Interest in which five players will comprise a team’s starting lineup is a degree of magnitude greater than the actual importance of the quintet’s identity. Now that we have that qualifier out of the way, let’s think about the thought process that Dwane Casey probably has already undergone with still more than two months to go until Pistons training camp opens.
We’re going to start with a premise that might be on faulty ground, but you have to start somewhere. The dead-solid locks to start are Cade Cunningham and Saddiq Bey. After that, I think the next safest bet is Isaiah Stewart. He’s so well respected for his selflessness and his work ethic, so sound in the pillars of his duties at both ends and so highly regarded by both teammates and coaches that even with so many options among big men – Kelly Olynyk, Marvin Bagley III, Nerlens Noel and incoming 18-year-old Jalen Duren – Stewart strikes me as the clear front-runner to start.
Next in line: Jaden Ivey. The fact he’s a top-five pick coming to a rebuilding team makes for a compelling enough case, but Ivey’s athleticism and speed are redeeming complementary attributes alongside Cunningham and Bey.
So that’s where we start: Cunningham, Bey, Stewart and Ivey.
After that, all bets are off. But let’s make some, anyway.
Here are the six likeliest options as the roster stands today listed with the odds as I see them.
Cory Joseph, 5 percent – Killian Hayes got some traction as the point guard with the second unit last season and he’s likely to start in that role for 2022-23. Alec Burks seems the odds-on choice to come off the bench and be the scoring anchor for the second unit alongside him. Would Joseph have any role in that scenario if he’s not in the starting lineup at least as a nominal starter? Casey loves Joseph and Joseph has been a terrific conduit for a young team in serving as Casey’s extension, helping put in action the coach’s vision. He’s got the kind of game that knits together the cumulative talents of a unit.
Hamidou Diallo, 10 percent – If Casey wants to have a designated defensive stopper to guard the other team’s best player at any spot two through four, maybe Diallo starts. He was good in that role last season when Jerami Grant went down, freeing Bey to slide to power forward where he jump-started his second season after an uneven first six weeks. Diallo doesn’t take many threes (18 percent of shots last season) and isn’t a legitimate threat (25 percent last season) and that might be too big an impediment. Maybe if Casey gets positive vibes from Cunningham and Ivey as 3-point threats, he can live with it and that unleashes Diallo to juice up the starting unit defensively.
Kelly Olynyk, 15 percent – This might come down to how strongly Casey feels about Stewart’s ability to play on the perimeter at both ends. Olynyk is very comfortable at that end offensively away from the basket, so it becomes more a question of the defensive fit. If Stewart can guard stretch fours credibly, then Casey can mix and match to the best defensive matchups for Stewart and Olynyk. And if Stewart can continue to make strides from the 3-point line – the 11 of 18 to finish the 2021-22 regular season was buttressed by the 5 of 9 in two Summer League games – then he can use Stewart and Olynyk almost interchangeably on offense, as well.
Alec Burks, 20 percent – Burks’ candidacy might be crimped by his value to the second unit. I’d give him much stronger odds to be a staple of the closing unit. If Casey winds up valuing volume 3-point certainty ahead of defensive concerns, then Burks next to Cunningham and Ivey – made possible by Cunningham’s ability to guard small forwards – makes a lot of sense, which is another reason we’re likely to see Burks as part of the unit entrusted to finish games.
Marvin Bagley III, 20 percent – As with Olynyk, Bagley’s appeal as a starter goes up if Casey feels good about Stewart’s capacity for handling a variety of defensive matchups. Given that most teams start with bigger lineups and tend to go smaller to finish games, it might be easier to make use of a roster heavy on big men now by employing two of them to start games. Bagley went into the off-season intent on honing his 3-point game. If he comes back looking like that’s happened, then a Bagley-Stewart combination might be functional at both ends.
Isaiah Livers, 30 percent – I’m making Livers the favorite for a few reasons, but maybe the biggest is it requires the fewest “ifs” to come to life. Livers is there with Burks as the best 3-point option and it doesn’t require any finger crossing at the defensive end. Casey has consistently praised Livers’ basketball IQ and Summer League coach Jordan Brink did, as well, as Livers was at the heart of defensive communication in Las Vegas. He and Bey would be interchangeable, allowing Casey to give Bey the lighter defensive assignment to accommodate the increased burden he’ll have on offense with Grant out of the picture.