starters to anchor the Pistons bench?
Doubtful. Not out of the question.
“I think the big thing going forward for us is getting our rotation right,” Van Gundy said last month as he considered his priorities for training camp. “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. You’ve got to get that right to get some better balance in terms of offense/defense and better balance between starting lineup/bench.”
The likeliest course is that Van Gundy gives his newly configured second unit – bolstered by the free-agent signings of Ish Smith, Jon Leuer and Boban Marjanovic – the chance to prove it can develop the same type of chemistry the starters exhibited in playing 18.5 minutes per game together and outscoring teams by 1.5 points per game in the 25 games they logged together after Harris came on board.
But there’s no sure-fire scoring leader for the bench. That became an issue for the second unit at times last season after the Pistons lost Jodie Meeks in the home opener to a foot injury, essentially costing him the season. Van Gundy had built the second-unit attack around Meeks – not just his scoring ability but the way his off-the-ball movement forced defenses to react and create openings.
There is very little wiggle room in Van Gundy’s expected rotation this season. But he’ll take every opportunity he can to look at various lineup combinations throughout training camp practices and six preseason games to see if tinkering with the starting lineup could both maintain the Pistons’ edge in first-unit production while bolstering their bench.
Leuer and Smith are locks to join the mix, replacing Anthony Tolliver and Jennings/Steve Blake from last season’s second unit, and they’ll almost certainly be joined by Aron Baynes. Marjanovic will give Van Gundy enviable depth at center and his sheer size provides another option on nights the Pistons need his 7-foot-3 girth and rim protection. But Baynes was a season-long rock behind Drummond and comes off an impressive summer with the Australian Olympic team. As high as the Pistons are on Marjanovic, it would be an upset if he jumps Baynes on the depth chart coming out of training camp.
The wild card, perhaps, is Stanley Johnson. Van Gundy expects a noticeable step forward from the 20-year-old Johnson. There is every expectation Johnson will blossom into not only a starter but a high-impact force someday – someday soon, probably – but if he winds up starting this season it probably will have more to do with Van Gundy’s goal of striking the balance between units he desires.
Morris last season was most often used as the bench’s bellwether scorer, coming out with around four minutes left in the first quarter so he could start the second quarter with Tolliver, Blake/Jennings, Baynes and Johnson.
It’s possible Van Gundy could decide to flip the roles of Morris and Johnson, get Morris on the court with about four minutes left in the first quarter and then leave him out for the first six to eight minutes of the second quarter to carry the load with the second unit. That would be one way to both increase Johnson’s minutes and cut back slightly on Morris’ – he finished fifth in the NBA last season in total minutes played and averaged 35.7 a game, more than 10 above his previous career best.
He could also do the same with Johnson and Harris, who might, in fact, be better suited to be featured as the primary scoring threat for the second unit. But that would have another ripple effect – making Morris the starting power forward instead of small forward. Van Gundy might be reluctant to go there after initially using Morris at power forward and Harris at small forward after the February trade and subsequently seeing Morris struggle with the switch.
The decision could also be affected by two other factors: how much Johnson forces the issue by his play in training camp and the preseason and how Van Gundy views the benefits of expanding the rotation to 10 or even 11 players and using Darrun Hilliard and Reggie Bullock. We’ll get to those in the days ahead.