June 14, 2013 at 2:10 am

John Niyo

Brandon Knight's role remains Pistons' biggest question mark

Auburn Hills —At least the Pistons have a point guard on the roster now.

But it’d be a good idea if they found another one soon. Because as Maurice Cheeks, the team’s new head coach noted Thursday at his introductory news conference, “The game certainly is played a lot different than when I was a point guard.”

Certainly, he’s right, though even at 56 Cheeks still looks like he could hold his own on the court. But the need for a floor leader remains in today’s NBA, and it’s a need the Pistons haven’t adequately filled since trading away Chauncey Billups in the fall of 2008.

They tried in the draft — first with Rodney Stuckey, then with Brandon Knight — and again this past winter with the trade for Toronto’s Jose Calderon. But since Calderon’s scheduled to be a free agent this summer, and his name wasn’t mentioned once Thursday by either Cheeks or general manager Joe Dumars, you do get the sense he’s moving on.

If true, that leaves the Pistons stuck with the same two-headed coin in their pocket, and a couple of nagging questions: What do they really have in Knight, their 2011 lottery pick, and what do they do with Stuckey, who is entering the partially-guaranteed final year of his second NBA contract in Detroit?

For what it’s worth, Cheeks talked about them both when asked a question about one. The conventional wisdom seems to be the Pistons new coach will be tasked with nurturing Knight’s growth into a bonafide NBA point guard, based on his All-Star playing career as well a his mentoring work as a coach, most recently with Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City.

But neither Cheeks nor Dumars sounded ready to fully commit to that project Thursday.

“Brandon has some point-guard skills, and he has some 2-guard skills,” said Cheeks, who still ranks among the NBA’s top 10 all-time in assists and steals 20 years after his retirement.

“So I’m not gonna label Brandon as just a point guard. Stuckey can also play some point guard. To say (Knight) can just be a point guard, I don’t think so. He can be a 1 and he can be a 2, as Stuckey can.”

That’s the same two-step routine Dumars has been playing for months, ever since he made the deal for the ultra-efficient Calderon — “Because it’s clear we need a true point guard on this team,” the GM said at the time — and effectively tabled the discussion of Knight’s future at the position.

“He’s a guy that you can play at both positions,” Dumars said Thursday, when I asked him again about Knight’s role. “Other teams are doing it. It’s not a novel concept.”

Best player available

Nor is it a novel idea the uncertainty actually helps the Pistons’ pre-draft smokescreen, as they sit and wait and wonder what their options will be with the eighth overall pick. But to hear Dumars talk, it also helps his draft-night strategy, similar to the way Greg Monroe’s position flexibility — that’s the positive spin, of course — gave the team the flexibility to draft Andre Drummond last June.

“What it does do is allow you to draft the best player,” Dumars said, sounding a lot like Martin Mayhew, his Lions counterpart. “Let’s say you’re looking at a guard. You can draft the best point or the best 2-guard.”

Now, would the Pistons draft a Trey Burke or Michael Carter-Williams or even C.J. McCollum, another combo guard, with the No. 8 pick? Assuming Ben McLemore and Victor Oladipo are already off the board, would they opt for a shooting guard like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope or Jamaal Franklin?

Either way, you could argue it’d nudge Knight to one side or another, and perhaps out of the starting five eventually, which might be where he belongs — as an ideal third guard — in the end. (Among qualified point guards last season, Knight ranked 50th in assist-to-turnover ratio.) But don’t ask the Pistons to make any declarations at this point about Knight, who is still only 21 years old and whose growth was admittedly stunted by the lockout as a rookie in 2011.

“Right now, I don’t think you can slot him,” Dumars said. “Going into his third year, I don’t think we’re in a position to say he’s just a point guard or he’s just a 2-guard. The way we’ve got to look at him right now is he’s a combo guard.”

Of course, as Dumars quickly added, “He might disagree.” And that’s probably understating it a bit: Knight absolutely views himself as a point guard. So we’ll have to see how it plays out if the Pistons do end up drafting another guard, and if they don’t end up dealing Stuckey.

Dumars has options

And then we’ll see what Dumars can do in free agency and via trades, where he promises to be aggressive without repeating the mistakes he made in 2009. He’ll have between $20-25 million in cap space this summer, and the phone already is ringing with teams searching for luxury-tax relief, but Dumars insists he won’t spend “just for the sake of it.”

“I think we’re in a good position to make a significant jump right now,” Dumars insisted Thursday. “It’s tough get to this point where you can get to this type of cap space and flexibility. It’s tough to ride through that and get to this point. But now that we’re here …”

Well, I guess that’s my point. Now that they’re here, it’d help if they had a better idea who was leading this team on the court. Among Cheeks’ many chores as the new coach, figuring that out has to be near the top of the list.



Pistons president Joe Dumars and new coach Maurice Cheeks have to decide what is the most effective role for Brandon Knight. / Clarence Tabb, Jr./Detroit News
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