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Livers back, Duren & Bogdanovic close as Pistons hope to turn a corner

If you wondered how much the Pistons believed Isaiah Livers was missed while out all of training camp and the first month and 14 games of the regular season, the proof came at crunch time of his first game back.

On a minutes restriction and having the sort of shooting night someone getting dropped into the middle of an NBA season might be expected to endure, Livers was entrusted with winning-time minutes against the defending NBA champion Denver Nuggets.

“His ability to stay in front of the ball is going to help us and his versatility is going to help us,” Monty Williams said. “We just love his ability to space the floor, to play in point-five (taking a half-second to make a decision to shoot, pass or dribble). He’s a good passer. We’re happy to have that kind of size and versatility in the rotation.”

Livers has endured a series of relatively minor injuries – hip, shoulder, ankle – in his two-plus NBA seasons, just enough to knock him off stride. When he’s managed to string stretches of injury-free weeks together, the flashes have been tantalizing. Livers offers a coveted combination of size, athleticism, 3-point shooting, defensive versatility and basketball IQ.

That package of traits makes Livers an easy fit in virtually any conceivable lineup Williams might conjure. Livers’ ability to slide his feet on the perimeter yet contest shots at the rim caught Williams’ eye in the full-court scrimmaging the Pistons engaged in during voluntary workouts ahead of training camp. It was in one such run that Livers came down on a teammate’s foot and suffered a Grade 3 sprain, the most severe.

The Pistons might have survived Livers’ absence if injuries hadn’t also knocked Bojan Bogdanovic and Monte Morris out before the first preseason game and rippled through the rest of the roster. With 70 man-games lost to injury, most in the NBA, we’ve yet to see the Pistons that Williams envisioned and spent his off-season tailoring schemes to best suit.

In addition to the injuries to Bogdanovic, Morris and Livers – their leading returning scorer, anticipated second-team quarterback and most versatile two-way wing, three key rotation pieces – the Pistons have also played six games without Alec Burks, seven without Jalen Duren, seven and counting without Joe Harris, four without Jaden Ivey and one without Killian Hayes.

But getting Livers back cracks the door and news came Tuesday afternoon that Duren and Bogdanovic might be on his heels.

The reinforcements will open up entire chapters of Williams’ playbook. To this point, the Pistons have been forced to play lineups at either end of the spectrum – two big men sometimes, three and even four guards other times – with a lack of wing depth. Livers and Bogdanovic address that problem. It hurts that Morris will be re-evaluated in six to eight weeks for a quad injury after receiving a platement-rich plasma injection last week, but the emergence of rookie Marcus Sasser softens the blow at least a bit.

Beyond the on-paper boost the cavalry promises, there’s the intangible lift coming for a team that felt chemistry and camaraderie were its secret weapons to combat the youth and inexperience that history shows are unkind to NBA teams.

“Liv brings an energy boost for us,” Ivey said after Monday’s last-minute loss to the Nuggets. “We were happy to see him back out there tonight. He’s a great shooter, but on the defensive end, that’s a given what he brings. It’s very crucial for our team.”

General manager Troy Weaver built the roster to give Williams defense and depth, but the depth was gutted and key defensive pieces like Duren and Livers have been unavailable too often to get an idea of what the Williams-led Pistons really look like. Livers was the first to get hurt, starting a domino effect. The basketball gods owe it to the Pistons that Livers’ return to health also triggers a trend.