Auburn Hills — The Pistons were going to go through a period of adjustment this season already. Now coach Maurice Cheeks has his first stretch of mini-crisis to guide his team through.
Injuries to Brandon Jennings and Rodney Stuckey leave Cheeks without his two most talented guards, and stalls his objective of weaving Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe and Josh Smith into a cohesive unit.
Because all three players can make plays, and there’s no elite-level playmaker on the floor with them, they’re all doing a little too much — which has led to some erratic, uneven play on offense.
Before Sunday’s game against Orlando, the two previous games produced numbers Pistons fans don’t want to see on a regular-season box score: The trio shot 8-for-28 against a pretty good Bulls defense with five turnovers. Against Cleveland, though, they doubled up on the turnovers (six) and shot 15-for-35 from the field.
When the point guards are away, the bigs will play, and stops Cheeks from seeing which player combinations work and which ones should be permanently shelved.
“We trust them with the ball, the ability to pass is a good thing. With trust, there’s responsibility so if we trust you with it, we trust you to take care of it. You just have to pass it to the right ... jersey,” he said with a laugh.
It was a definite point of emphasis in Saturday’s practice, Cheeks said, but it’s tough to tell players used to being unselfish to turn that mechanism off — especially if there’s no true checks and balances on the floor.
There’s no doubt a segment of fans would like Stuckey sent on the first Greyhound out of Detroit, but he holds a certain value on the team, just through his ability to keep the big players from having to do too much.
“We had a lot of turnovers,” Cheeks said. “We had a number of turnovers from our big guys, unforced turnovers. We can correct it. That’s what we did today. Typically, your turnovers come from your guards.”
Cheeks acknowledges putting Smith on the low block more often can curtail some of these issues — which comes with the caveat that opposing teams have been happy with Smith taking long jumpers for years.
“I have to put him in better positions,” Cheeks said. “It’s on both of us. But I have to put him in better positions where he’s not coming down and hoisting up a shot.”
If Chauncey Billups were in his prime, it wouldn’t be a monumental task to have him corral his big men, but to expect him to be the primary playmaker at this stage of his career isn’t realistic.
That’s why his being on the floor as a safety valve for Jennings is likely what makes him the best fit in the starting lineup, despite his advanced age. Billups said the responsibility lies with the guards.
“It’s tough, when you’re missing (guys),” Billups said. “We’re missing our playmakers. In our system and what we’re going to do, that’s gonna decide a lot. Make the bigs look good. It’s tough to get an honest gauge.”
Former Piston Tayshaun Prince, who’s trade helped facilitate the acquisition of Smith by freeing up salary cap space, said he thinks the trio can work, but that it’ll take nearly a quarter of the season to establish a level of comfort.
“There’s pluses and negatives to everything,” Prince told NBA.com last week. “I’m pretty sure one way or the other, they’ll figure it out. I think whatever suits them best, when they figure it out 15 or 20 games into the season, then they’ll make the necessary adjustments.”
That’s where Cheeks comes in. He’s already proven he’s nothing like his predecessor, Lawrence Frank. He routinely says he’s not in the business of burning guys out through grueling two-hour practices, and he’s earned their trust thus far.
He hasn’t made any excuses for the absences of Stuckey and Jennings, but he can’t implement any new vision with parts missing.
“When you have new players trying to get used to one another, it’s unfortunate that guys get hurt,” Cheeks said. “You’re not gonna have the cohesiveness that you thought you could work out in the preseason.”
It’s one he’ll have to work through until and even after those two return — bringing them back up to speed while not losing crucial ground in a crucial season for the franchise.