The Pistons got their first glimpse of lineups with two big men side by side in Saturday’s matchup with Boston. If they’re right about the futures of Isaiah Stewart, Jalen Duren and Marvin Bagley III, the fact it took until the season’s 14th game will be but a historic footnote.
Bagley, 23, is the elder statesmen of the group and in his fifth NBA season. Stewart, 21, is in his third year. Duren, the NBA’s youngest player, turns 19 this week. They’re all works in progress but the individual ceilings are tantalizing. Collectively, they give the Pistons a mixture of toughness, athleticism, rebounding and shot-blocking they haven’t had since the heyday of Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace and Antonio McDyess.
It was a very different NBA, of course, when the Wallaces and McDyess terrorized Pistons opponents. Playing with two big men in that era was the norm. Most teams took 80 percent of their shots inside the 3-point arc. Nobody could play any of those three off the floor without risking getting pulverized in the paint.
Bagley, who scored four points and blocked two shots in 17 minutes after missing a month with a knee injury suffered in the preseason, believes ironing out the kinks will come with the familiarity only experience can provide.
“Just doing it more. Just playing on the court at the same time more and reading each other,” Bagley said. “We’ve got different guys who can do a lot of different things, big guys who can do a lot of different things. Once we’re out there, we’ve just got to read each other and that comes with time.”
Most of Bagley’s minutes against Boston came alongside Duren, though there was a two-minute span late in the third quarter when Bagley replaced Stewart and played as the lone big man. Bagley roughly split his time equally between forward and power center during his time with Sacramento and says he’s equally comfortable playing either spot.
One reason Dwane Casey might have been leaning toward starting Bagley – he started two of three preseason games before injury struck – was Isaiah Stewart’s burgeoning 3-point threat pairs better with Bagley than a Bagley-Duren duo and Duren’s more paint-based skill set at this point. Cade Cunningham missing at least the next three games while he deals with left shin pain might argue against making any further changes to the starting lineup until his return, but a Bagley move to the starting lineup remains a prominent option.
For as long as Bagley comes off the bench, his scoring ability – Bagley’s career average per 36 minutes is 19.5 – will be of great service to a second unit starved for consistent production. Alec Burks scored 17 points in his debut on Friday night before taking Saturday off as a precaution. The Pistons are on the cusp of having the ingredients to field two well-balanced units. The challenge for Casey will be to sort through the possibilities to find the best functional combinations. He’s happy to have the options.
“I like the rebounding, the size, the presence at the rim,” Casey said of Saturday’s experiment. “Even though they may not block a shot, other teams know they’re at the restricted line. Offensively, we’ve got to make sure we have spacing. The spacing has to get better, but the defensive rebounding and rim protection is something we need – and the size at the rim.”
Bagley came into training camp exuding confidence and optimism fresh off signing a three-year contract with the Pistons. The trade that brought him to Detroit from Sacramento at the February trade deadline last winter, he said at the time, had made basketball enjoyable again. He didn’t want to let the idle time while recuperating dim his optimism.
“I was really focused and locked in,” he said. “My main goal was to stay locked in throughout the whole time – practices, on the bench during games, just being ready. The day (his injury) happened, I didn’t know how long I was going to be out but once I got the timeline I was going to be out, I just mentally prepared for it and now I’m back, ready to play. It felt good being back out there.”
It puts the Pistons that much closer to having all of their puzzle pieces intact. Now it will be a matter of putting them in their proper place.