With Pistons training camp around the corner, 5 things to watch

Blake Griffin
How Dwane Casey incorporates Blake Griffin into the offense will be one of the things that bears watching during the Pistons preseason
Chris Schwegler (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

The NBA season plays out as a sequence of miniseries. The team that gets to the end of the regular season sometimes barely resembles the one that comes out of the preseason.

So the Pistons team that Dwane Casey takes into the Oct. 17 regular-season opener at Little Caesars Arena won’t be the one he fields in early April – or mid-December or late February, for that matter.

But to the extent that how the Pistons evolve depends on what they are at inception, the things that happen in training camp – now less than a month away – matter.

Here are five things to watch during the three weeks between the start of camp and the season opener:

  • 1 – What will Dwane Casey’s offense look like? – His Toronto offense was perimeter-oriented, led by point guard Kyle Lowry and wing DeMar DeRozan. The Pistons two All-Stars are both power players, Andre Drummond and Blake Griffin.

    The holdovers from the regular-season roster who experienced a taste of Casey’s offense in Summer League – Luke Kennard and Henry Ellenson –consistently described it as “more open” with a heavy emphasis on spacing. Rookie Khyri Thomas was already conditioned to sprinting the floor in transition to set up shop for a corner three.

    Casey has spoken about the need to shoot significantly more 3-pointers than the 29 a game the Pistons took last season, which was easily a franchise record. He’s specifically talked about Griffin taking more threes. How Casey structures the offense to both create more threes and make the best use of Griffin’s inside-outside potency will go a long way toward shaping their direction.

  • 2 – Who’ll fill the only two starting spots up for grabs? – There’s no suspense about the identity of three starters: Griffin, Drummond and Reggie Jackson. There are three front-runners for the two other spots, shooting guard and small forward: Stanley Johnson, Reggie Bullock and Kennard.

    The strongest argument would be for Johnson and Bullock to start, though any combination of the three is reasonable and, in fact, you’ll see iterations with every possible combination of their utilization at various points of games.

    If Casey places the highest premium on putting the most shooting on the floor during the minutes Drummond and Griffin spend together, then the case would be made for Bullock and Kennard.

    But that keeps Johnson on the bench to start halves when, presumably, the opposition’s best wing scorers – the guy Johnson should be guarding – will be on the floor. And bringing Kennard off the bench allows Casey to put the ball in his hands more than he’d see it with minutes overlapping Griffin and Jackson’s more closely.

  • 3-Who emerges as the first big man off the bench? – There’s an asterisk attached to this question related to Jon Leuer’s status. He had surgery to repair cartilage damage to his right knee three weeks ago and there’s been no timetable given for his return. Six weeks is about the earliest you’d expect to see him if the damage was relatively benign, which would put him on course to be ready before the start of the regular season.

    The contenders for backup minutes are Leuer, Henry Ellenson and Zaza Pachulia. With Johnson’s ability to guard many power forwards – Glenn Robinson III fits that profile to some degree, too – Casey could get away with using only one of the three in select games if he chooses. Or, given Casey’s history of liberal use of his bench in Toronto, he could use all three in some games to produce matchup advantages.

    Leuer and Ellenson can play either frontcourt spot and, with Casey’s desire to up 3-point attempts, Ellenson in particular brings intrigue as a center – provided his Summer League 3-point struggles are ironed out as he becomes more comfortable with adjustments to his shooting form.

  • 4-Which rookie gets first crack at minutes? – Ed Stefanski wasn’t forcing Casey’s hand when he said he thinks one of the two second-round picks he added to the roster in June, Khyri Thomas and Bruce Brown, will make a run at rotation minutes. He was merely affirming his confidence in their readiness after watching them in Summer League.

    Their common calling cards are toughness, strength and defensive mindsets. Thomas has more to offer as a perimeter shooter, Brown has a little more size, playmaking instincts and rebounding. There’s no obvious opening for them, but injuries have a way of creating those openings. And which one gets the first crack at playing time might depend on who gets injured – Brown would be more likely to take minutes if Johnson or Glenn Robinson were injured, for example – but it also will have something to do with which one takes advantage of their opportunities in camp.

  • 5-Which young player emerges most prominently? – Stefanski made hiring a head coach a priority because he quickly identified the need for the Pistons to get more productivity from the team’s last three No. 1 picks: Johnson, Ellenson and Kennard. You can throw Robinson onto that heap, too, after he was signed in early July.

    The Pistons need them to emerge into consistent contributors. They need them to close the gap between what they bring to the equation every night and what Griffin, Drummond and Jackson contribute. Bullock became a consistent force after moving into the starting lineup full-time in December. Now it’s time for Johnson, Ellenson, Kennard and Robinson to take that step. Training camp will be the first indicator of where they are in that progression.

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