Pistons coach Maurice Cheeks is still trying to figure out which combinations work best with his new team. (Don Ryan / Associated Press)
Auburn Hills — The Pistons’ stunning and nearly inexcusable loss to the Lakers on Friday night was their worst nightmare wrapped in a tidy package of all the things they should’ve feared headed into the season.
And while Pistons coach Maurice Cheeks doesn’t have a crisis on his hands, he has to answer quite a few questions over the month of December.
They’ll play 17 games in the next month, including two against the champion Miami Heat, and one each against the Indiana Pacers and surprising Minnesota Timberwolves. The chumps and frauds will be revealed in December, no longer able to say the sample size is too small to make intelligent, wide-ranging judgments about their teams.
“We can’t keep preaching that ‘we gotta get on the right track’ or ‘it’s too early,’” guard Brandon Jennings said, before his free throws contributed to the Pistons’ 106-102 loss to the Lakers. “We need a sense of urgency. We have to start turning the corner. It’s already been a month into the season; we just passed Thanksgiving.”
For the 6-10 Pistons, an overtime loss in Memphis and Friday’s loss to the Lakers loom as the biggest games that could come back to haunt them later in the season — be it for playoff seeding or playoff qualification, period.
Here’s a few of the biggest questions Cheeks will face:
Andre Drummond or Greg Monroe?
It seems like it’ll come down to either Drummond or Monroe to finish games, with the likelihood of filling in Josh Smith as a fixture, barring foul trouble or other factors. Cheeks chose to sit Drummond after the second-year center picked up his fourth foul early in the third quarter Friday, and didn’t bring him back in — after just 16 minutes (13 points, 11 rebounds).
Monroe was having success against Pau Gasol, offensively. And despite Drummond’s underwhelming numbers in terms of rim protection, Monroe still is not the threat Drummond is, so he’ll have to provide scoring. But he can only do that if given opportunities, which didn’t happen against the Lakers.
Nobody, especially a starved fan base, wants to hear it, but the politics say this could be the future pattern — since Smith is the team’s highest-paid player, Monroe is playing for his next deal, and Drummond is just 20 years old. It’s easier for Cheeks to do this.
In an earlier interview with The News, Cheeks said the decision of who to play could be his biggest test as coach this season.
“It could be, but it’s not written in stone,” Cheeks said, while admitting he called Drummond to return in the fourth before sitting him down. “Like last night. They put another small in the game, I kept with four smalls as opposed to two bigs. You have to make a decision if you want another scorer or another rebounder.”
To be clear, Singler isn’t playing awful. He’s usually where he’s supposed to be, and you know you’re going to get effort, so there’s a comfort level with Singler off the bench.
But he can’t hit a jumper to save his life right now, and if there’s one tangible this team needs — aside from actually running plays in the final minutes of close games — it’s crucial jump shooting with all the bigs on the floor.
Singler is shooting just 22 percent from 3-point range. He’s often missing wide-open shots, which can be demoralizing, especially if teams such as the Lakers are spreading the floor to the tune of 14 triples.
In essence, one could say Cheeks chose to play Singler over Drummond, even though they don’t play the same position or role. He clearly feels more comfortable as starter, but Cheeks said that’s not happening. So does the coach decide to play Gigi Datome more?
Who'll close games?
This is less about who’s on the floor and more about who the Pistons are going to. Of course, there’s not one player who has a supreme physical offensive advantage over their opponent. In other words, no Kevin Durant, no Carmelo Anthony, no LeBron James. Newsflash, right?
The one benefit of having Chauncey Billups, even though he’s advanced in age, is that he knows where everybody should be during tense moments of close games. Even with Billups, however, the Pistons are the fourth-youngest team in the NBA. Young teams tend to deviate from ball movement in fourth quarters and the Pistons are no different (one fourth-quarter assist Friday). Rodney Stuckey is the closest thing to a closer this roster has, and Jennings says he has no fear in clutch situations. But the offense tends to bog down when Stuckey has the ball — it’s more a product of strategy than selfishness — and Jennings has the well-known tendency to take bad shots.
Is it a work in progress of the lesser of two evils?
Strength or weaknesses?
Of course, one question that comes up: Will the Pistons play all three bigs in the closing moments of games? Now, the Lakers run a small lineup even on their worst day, so it’s not the best representative of a typical opponent. But will the Pistons try to force other teams’ hands by playing Smith, Monroe and Drummond together to finish games? If they can’t shoot — and there’s no evidence things will change any time soon — should they go with those three and challenge the opposition to adjust?
Drummond has to be better at the rim defensively to make this work, because the Pistons don’t seem keen on finishing with shooters, such as Datome or Charlie Villanueva.
They’re straddling the line, in a sense, and there’s no clear answer to either question.
Still think coaching in the NBA is an easy job?