As Pistons offense sputters, does SVG risk the chemistry of Johnson-Kennard?

Stanley Johnson and Luke Kennard have been bright spots over the two games since Jonson returned from injury.
Chris Schwegler/NBAE/Getty Images
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

DETROIT – Amid the depths of a five-game losing streak that’s dragged the Pistons below .500 for the first time all season, it’s easy to spot what’s wrong: offense.

Tobias Harris didn’t have a great day in Sunday’s 101-100 loss to Brooklyn, but he was the only member of Stan Van Gundy’s starting lineup to do much damage. Harris scored 20 points, though he shot 8 of 18 and made only one 3-pointer in four attempts. Ish Smith scored 11 – he shot 4 of 11 – and had only three assists in 27 minutes, in part because the guys on the other end of his passes weren’t shooting very well.

And the three other starters – Andre Drummond, Reggie Bullock and Avery Bradley – scored seven points apiece.

What went right for the Pistons doesn’t constitute a long list, but at the top of it were Stanley Johnson, who scored a season-high 18 in 26 minutes, and Luke Kennard, who added 13 in 22 minutes.

Which begs the question: Would one or both help juice up the first unit’s offense while Reggie Jackson remains out?

“I don’t know,” Van Gundy said about possibly tweaking his units minutes after ex-Piston Spencer Dinwiddie’s jumper with a second left ruined a comeback from 15 down. “We don’t play again until Wednesday. I haven’t thought about that yet.”

While there is an argument to be made to elevate Johnson or Kennard – or both – to the starting lineup, there’s also the danger of creating more problems. Here’s one: Van Gundy for now has Langston Galloway at point guard for the second unit and needs the secondary ballhandling Kennard and, to a lesser extent, Johnson provide. Galloway brings the ball over half court and usually gets off of it, putting it first in Kennard’s hands, to run off of screens and seek 3-point opportunities.

Another potential downside to elevating one or the other to the starting lineup would be dissolving what appears a budding synergy between the two. Johnson and Kennard complement each other’s skill set pretty well, Johnson’s powerful drives and defensive force meshing with Kennard’s outside shooting and playmaking skills. When Johnson returned from injury on Friday night, he didn’t enter the game until the fourth quarter; Kennard scored all 16 of his points in the quarter.

Johnson sees a good fit in that he’s playing on the side of the floor more comfortable to him when he’s with Kennard.

“I’m playing the other side of the court where I get to come off stuff to my right hand. He comes off stuff to his left hand,” he said. “When he’s in the game with me, it works well for both of us. We’re both going to our strong hands at all points in time.”

Johnson’s opportunities were fewer as a starter, where he on many possessions wound up in the weak-side corner while the Pistons ran actions designed to free Harris or Bradley when they weren’t in pick-and-roll sets involving Drummond and Reggie Jackson. Bullock is perhaps better suited to that role as an accomplished 3-point shooter and the team’s most conscientious cutter off the ball.

“The majority of the time (with the first unit), unless Tobias is in who likes to go left a little bit, one person’s playing to their weak hand and usually I’m the person playing to their weak hand.”

Johnson had another reason that playing with Kennard works for him.

“He’s a hell of a player, so it’s easy to play with good players.”

Sunday was the longest stretch Kennard and Johnson have played together all season with Johnson playing the last 17 minutes and Kennard getting 13 second-half minutes. Kennard felt Johnson elevated the play of the second unit.

“It even puts us up another notch, just his energy and his motor, especially on the defensive end,” he said. “It gets us going and when he plays defense like that, offense takes care of itself. He really played a great game. He was tough.”

That’s what Van Gundy has to weigh over the next 48 hours – does he risk creating another problem in the attempt to fix the one plaguing his starters as the Pistons try to battle their way out of an offensive funk?