As SVG works Pistons jigsaw puzzle, it’s tough to find room for 10th piece

Reggie Bullock comes off his five-game suspension and Stan Van Gundy says he might play against the Clippers.
Chris Schwegler/NBAE/Getty Images
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

AUBURN HILLS – Stan Van Gundy isn’t opposed to the concept of a 10-man rotation in theory. It’s putting it into practice where things get messy.

One of his assistant coaches found out this week when Van Gundy gave his staffers a homework assignment.

“Aaron Gray really went to work on it. And he’s really been in favor of a 10-man rotation,” Van Gundy said. “He came back in late (Wednesday) afternoon. ‘Man, that’s hard to figure out.’ ”

The math is pretty straightforward when you expand the rotation to 10 players, giving each of the five positions two players to split 48 minutes in some fashion. If Andre Drummond gets 34 minutes at center, Aron Baynes (or Boban Marjanovic, perhaps) gets 14. That formula works fine for some teams.

“The teams (that) play 10 – and there aren’t all that many of them any more – are teams that really don’t have a bench guy that they want to play more than backup minutes,” Van Gundy said. “So it’s 28 up to 36 minutes for all the starters and then the backup at each position.”

For the Pistons, that would mean limiting Tobias Harris to power forward only and either slashing his minutes or Jon Leuer’s. As it is, Van Gundy essentially splits the 96 minutes available at the two forward positions among Harris, Leuer and Marcus Morris with Harris spending about 55 percent of his time at power forward and 45 percent at small forward.

“We feel like we’ve got three starters at the forward spots,” Van Gundy said. “I’m not sure I want to make any of them 18-minute-a-game guys. So then it really gets tough. If those three guys are going to take the 96 minutes at the three and four, you can’t get to 10.”

A month or so ago, Van Gundy wasn’t exactly faced with a dilemma. Stanley Johnson and Darrun Hilliard hadn’t commanded more minutes with their level of play and Reggie Bullock was still out with a knee injury. Now Johnson has turned the corner and begun to play like the rookie on a path to big things of a year ago and Bullock has returned and already reminded Van Gundy of his value as a shooter and facilitator of offensive flow.

But one of those two appears destined to be the odd man out. It just depends on which night as to his identity. That’s the way it looks in the moment, at least, with both offering qualities unique to the mix. As much as Van Gundy values their abilities, though, he can’t justify cutting into anyone else’s minutes to accommodate them.

“What are you going to do? Have (Kentavious Caldwell-Pope) play 33 minutes and have one of ’em play nine minutes and give one of ’em six? I made the point to the staff: What you can’t do is sit down and just say, All right, I’m going to build my rotation around ‘I have to give this guy minutes.’ No, you’re building your rotation around what you think is best for your team.

“I still don’t know exactly the way we’re going to go. But it’s tough for us in the way our team is made up for us to get to 10 on a regular basis. Your 10th gets time – foul trouble and everything else – but it’s tough to get to 10 on a regular basis.”

Johnson and Bullock could change Van Gundy’s thinking by proving themselves just as valuable – or more so, even – than Morris, Leuer or Harris. But Harris is arguably the team’s best option other than Reggie Jackson to create his own scoring chances and Morris offers much the same with a selflessness and toughness Van Gundy feels are essential to group chemistry. Leuer was signed for a specific purpose – size defensively at power forward without sacrificing rebounding or perimeter shooting – that he’s filled to Van Gundy’s every expectation.

“It’s a good problem. I like having all those guys available,” Van Gundy said. “It certainly gives us more flexibility. But the idea that it’s as simple as play 10 or play nine, you start charting out the minutes you think guys should get if you’re going to play 10, basically what you’re going to say for us would be Tobias is not going to play any minutes at the three. He and Jon are just going to slit the four spot – 48 minutes, so 24 each, 27 and whatever. I don’t think that’s enough minutes, myself. So that’s where it gets difficult.”