Cleveland — At times, it’s been tough for coach Stan Van Gundy to figure out his playing rotations from game to game. With their litany of injuries, the Pistons have had 11 different starting lineups this season and players have missed 78 games because of various maladies.
Among the starters, they’ve had just 22 games with the opening-night lineup of Reggie Jackson, Avery Bradley, Stanley Johnson, Tobias Harris and Andre Drummond. That group is 11-11 and none of the other 10 lineups has more than eight starts together.
Losing Jon Leuer to a left ankle sprain on Oct. 31 was the first big blow —and Leuer had season-ending surgery on Friday. The biggest injury has been Jackson’s sprained right ankle, which will have him out at least two or three more weeks before he’s even cleared to return to basketball activities.
The Pistons are 3-11 since Jackson’s injury on Dec. 26, which also has short-circuited their offensive execution, leading to the current losing streak.
Before Sunday’s 121-104 loss at Cleveland, Van Gundy revealed that Bradley would miss the game because of a sore right hamstring. It’s yet another short-term setback to the starting lineup, which has missed Jackson (15 games), Bradley (eight) and Drummond (two). Harris is the only starter to play in all 48 games this season.
The injury situation and losing streak has led to a quandary for the Pistons ahead of the Feb. 8 trade deadline: make a trade to try to improve the roster, stand pat and wait for Jackson to return, or sell off assets and begin a rebuild.
Each is a murky proposition.
The bad news: the Pistons have fallen to three games behind the Bucks and Sixers — both of who have playoff tiebreakers over the Pistons — for the final playoff spot.
The good news: they’re only 4.5 games from the No. 5 spot and 5.5 games from the No. 4 position. It’s not unfathomable that the Pistons could narrow that gap in the remaining 30-plus games left in the season, especially with their easier second half.
The reality: They’re going to be hard-pressed to make any significant push without making some kind of move. They were 19-14 with Jackson as a starter but they have struggled without him. Whether they can stay in playoff contention for three more weeks is a test of faith.
There’s just nothing to suggest that they can rise from the dregs and turn things around. As Van Gundy touts, the Pistons have the ability to beat any team — but also to lose to any team in the league.
That’s an odd reality, but it doesn’t send a message to push the team’s future draft picks to the center of the table to try to make a run at a lower seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. There’s not enough evidence to suggest that the Pistons would excel in the postseason, but with Van Gundy in the fourth year of his five-year contract, it’s a reasonable guess that they make one last push with this group — if they’re even healthy at that point.
The Monday Drive looks at a few other issues surrounding the Pistons:
■ Ish Smith moved back into the starting lineup Sunday, after Langston Galloway had back-to-back starts against the Jazz and Thunder. While Smith got a return to his strongest role with the reserve unit, the Pistons starters struggled to find offensive rhythm in both games. Smith has averaged 30 minutes in his 12 starts and could have his minutes managed differently in the second and third quarters to compensate.
■ Without Jackson, the Pistons have relied more on Drummond on the offensive end. Drummond already had taken on a bigger role, playing as a point-center and initiating offense farther from the rim. In the 33 games before Jackson’s injury, Drummond was posting 14.2 points, 14.9 rebounds and 3.6 assists. In the games since, those numbers have risen to 15.9 points, 16 rebounds and 4.4 assists. More importantly, the record is 3-11.
■ Stanley Johnson’s recent surge has reignited the question of whether he should rejoin the starting lineup. It’s a delicate balance for his biggest production. He said last week that he’s comfortable playing with Luke Kennard because they can play on opposite sides of the court, as Kennard is left-handed. The other school of thought is that both should start, but that’s not likely, as long as Bradley is healthy.
■ The Pistons have five games — all at home — before the trade deadline. Three of those (Cavs, Heat and Trail Blazers) have winning records. That could go a long way in determining their strategy — and, possibly, their long-term future — in how they handle any potential deals.