DETROIT – Two games doesn’t give anyone enough to formulate sweeping conclusions on the shape of the basketball, never mind lineup efficacy.
But the NBA season moves fast – two games in two nights for the Pistons to open it, an onus unique to them among the league’s 30 dues-paying members – and coaches are forced to react before all of the evidence comes in.
And the evidence so far supports one conviction Pistons staffers believed coming into the season – that their bench will give them an edge most nights – while suggesting something they already knew all too well: Blake Griffin is central to their destiny.
In other words, the sooner Griffin returns from injury to bolster the first unit, the better. And the ripple effect of that can only make an already impressive bench unit even more formidable.
Dwane Casey’s starting unit, which for now includes Markieff Morris as Griffin’s stand-in, has struggled offensively in both games. Reggie Jackson missed the preseason finale with lower-back tightness and that’s spilled over into the regular season. He’s clearly lacked burst in the first two games, rarely even threatening to attack the rim. When a path cleared for him in Thursday’s loss to Atlanta and Jackson was gifted a straight-line dunk, he winced upon landing and then ran – well, sort of – stiffly downcourt.
By early in the third quarter, he was out for good. The five-man unit of Jackson, Morris, Andre Drummond, Tony Snell and Bruce Brown carries an offensive rating of 86.4. That’s … bad. Again, small sample size. But a unit without Griffin and a clearly damaged Jackson probably isn’t going to generate enough offense to give the bench a fighting chance.
The good news? The Derrick Rose-Luke Kennard tandem has been everything the Pistons could have hoped. Even after missing his last five 3-pointers on Thursday, Kennard is at 50 percent through two games. The suspicion that he’d take a significant leap in year three still seems the likeliest outcome of all Pistons possibilities for 2019-20.
Rose, for his part, has been a revelation. What Casey, teammates and insiders whispered about Rose’s training camp explosiveness has been confirmed over the first two games, in which he’s averaging 22.5 points and 6.0 assists on 63 percent shooting in 26 minutes a game.
That’s about the limit of how much the Pistons are going to play Rose, too, no matter the temptation to push him past 30 even with Jackson sidelined or limited. They trust Tim Frazier, who started 19 games and logged more than 1,000 minutes last season. But if Jackson misses any time, maybe Casey starts Rose in an attempt to avoid the slow starts that have surfaced in the first two games.
The Pistons survived the opener at Indiana because the Pacers started even slower, not scoring on the first eight possessions. But bad third quarters both nights put the Pistons in a hole. The combined brilliance of Rose, Kennard and Drummond saved them at Indiana, but when fatigue from the emotional and physical toll exacted by that opening win hit in Thursday’s second half and affected all three, the Pistons had no passing gear left to hang with the well-rested Hawks.
Starting Rose, as tempting as it might be, makes it tougher to manage his minutes. Even with Jackson struggling, Casey played Rose less than five minutes of Thursday’s first quarter – clearly a move to save his rationed minutes for crunch time. If Griffin were in the lineup, giving the starting unit a dynamic scorer and facilitator, starting Frazier would be the likely route.
Without Griffin and with the starting unit struggling to generate offense, it becomes a more complicated decision. Two games is the flimsiest of sample sizes, especially when a resolution is as near as Griffin’s eventual return. Dwane Casey would love to have more evidence to inform the decision facing him, but the NBA season might be moving a little too fast to allow him that luxury.