With clock ticking and info lacking, SVG nears D-Day on Pistons lineup calls

Stan Van Gundy wants to see Reggie Jackson get in a full week of work without interruption before committing to playing him in a regular-season game.
Fernando Medina (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

AUBURN HILLS – If you were expecting any clues as to Stan Van Gundy’s starting lineup and rotation to come from Friday’s preseason finale, hit your reset button.

Van Gundy came into Pistons training camp 17 days ago with no depth chart and no preconceived notions of what his most effective starting five or optimal lineup combinations would be – and it’s status quo on that front.

“Pretty much,” he admitted after Wednesday’s practice. “Yup.”

If there had been a betting-line favorite coming into camp for a starting lineup, it would have been Reggie Jackson – assuming acceptable progress in his return from injury – and Avery Bradley in the backcourt, Tobias Harris and Stanley Johnson at forward and Andre Drummond in the middle.

That was the unit that started the preseason opener – the only game where all five players have been available through the first four games.

And it just might be the starting lineup Friday at Milwaukee when the Pistons wrap up the preseason. Everybody practiced on Wednesday, at least, and Van Gundy has his fingers crossed he’ll have his full range of options to choose from against the Bucks.

“I hope,” he said. “We’ve got to get through a practice tomorrow and then we’ll find out.”

If a coach uses one preseason game as a dry run for the regular-season opener – who starts, how minutes are distributed, when to rotate bench players in – it means he’s collected enough information to formulate conclusions, however preliminary they might prove to be.

Van Gundy’s not there yet, in part because three key players – Drummond, Jackson and Bradley – all have been limited to two preseason games so far.

“It’s a little uncomfortable for me, but I’m seriously going into Friday still not sure who my rotation is. A couple of guys I know will be in the rotation – more than a couple – but there’s still a lot I don’t know.”

Among the decisions yet to be made with probably four practices and one preseason game left before Wednesday’s season opener against Charlotte at Little Caesars Arena:

  • Reggie Jackson or Ish Smith at point guard – Van Gundy said before camp he’d need to see Jackson go through everything for a week before playing him in a regular-season game. The groin injury that sidelined him for nearly a week means that can’t happen until Sunday. Even at that, Smith has been the most consistent Pistons player through four preseason games, averaging 15.3 points and 8.0 assists on 57 percent shooting in 27 minutes a game.

  • Who sits at forward? – Jon Leuer remains a consideration to start at one forward spot. Harris and Jackson are the two Pistons most capable of creating their own shot. Van Gundy could decide to split them between units. Or he could use Harris as he often used Marcus Morris last season by starting him, getting him out midway through the first and third quarters and then bringing him back with the bench. An example of how these decisions can’t be made in a vacuum, how each one has an impact on the next: If Van Gundy decides to ease Jackson back by bringing him off the bench, that almost surely tips the scales toward Harris as a starter.

  • Backup center – Leuer and Boban Marjanovic could be used situationally depending on the matchup. Eric Moreland also has had a promising preseason. Starting Leuer alongside Drummond might actually make it easier to use him as the backup center by staggering minutes in much the same way Van Gundy used Greg Monroe to start alongside Drummond in 2014-15, removed him before Drummond and then reinserted him when it was time for Drummond to sit.

  • Power forward rotation – If Harris starts, who backs him up: Leuer, Anthony Tolliver or Henry Ellenson? They all offer something a little different and all have done nothing to fall out of consideration. Ultimately, it could come down to which player best complements the group. But that determination requires knowing who else is in the group.

  • Backup wings – Bradley is a lock to start and Johnson is going to be in the rotation, at least. After that, there are arguments to be made for Langston Galloway, Reggie Bullock and rookie Luke Kennard as next in line. Bullock will sit out the first five games on NBA suspension, giving Galloway and Kennard a chance to secure their spot.

That’s a lot to sort out in one more game and a handful or fewer practices. Is it enough time to make the best-informed decisions?