If it’s not one thing, it’s another so far for star-crossed, injury-plagued Pistons
Gary Dineen (NBAE/Getty)
CHICAGO – When the Pistons held their training camp practices at Michigan State, they performed before a broader audience than NBA teams usually allow to view those sessions.
Tom Izzo was their host and Izzo attracts between-jobs coaches and others he’s befriended or mentored over his four decades in East Lansing like bees to honey. Dwane Casey obliged their rare opportunity to not only watch Izzo conduct practices but a guy a year removed from NBA Coach of the Year status, too.
And the consensus among all that amassed basketball knowledge was that the Pistons had significantly upped their talent level over the off-season. Between adding veterans with vast starting experience like Derrick Rose, Markieff Morris and Tony Snell and young players like Luke Kennard and Bruce Brown ready to take the next step, the Pistons were going to be deep and versatile and better equipped to handle … whatever.
Except this: Blake Griffin missing the first 10 games before returning under a watchful eye. Rose missing five of the first 14 games. Reggie Jackson suffering a back injury in the preseason that sidelined him after two painful attempts to go in the regular season. Playing games with all three point guards on the depth chart unavailable. Losing Snell to injury.
“We can’t feel sorry for ourselves,” Casey said before the Pistons lost at Chicago on Wednesday, losing another player – Morris to an apparent bruised quad in the first half – in the process. “That’s the lot we have right now. We’ve got to make chicken salad out of you know what. They’re not going to change the schedule, so next guy’s got to be ready to step up.”
You know who might have been the next guy? Khyri Thomas. But he’s also out for an extended period with a foot injury.
Thomas appeared buried on the depth chart, getting only 12 minutes over five preseason games, in a deep wing group. The Pistons had a solid four-man group of Kennard, Snell, Langston Galloway and Bruce Brown at the two wing spots to start the season. Then the run of injuries at point guard forced Brown to move there and now Snell’s out.
Kennard and Galloway were supposed to flank Rose in a potent second-unit perimeter core. Now Kennard and Galloway are starters and Rose is on a minutes watch as he returns from a hamstring injury.
“It’s been tough,” Galloway admitted after the loss to the Bulls. “In the NBA, you have to have the next-man-up mentality at all times. But it’s been tough trying to figure out who’s playing with who, who can be the right lineup at the right time to give us a boost, a spark. Right now we’ve just got to find it. We’ve got to dig deep down and figure out a way to win some games and get back on track.”
The Pistons went into Indiana, a playoff team last season, and won impressively in the opener, getting a combined 48 points from Kennard and Rose off of the bench. Had the injuries been limited to Griffin’s, they’d likely have survived that opening 10-game stretch. Not only that, they’d have had the luxury of easing Griffin back into the mix.
Not so much now.
Svi Mykhailiuk is suddenly the first wing off of the bench. With Morris missing, Casey needs both Thon Maker and Christian Wood to play up front, especially with Griffin still not fully off of a minutes watch. It hasn’t helped that Andre Drummond, perhaps aware of how much is suddenly on his shoulders, has found himself in frequent foul trouble.
Griffin is clearly not himself just yet after the off-season knee surgery and the spillover effect which forced the Pistons to sit him for the first 10 and 11 of the first 12 games. He’s averaging 18 points but shooting just 35 percent overall and 19 percent from three with the rust evident in his shooting and his timing around the basket.
“It’s difficult,” Casey admitted. “Time limitation, that’s frustrating. By the time he gets in there and gets loose, it seems like his minutes are ready to come out. In and out, in and out. It’s tough. Hopefully here, before long we can elongate his minutes. It’s difficult for both he and Derrick both, for our team, to get a rhythm. But it’s where we are right now. We’ve got to adjust and make the best of it.”
That dynamic second unit of Kennard, Galloway, Rose, Morris and a fifth player – sometimes Drummond, maybe Maker or Wood – has rarely played together this season.
“We thought our second unit was going to be an elite part of our team,” Casey said. “Now with most of our second unit starting, it’s taken away from that. We’ll get it back. Like I said a week ago, it’s going to be a marathon. I think it’s that way for everybody in the Eastern Conference.”
It’s a nearly universal reflex for players to push back against the impact of injuries on team success for the appearance of expressing a lack of faith in teammates required to take on broader roles.
That was evident in Kennard’s response: “We know who we have in this locker room. We know what everybody’s capable of. I think we have a really good team, honestly, and the more we play with each other the more comfortable we’ll get, the more of a rhythm. We’ll figure it out. We can be a really good team, but we’ve got to figure something out right now – healthy, not healthy, whoever’s playing. We’ve just got to play hard and we’ve got to play together and we’ve got to figure something out right away.”
Even in marathons, there comes a point where you fall too far off the pace to allow for a meaningful finishing kick. The Pistons aren’t there yet. But they can hear the clock ticking.