SVG’s call of Bullock to starting lineup so far a win-win for Pistons starters, bench

Brian Sevald (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

DETROIT – Pro tip: Buy tickets to the Pistons Jan. 27 game against Oklahoma City. At Reggie Bullock’s current rate of progression, that’s when he’ll break Wilt Chamberlain’s NBA record of 100 points in a game.

Bullock has established new season highs in scoring in each of his past three games – 10 against Atlanta, 15 against Indiana, 20 against Orlando. Not coincidentally, the Pistons are 3-0 in those games on the heels of a seven-game losing streak that prompted Stan Van Gundy to tweak his starting lineup and elevate Reggie Bullock from a spot outside the 10-man rotation to a starting job.

In the process, the Pistons have gotten improved play from both starting and bench units. Permanence in the NBA generally lasts as long as the next set of consecutive losses, but this particular outcome has a chance to stick by the same logic that prompted Van Gundy’s move.

Remember the throes of the losing streak – all the way back to five days ago – when Van Gundy bluntly decreed that for the Pistons to get back on the course that greased their 14-6 start it was mandatory that Andre Drummond, Reggie Jackson, Tobias Harris and Avery Bradley up their level of play?

Well, Bullock helps them get there with his hard cuts to the basket, his movement off the ball in general, his superior 3-point shooting and his solid and quick decision making.

“Reggie Bullock’s always had that in his game, so it does help us,” Van Gundy said Sunday. “It creates not only offense for him but draws people into the paint and opens up other people.”

There was solid logic behind Van Gundy’s call to make Stanley Johnson the fifth starter to open the season, as well. Johnson, the No. 8 pick in the 2015 draft, remains an impact defender with the potential to be elite at that end as he gains experience and its translation to maturity, focus and consistency. Since most teams put their best perimeter scorers in the starting lineup, it’s easier to match minutes for Johnson against them in the starting lineup.

But Johnson, an alpha male since his freshman year in high school at perennial Southern California power Mater Dei in Orange County, doesn’t take to the role of fifth wheel on offense as well as Bullock. It’s not easy for any NBA player, 99 percent of whom have been a focal point at every other stage of their basketball lives. “Now you want me to go stand in the corner?”

The Pistons went from the No. 7 offense in the league over their first 20 games to the No. 30 offense during the 0-7 streak. In winning the past three games, they’re again a top-10 offense. Sample size and all that – including the fact that Atlanta, Indiana and Orlando all rank in the bottom half of defensive rating – but win-win so far.

Van Gundy’s move of Bullock for Johnson has not only helped the starting lineup’s offensive production, it’s unleashed Johnson and given the second unit a defensive anchor and a different element offensively.

With the ball in his hands more often, Johnson’s assertiveness has returned. His contributions to the Indiana and Orlando wins: 20 points, 12 boards, 11 assists.

Van Gundy has another decision coming. He’s pretty consistently played 10 this season and that’s already one more than he customarily played the past few seasons, an acknowledgment that the depth he pursued in roster building over the summer is a critical ingredient in the Pistons success.

But when Bradley returns, likely this week and perhaps as soon as Wednesday at Dallas, something has to give. Van Gundy played 11 at Atlanta only because Ish Smith picked up three fouls in a two-minute stint of the first half. Someone from that wing group – Bradley, Bullock, Johnson, Langston Galloway, Luke Kennard – is going to fall out of the rotation as Bullock had before his skill set told Van Gundy he was the likeliest complementary piece to unlock the starting unit offensively.

It won’t be Bradley. It won’t be Bullock – not now. Galloway, until Sunday’s 0 of 5, was sizzling from three. Johnson’s defense and fit with the second unit holds great appeal. Kennard’s diverse offensive skill set does, too.

And the answer, as with the decision to start Bullock, will be found not in looking at the individual but in assessing how the individual complements the whole. Stay tuned.