Milwaukee — Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy is probably not a fan of Chuck E. Cheese or other kids party spots.
Yet dealing with the team’s early-season struggles likely would remind him of a game of whack-a-mole. The litany of issues continues to pop up at random in games: poor bench production, no ball movement, lack of energy and inexplicable turnovers.
In one game, one gets fixed. In the next, another rears its head.
Up and down. Down and up.
In Monday night’s 109-88 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, Van Gundy pointed to the lack of effort and sluggish defense as the culprits. The bench was better, but in a lopsided way. It played more minutes, with Stanley Johnson scoring 16 and Anthony Tolliver a season-high 13 points, after going scoreless in the previous three games.
Up and down.
The key in the scenario is that in his dual role as team president and coach, Van Gundy holds the mallet to try to smash the maladies.
The bench troubles are somewhat understandable — the two best scorers, Jodie Meeks and Brandon Jennings, haven’t played a minute. Jennings is set to return in about a month and Meeks is out until around the All-Star break.
That means, for the foreseeable future, the Pistons have what they have. Vinnie Johnson isn’t coming through that door. Neither is Chucky Atkins or Will Bynum.
Van Gundy might be trying to ride things out until Jennings returns from his Achilles rehab, but there’s no guarantee that he’ll be close to his near-All-Star form from last season. Achilles injuries generally are tricky that way, and even in one-on-one workouts in practice, he doesn’t have the same burst, which is one of his biggest assets.
The bench, as constituted, won’t do, especially given the Pistons’ surprising start and their chance to make an impact and get to the playoffs this season.
“There’s options; we’ve got good players and they’re playing hard,” Van Gundy said Monday. “I have to find a way to rotate them better and to maybe help them in some of the stuff we run offensively. That’s my responsibility. We’ll keep trying to work on it.”
The best option likely is for Van Gundy to figure out a trade to try to improve the bench. The additions of forwards Ersan Ilyasova (9.4 points) and Marcus Morris (14.1 points) have helped. Van Gundy will have to be careful, though, not to break up the core that he’s created, with Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond forming the desired pick-and-roll combination. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is valuable because of his defense and outside shooting, but the bench doesn’t have the same punch.
Stanley Johnson is showing promise, but Van Gundy readily admits the rookie needs more seasoning, including developing a midrange game instead of either bulling his way to the rim or launching from 3-point range.
The trade market probably doesn’t favor the Pistons — and don’t dare utter the name Carmelo Anthony — but they don’t need a big piece; rather, they could get by with a wing player who can create his own shot.
From the start of last season, Van Gundy has almost completely turned over the roster, and it’s close to his blueprint, but may benefit from a savvy veteran to add to the locker room presence or a steady shooter.
“I like the group we have now, and I’m very hopeful we’ll have far less turnover now,” Van Gundy said last month, “and it’ll just be a piece or two every year changing and not wholesale changes.”
Changing the roster too much, too soon, would have a bad impact on a young locker room that is just jelling from the offseason overhaul. Going for broke with a big name could make things go sideways — instead of just up and down.
But with the playoffs in view, a small addition is the quick fix — and the best answer.