Nothing is sacrosanct when a basketball team goes into a tailspin. The rhythms a coach is reluctant to disrupt when his team is playing near its potential become open to dissection when things go sideways.
Couple a rough patch of schedule with a run of injuries on top of the lineup disruption following last month’s trade of the two small forwards in Lawrence Frank’s rotation and … well, all bets are off over the season’s final 23 games.
The latest wrinkle: regular rotation minutes for all three power forwards on the roster. Jason Maxiell remains the starter with both Charlie Villanueva and Jonas Jerebko back in the mix. In the first half of Monday night’s loss to Atlanta – the third straight and fourth in five games since the All-Star break over a hectic seven-day period – the three roughly divided the 24 available minutes at their spot.
When Villanueva’s shot continued to betray him, his turn was bypassed in the second half and Jerebko seized the opportunity to score 19 of his 21 points to go with five rebounds (six total) and three assists.
“I thought Jonas played very, very hard,” Frank said. “I never pay attention to the numbers, but it’s amazing, when you put so much into the game, how sometimes you have big numbers. Jonas finished with 21 points and six rebounds. How many plays did we run for Jonas? Zero. But you hustle, you put a lot into the game, sometimes you fall into points just because of the effort.”
Frank made the decision to rotate all three power forwards, which goes against convention, likely in large measure due to the recent drop in production from Maxiell and Villanueva.
Maxiell was terrific in November, but has seen his numbers drop off since. Frank has said repeatedly that Maxiell’s subtle contributions – setting solid screens, providing the team’s most physical presence and serving as the defensive quarterback – supersede his conventional statistical contributions. But after shooting well over 50 percent over the first quarter of the season, Maxiell has shot 39 percent over his last 42 games and seen his rebounding come down from 6.1 to 5.2 per game.
Villanueva gave the offense a big boost after replacing Jerebko as power forward for the second unit in late November. Despite taking nearly 60 percent of his December shot attempts from the 3-point line, Villanueva still shot 44 percent in 16 December games. But in 26 games since then, he’s shooting 33 percent – and worse inside the arc (25 of 78) than beyond (35 of 100).
“We have a unique situation,” Frank said. “We have three guys who have distinct skill sets. They’re all good players; it’s just hard to play three. Well, we’re going to try to play three and see how it transpires.”
Being out of the rotation didn’t go down well for Jerebko, who described the experience as “horrible” after his 21-point Monday outing.
“But I’m trying to keep my head up and just work on my game and control the things I can control. I’m just trying to stay ready and do what I always do – work on my game and stay ready when my name is called.”
Jerebko opened the season as Maxiell’s backup. Though scoring was never his NBA calling card, his jump shot always had been enough of a weapon – coupled with his infectious hustle – to make him a valuable contributor. But that shot went astray after a solid start – Jerebko hit 19 of 40 shots in the season’s first five games, then less than 25 percent (9 of 38) over the next eight games, when he was 2 of 13 from the 3-point line.
That opened the door for Villlanueva, who provided the second unit the shooting that created the space Andre Drummond and Will Bynum required to form an effective pick-and-roll combination.
He’s had fleeting shots at playing time since, most notably in the wake of the Tayshaun Prince-Austin Daye trade that opened minutes at small forward behind Kyle Singler. Eventually, those minutes went to Rodney Stuckey as Frank looked to maximize minutes for the four-guard mix of Stuckey, Bynum, Brandon Knight and Jose Calderon.
Jerebko admits there is a certain pressure to perform when he can’t be certain how long the opportunity to stay in the rotation might last.
“Maybe a little bit in the back of my head, but I’m just trying to play the right way,” he said. “All the other things are going to come. I’m just trying to do the best of the situation.”
Jerebko is intensely competitive, a quality that endeared him to the Pistons as a rookie when he seized the chance created by a rare injury to Tayshaun Prince. He fully understands the quandary for Frank in squeezing three capable players into one position, but it didn’t make sitting any easier for him.
“We’re all good players and we can play different positions and we can be out there on the floor,” he said. “All of us – me, Charlie, Max – all of us on the team are coming to practice every day and just trying to get better. I enjoy every competition there is.”
For the time being, that competition will include first-half auditions for second-half minutes, it seems.