A starting five, a bench unit, a finishing group: Decisions await Casey as Pistons preseason nears

Isaiah Stewart
Isaiah Stewart could be one of three 20-year-old starters in the Pistons starting lineup when they open the preseason by hosting San Antonio on Wednesday
Rick Osentoski (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

The undue interest in who’ll comprise an NBA team’s starting lineup is a vestige of bygone days when it was almost always a reflection of the coach’s version of the five most talented players.

When Michael Curry decided to make Allen Iverson his sixth man to carry the scoring load for his bench, Iverson bristled. Asked what it said to him that Curry wanted him in that role, Iverson sneered, “It tells me he doesn’t think I’m one of the five best players.”

Today it’s driven more by compatibility and synergy, backed up by analytics and pinpoint detail on what two-, three-, four- and five-man units perform consistently well. That’s the process Dwane Casey is overseeing as training camp unfolds and leads to Wednesday’s preseason opener, where we’ll get a first look at what the first week-plus of practices has suggested with regard to lineup combinations.

Based on the clues dropped in Casey’s observations, it seems likely that the Pistons are going to have three 20-year-olds in their starting lineup.

“I think we’re going to have probably two different units – one a younger unit that’s going to bring energy and the second unit will probably have more experience.”

Casey has said he wants to play Cade Cunningham and Killian Hayes together so that the burden of creating offense doesn’t have to be shouldered alone by either. Saddiq Bey and Jerami Grant are pretty much assured of being the starting forwards. Then it comes down to Isaiah Stewart or veteran free agent Kelly Olynyk at center.

You could make the case that either one makes sense. Olynyk’s proven scoring versatility would play well with two young playmakers. But the Pistons made clear at camp’s onset that they intend to prioritize defense this season and Stewart, though still learning the ropes, has a chance to be an impact defender. There’s also value for the Pistons in keeping the young core – with Stewart, Hayes, Bey and Cunningham at the heart of it – grouped together.

The second unit, then, is likely to be led by veterans Olynyk and Cory Joseph, who played youth basketball together in Toronto and have been longtime mainstays of Team Canada. Saben Lee could factor here. Hamidou Diallo, Josh Jackson and Frank Jackson are in line for wing minutes and whether all three can fit in the rotation is in question. Trey Lyles could be first in line for minutes behind Grant at power forward, though Casey can move parts around – Bey and Olynyk can both play there, as well – if Lyles doesn’t win a role.

And then, of course, there remains a question – the most important one, really – of who’ll comprise the finishing unit.

“The end of the game unit will be a different unit,” Casey said.

Will it pull players from both the starting and bench units?

“I would say that’s a pretty good assumption,” Casey grinned, though he added that “at some point we have to grow the younger players in end-of-game situations.”

Olynyk seems likely to be part of that closing unit, perhaps alongside Stewart, maybe playing center. Diallo or Josh Jackson could be, too, if Casey needs one of them to guard a dynamic wing scorer. Joseph could be enlisted to play alongside one of the young playmakers – or both, given that Cunningham can easily play either wing spot. It could be fluid from game to game, at least in the early going, based on matchups and what the first three quarters of the game dictate.

Bottom line, the starting five is likely to be an easier call for Casey than his closing unit.

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