Bench woes latest saga in Pistons’ bumpy ride

Rod Beard
The Detroit News

Auburn Hills — There’s no magic elixir to heal the Pistons’ ills.

The latest issue is the bench, which was outscored, 65-21, by the Boston Celtics’ reserves in Friday’s 110-98 loss. It’s a confounding issue, precipitated by Reggie Jackson’s injury, which moved point guard Ish Smith, the engine of the second group, into a starting role and sending coach Stan Van Gundy looking for alternatives.

Trading two of the top scorers, Tobias Harris and Avery Bradley, in the Blake Griffin deal didn’t help the situation. The futility in Friday’s loss was another eye-opener.

“It’s a concern; we’d love to (fix it). I’m standing here today and can’t tell you I have the answer to that,” Van Gundy said after Saturday’s practice. “We weren’t great off the bench the last couple of games but because you don’t get it fixed doesn’t mean you don’t want to get it fixed. We’re not looking at it and going, ‘It’s fine; we don’t mind if our bench gets outscored.”

The short-term fixes at point guard had been Dwight Buycks, who was converted from a two-way contract to a standard deal and then moving combo guard Langston Galloway over to the point. Neither option seemed to work well enough, with plenty of turnovers and lackluster offense leading to losses.

Neither took the reins, which seemed to pave the way for the trade with the Chicago Bulls to get Jameer Nelson, who has averaged 5.5 points and 3.8 assists in his four games with the Pistons.

Nelson has become the lightning rod, as he quickly ascending to the backup role, surpassing Buycks and Galloway in short order.

“With (Galloway) it’s up and down also and the same with Buycks. I don’t know if people remember where we were — it wasn’t like we were kicking ass,” Van Gundy said. “We were on an eight-game losing streak when those guys were playing.

“I understand (people) want our bench to play better — so do I — but the take that our bench was rolling before this, I’m not sure I’m going to buy that one.”

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It’s predictably tough to find good chemistry on the second unit with two new pieces in the second unit, after the trades for Nelson and James Ennis III ahead of the trade deadline. The default suggestion is to mix up the lineups, possibly moving Smith back to the reserve group and having another point guard start.

Van Gundy bristled at the idea, noting the starters have been the only effective five-man grouping.

“Our starters played together as a unit 20 minutes (Friday) and they were plus-9. That’s pretty much been the norm with that unit of five,” he said. “Even when we have two or three starters on the floor, we’ve struggled when we break that lineup.

“We have tried different things. when I look at my lineup sheet for the nine games Blake’s been here, we’ve played a multitude of lineups. We haven’t gotten over the hump and we’ll continue to try.”

Nelson, 36, isn’t as spry as he used to be, but one notion is that he could run some pick-and-roll with Andre Drummond. Where he’d run into some turbulence is having to guard starting-caliber point guards.

“That’s where it gets tricky. Could you improve your bench? Yeah, but we’ve got one lineup working. Do you want to mess with that?” Van Gundy said. “We’ve talked about both backup guard spots on a daily basis. We’ll keep trying the find the answer; whether we will or not, we’ll find out.”

Minutes coming

Since Griffin’s arrival, reserve center Eric Moreland has seen his playing time dissipate, playing in four of the past nine games and totaling just 20 minutes. Griffin had assumed the role of backup center when Drummond went to the bench.

That looks to be changing.

With a condensed schedule, Van Gundy will need to expand the rotation and help both Griffin and Drummond stay fresh.

“We’re going to play him now and put him back in the rotation, both to get their minutes down and to see if we can get the second unit’s energy up,” Van Gundy said. “Our rebounding hasn’t been great but it hasn’t been bad; we always have Blake or Andre on the floor.”

Moreland’s calling card this season has been his energy and effort as a sparkplug for the reserve unit. He’ll look to bring some of that back in the last stint of 24 games.

“Our second unit obviously was good early in the year when Ish was coming off the bench. It was an energy lineup,” Van Gundy said. “The biggest problem is it’s become a lower-energy lineup when we go to the bench.

“I don’t know if we have all the answers to that, but certainly Eric’s a guy who can provide us with some energy, so we’re going to give him some minutes there. We’re in a stretch of six games in nine days and we have to play more people, so we’ll give him a shot.”

Twitter: @detnewsRodBeard


Tip-off: 1 Sunday, Spectrum Center, Charlotte, N.C.

TV/radio: FSD/WXYT

Outlook: The Pistons have lost four of their last five games and are getting closer to the 10th-place Hornets (26-33) than eighth, the last playoff spot in the East. The two teams have split the season series, both games in Detroit.