The Pistons are almost through their preseason schedule and through those four games, we know just a little more about how the puzzle will look when things get started for real on Oct. 18 against the Charlotte Hornets at Little Caesars Arena.
There have been several lingering injuries and minor maladies that have sidelined a few of their starters, making things difficult for coach Stan Van Gundy to get a gauge on how he’s going to manage his rotation. Typically, he’s kept his rotation at about nine players, but with the emergence of a few young players, Van Gundy has said he could extend it to 10.
Assuming that the starting unit will be Reggie Jackson, Avery Bradley, Stanley Johnson, Tobias Harris and Andre Drummond, that leaves a big group of players competing for the final four or five rotation spots. Ish Smith and Jon Leuer appear to be locks, so it leaves two or three spots for the following: Langston Galloway, Luke Kennard, Reggie Bullock, Anthony Tolliver, Henry Ellenson and Boban Marjanovic.
There are some signs that Van Gundy is leaning toward Bullock — who will miss the first five regular-season games for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy — as well as Ellenson and Tolliver, but the rest is still very much unclear.
That versatility is a strength, but beyond who plays, the big question will be how many minutes each player gets at each position. A prime example is Leuer, who likely will see plenty of time as the backup power forward and the second center, against mobile bigs.
Here’s the latest edition of the the Mail Satchel:
■ Question: Ish Smith > than Reggie.
■ Answer: In Jeopardy, you would have to put this in the form of a question, but I think I get where you’re going. Smith has looked very good in the preseason, including 22 points and eight assists against the Raptors. From the MOET Index (My Own Eye Test), I noted in the second preseason game about Smith having good chemistry with Bradley and Johnson on the wings. That’s a potent trio in transition
“(Defense) is important with Ish in the game because if you can get stops, you can run — and Ish is a guy who really pushes the ball,” Van Gundy said. “If you’re not getting stops and you’re coming up in halfcourt, you take away his greatest strength: pushing the ball in transition.
“It’s important to defend but to see Ish at his best, your team has to be getting stops.”
In reality, it doesn’t make a difference — everything points to Jackson being the starter. What is more likely to happen is that Van Gundy will tweak the minutes rotations so that Smith gets at least a few more minutes with Johnson and/or Bradley to take advantage of that speed. Often, it doesn’t matter who’s on the floor, because Smith will be looking to run with any group.
■ Q: Is Andre Drummond’s free throw improvement real? Or flash in the pan? From @rcshea17
■ A: I’m going to say it’s real — and I may end up being wrong. But I’ll qualify it: It’s real in the sense that it’ll get him to 50 percent this season. Is that enough? Many folks want him to be competing with Steph Curry’s numbers at the line, with just a summer of work. He’s adapted some new mechanics and his mental approach seems to be different. There’s a vast difference between preseason and regular season, and even the final minutes of a critical game. He’s 12-of-14 in the preseason and Van Gundy joked that he might have Drummond shooting technical fouls. That’s a huge jump, any way you look at it.
■ Q: Three-guard lineups with Kennard as the nominal SF — just a preseason experiment or something we’ll see during the season? — From @lazchance
■ A: That might actually be a thing. There doesn’t appear to be a lot of depth at small forward behind Johnson and Bullock, so Kennard could sneak in some minutes there, as could Tolliver. There are plenty of options with the rotations, but in those three-guard looks, Kennard would be defending a guard and maybe Bradley would slide over to guard a small forward. It’ll be mostly matchup-based decisions.
■ Q: What do you believe is more important for Pistons success this year, Reggie Jackson’s health or Stanley’s (apparently) improved shooting? — From @steaknshake1
■ A: Jackson’s health is the biggest concern, bar none. If he’s healthy and has his typical burst and explosion on the first step — which he’s shown in the last two preseason games — it could be the difference between them just eking into the playoffs and getting maybe a No. 6 or 7 seed. Jackson has been a bit rusty with his mid-range and floater shots, but that timing and touch likely will come back soon enough.