MILWAUKEE – Stan Van Gundy is set on Avery Bradley and Andre Drummond in the starting lineup when the Pistons formally open Little Caesars Arena on Wednesday to start the NBA regular season.
He’s leaning toward Tobias Harris.
After that, all bets are off.
“Everything’s a consideration,” he said Friday before the Pistons wrapped up the preseason with a 107-103 loss at Milwaukee.
“I’m not even long term totally locked in to Tobias having to start,” he said. “I thought he was good off the bench last year. I’m really not locked in to anything.”
Assuming Harris starts, it could be at either forward spot. Which changes the identity of the other forward. Could be Stanley Johnson, could be Jon Leuer.
Then there’s point guard. On a blank slate, it’s Reggie Jackson over Ish Smith. But the Pistons bet on the long term with Jackson by putting him on a conservative 16-week rehabilitation protocol over the summer that delayed his return to full-blown basketball playing until the end of training camp’s first week.
Any hope he’d be able to flip a switch and be ready for the intensity of regular-season basketball was put in perspective by Jackson’s flat performance on Tuesday in Toronto – a back to back after an encouraging debut 24 hours earlier.
And the identity of the starting point guard potentially has massive ripple effects on how Van Gundy crafts the starting lineup and rotation.
Consider this Van Gundy vignette from Thursday’s practice:
“Reggie was on a group that at one point went on a run,” Van Gundy said. “He wasn’t with Andre, though. He had Boban and Eric at center. But he had A.T., Henry and Langston out there with him. He was just zipping the ball around and guys were getting a lot of shots.”
That goes to Van Gundy’s logical extrapolation that while Smith, more an old-school point guard with a pass-first mentality, can adapt to whatever personnel group accompanies him, the blueprint for success with Jackson is more defined.
“We found out last year just about anybody’s going to play pretty well with Ish,” Van Gundy said. “I do think for Reggie’s pick and rolls to be most effective, you want to put a really good roll guy on the floor with him and as much shooting as you can.”
But look at the Pistons roster. Bradley aside, the best shooters on the team – Anthony Tolliver, Reggie Bullock, Langston Galloway, Luke Kennard – are expected to come off the bench. Three of those four guys could be mainstays of the bench unit and be playing together for most of their time on the floor.
“That’s one of the challenges,” Van Gundy acknowledges. “We tend to have more shooters on what you would expect to be our bench than we do in our starting lineup. So those things are weighing into the decisions.”
Fans will get caught up in who starts the opener, but know this: It’s a process. Wednesday is meaningful in that games start counting for real then, but it’s not conclusive. It’s possible – likely, perhaps – that the starting lineup and rotation will be in flux in the early weeks of a season about which Van Gundy this week said, “This is the hardest I’ve ever had it (because) there’s so much equality across the board.”
There’s a case to be made to open the season with Smith as the starter over Jackson built on three factors: (1) Smith had as strong a preseason as anyone, averaging 13.8 points and 7.4 assists while shooting 53.6 percent in 27 minutes a game; (2) Jackson had about two handfuls of healthy days in camp around his belated start and nearly a week off with a groin strain, so his conditioning is still a few paces behind the field and it’s easier to manage his minutes coming off the bench, though he held up OK with 28 minutes in Friday’s finale; and (3) the presence of all those shooters on the second unit – or what’s anticipated to be the second unit, at least – figures to play to Jackson’s strengths.
Well, that last part is all good except Andre Drummond remains the desired roll man to play with Jackson and he’s tied up on the first unit. So, lots to think about. As it almost always is in the NBA, unless you’re Steve Kerr, there is no perfect answer, only a best answer. It might take a minute to find it for Stan Van Gundy after a preseason where his anticipated starting five was never simultaneously available.