At various stages of training camp, Lawrence Frank has said that he wants to find not necessarily his five best players so much as the five players who play best together. He’s also said that when he decides someone has earned a shot at playing time – either a starting job or a move into the rotation – that he doesn’t react to one- or two-game samples. Five games, more or less, is his litmus test.
Those are mileposts he won’t have had the luxury of passing in time for Monday’s 2011-12 season opener at Indiana. So who starts?
“I’ve talked to the team about it,” he said after Thursday’s three-hour practice, “but we’ll have to see based on health and on performance.”
Whoever starts at Indiana isn’t guaranteed of holding on to the position long term, not with such an abbreviated preseason.
“You’re just honest with the team,” Frank said. “To know it after 16 days … you have to give some stability to the rotation, and at the same time, you have to be flexible because these are extenuating circumstances.”
It’s a fairly safe assumption to pencil in Greg Monroe and Tayshaun Prince at center and small forward, as long as the left knee that has nagged at Prince in camp is good to go. Had Rodney Stuckey been in camp on Dec. 9 instead of Dec. 17, he’d probably have one of the two backcourt spots locked up. After that, it’s a coin toss, though Jonas Jerebko is the favorite to start at power forward in the opener since Charlie Villanueva will be serving out the final four games of the five-game suspension handed down last spring for the scuffle involving him and Cleveland’s Ryan Hollins.
The backcourt is where the real intrigue lies.
The safest call would be Stuckey at point guard and Ben Gordon at shooting guard. But there are several other possibilities. Frank seems genuinely enthused by Stuckey’s all-around potential and has spoken of his vision for Stuckey as a slashing, attack-the-rim player who “lives in the paint.” He played more off of the ball than on it in the 23-minute stint against Cleveland on Tuesday to close the preseason, when he got to the foul line 10 times and was perfect, but Gordon’s absence might have had as much to do with that as any hint of Frank’s intentions.
It’s certainly possible that Frank has ideas that put Stuckey in positions to attack whether he’s at point guard or shooting guard, as well.
The fact that Brandon Knight has given strong indications he’s ready for a significant role surely will factor into Frank’s calculations. You’d have to be pretty sure that he gives you the best chance to operate efficiently on offense to entrust the starting point guard job to a rookie, but Knight so far has exhibited a poise and mental tenacity beyond his 20 years.
“Brandon is a very, very talented player, a super person, high character,” Frank said Thursday. “But only time will tell. He’s going to be a very good player, but like any player, he’s going to experience highs and lows. It’s your ability to maintain your confidence during those lows, but he’s learning every day. He soaks things up. He’s a sponge. Unbelievable work ethic. We’re very, very encouraged with what we’ve seen so far.”
With no true shooting guard on the roster other than Gordon, Stuckey likely is going to wind up playing plenty at that position regardless of whether he starts games at point guard – or on the bench. So if Knight convinces Frank he’s ready to assume the responsibility of being the starter, then it becomes a question of who starts next to him. Gordon’s history of being a productive sixth man from his days with Chicago could influence the decision, but ultimately Frank will decide based on which backcourt combination clicks best.
Will Bynum might be best suited to coming off the bench, but Bynum more than likely is going to have a spot in the rotation unless the Pistons add another veteran shooting guard that would press for time at that spot and push Stuckey back to the point for most of his minutes. As it stands now, Bynum will compete with Knight for minutes at the point. Frank wants his point guards to push tempo offensively to get the offense into its sets and to pressure 94 feet defensively at times, roles that Bynum is eager to embrace.
The Pistons likely have two more practices to make their case to Frank and his staff. While Frank believes it’s important to establish roles for players and will make lineup and rotation changes only after thorough consideration, this season more than most is likely to see lineup upheaval in the early weeks.
“Without a doubt,” he said. “And at the end of the day, it’s based on performance. It’s not etched in stone. And even during the course of the game, you have to perform as a group, as an individual, and if not we have confidence in everyone who puts on a uniform.”