Troy Weaver has made no effort to conceal his affinity for big men, but he hasn’t allowed that – or anything else – to stand in the way of making moves that get him to his ultimate goal of establishing the Pistons as lasting title contenders.
Last season’s roster, for a recent glaring example, left the Pistons thin enough up front that when Kelly Olynyk went down with a knee injury that cost him more than two months, Dwane Casey’s options behind Isaiah Stewart came down to Luka Garza, a rookie drafted 52nd, or career power forward Trey Lyles.
This year, the Pistons have a surplus of big men after adding three since February: Marvin Bagley III and Nerlens Noel via trade and Jalen Duren via the draft.
Even after the late-September trade of Olynyk for Bojan Bogdanovic bolstered the Pistons on several fronts, they’re still left with four high-pedigree big men. The only way all four fit in the rotation is if Casey commits to playing two at a time with both the first and second units, a heavy lift in today’s NBA.
“It’s tough,” Casey admitted. “What’s going to have to manifest itself is – it’s not natural right now – for Isaiah to kind of slide to the four just to open some spots for everybody. Because right now, it’s the four (big men) and it’s tough to play that many in today’s game.”
Of the four big men, Stewart and Bagley are the two in line to get trial runs as power forwards. Bagley, in fact, has essentially split time at the two spots over his four-year NBA career, though as a career 29 percent shooter he doesn’t fit the profile of a stretch four just yet. But both players prepared over the off-season to fill that role.
“Shooting was definitely a big thing this summer for me, being able to knock that down,” Bagley said. “Last season wasn’t my best shooting season, but I know I’m capable and my confidence is there. This summer was about putting in the reps and tweaking certain things. When the games come I’ll be ready to go and be confident in letting them fly.”
Stewart hit 11 of 18 shots over his last eight games last season and 5 of 9 in two Summer League games, which is at once a small sample size and promising.
“I worked on my 3-point shot a lot this off-season,” Stewart said. “I feel like they’re expecting me to be able to shoot and make threes and continue to space the floor out. I think it’ll help us offensively.”
Becoming a reasonably proficient 3-point shooter on any appreciable volume, while important, isn’t all there is to being able to effectively absorb minutes at power forward.
“Understanding spacing,” Casey said, ticking off the things that don’t come naturally to a player like Stewart, who has always – by virtue of his size relative to his peers – played within arm’s length of the basket. “Say, for instance, Marvin is posting up. Do I stay there at the elbow and let my man sag down or do I cut out? All those things that are normal for a perimeter player to do. The other thing is transition D. He’s so used to getting back and covering the paint. Now you’re guarding a four-man shooter and now I’ve got to go find him.”
Even Duren might eventually prove a good enough shooter to allow greater frontcourt flexibility, displaying surprising touch and range in post-practice shooting drills on Thursday, day three of training camp. But for now the likeliest option to take minutes at power forward of the four-man cohort is Stewart, at 21 and embarking on year three.
“Speaking with coach Casey and his staff in general, I feel like I’ll find myself at the four spot and being interchangeable,” Stewart said.
At the very least, Stewart and Bagley are focused on showing enough for Casey to feel comfortable using them in tandem or playing alongside either of Duren or Noel, the latter still limited in practice by a bout of plantar fasciitis.
“I don’t know what the plan is,” Bagley said. “I’m leaving that to coach and the coaching staff, but my job is to just make sure I’m ready every single day to come in and do the best I can do to help the team. That’s how I’m approaching every day in training camp. That’s how I’ve been approaching the summertime.”