Lawrence Frank: ‘Earn It’

‘Incumbent starter’ not a term Pistons coach recognizes

The Pistons were kicking along at 4-19 last winter when Lawrence Frank inserted Jason Maxiell in the starting lineup at power forward. Playing their third game in three nights, the first two blowout losses at Milwaukee and New York, they lost at New Jersey but played hard and had a shot to win in the closing seconds. From 4-20, they went 21-21 down the stretch.

It would be gross oversimplification to credit their dramatic about-face to Maxiell’s insertion, especially since it didn’t fundamentally change the rotation. Frank’s interior foursome continued to be Maxiell, Greg Monroe, Jonas Jerebko and Ben Wallace.

But it also would ignore reality to write off the lineup switch and the resulting record turnaround as coincidence. And Lawrence Frank, who trusts his instincts but studies the numbers, wouldn’t dare to do so.

Yet if you think Frank is loathe to tinker with a starting lineup that returns intact, guess again. Fifteen players with guaranteed contracts will open training camp on Oct. 2 and Frank would tell you that each of them will be given a shot to prove his worth.

“I’ve never believed in incumbents,” he told me this week. “Maybe if you have a championship-ready team. Our goal is to win a championship, but we have a lot of work to do.”

As difficult as it is to imagine a starting lineup that doesn’t include Monroe, Tayshaun Prince, Brandon Knight and Rodney Stuckey, nobody goes into training camp with their name penned into the top of the depth chart, Frank insists.

“If you end the season as a starter, well, it’s on you to earn it back,” he said. “If you didn’t play as much as you’d like to as a reserve, go take it. But there are no incumbents. You’ve got to earn it. You’ve never arrived. That’s why our guys worked hard this summer. That’s why you see all the special players in this league, regardless of their years in it, they’re always looking to do something more and add something more. You either get better or you get worse, simple. So I don’t believe in incumbency.”

Something else he doesn’t much believe in: obsession with pigeon-holing players by position.

We’re going to start a True Blue Pistons position-by-position look at the 15-player roster starting on Monday, but understand that the five-part series – we’ll start with point guards and go through the traditional positions: shooting guards, centers, power forwards and small forwards – is structured along positional lines mostly out of convenience.

Basketball has always been harder to label than other sports, and the lines are being blurred further as coaches grow increasingly creative and flexible. In football, a left tackle is a left tackle is always a left tackle. In baseball, a left fielder is a left fielder. An outfielder, in other words, won’t ever be run out of the league if he can’t field a two-hop grounder to save his life – unless those two hops are in the outfield grass, at least.

But in basketball, a point guard will frequently find himself guarding small forwards in transition or after a pick-and-roll switch, and all five players go from offense to defense in mere seconds, or the paint to the 3-point line on the same possession.

Frank surely doesn’t get caught up in obsessing about “pure point guards” and “scoring point guards.” He coached future Hall of Famer Jason Kidd with New Jersey, a player who would earn unanimous admittance to the Pure Point Guard Club by the most strident evaluators of guard play, and to this day considers him “a guard.”

That’s a long way of saying he won’t be piecing his lineup, or his rotation, together by taking one from Column A and one from Column B, necessarily. When I asked him about the situation at center, for example, he said it wasn’t as simple as saying one of rookies Andre Drummond or Slava Kravtsov would be the backup to Greg Monroe.

He suggested the apparent logjam at power forward – where Jason Maxiell and Jonas Jerebko split time last year and Charlie Villaneuva and Austin Daye, now being considered primarily a power forward, hope to contend for minutes – could be resolved by some of those players taking minutes at center and others taking them at small forward.

Maxiell, after all, has effectively guarded everyone from Dwight Howard on down over the years. It wouldn’t be quite as easy to play Jerebko or Villanueva at that spot without regard to matchups, but as more teams field lineups that frequently lack a traditional center the possibilities open for unconventional lineups in response.

Bottom line, he’s looking for five players who play hard and fit together. And if that means he has to take two from Column A and none from Column B, so be it.

“There’s competition across the board,” he said. “You’re going to put not necessarily the five best players, but the best five that fit together, guys that complement each other and they fit. It’s pieces of the puzzle. You watch guys work every day to make your decisions.”

They’ll all come to camp with histories, but they can check their resumes at the door.

“Without ever having the benefit of a practice, you’ve got to earn it,” Frank said. “If it’s not based on earning it, there’s not a whole lot of motivation. If you’re a player, you bust your tail for the entire summer, then you come to training camp and I say, ‘Oh, no, guys, this is how it is?’ That makes no sense to me. Because then what you’re basically saying is guys cannot change, guys cannot get better and you’re unwilling as a coach to get better. That’s not the environment we have. Earn it, regardless. Earn it.”