Cleveland — The Pistons opened the season with Reggie Jackson, Avery Bradley and Stanley Johnson as their starting perimeter trio. Running primarily with that group, they got off to a 14-6 start and were one of the surprises in the league.
In the midst of a seven-game losing streak, Johnson was moved to the reserve unit, where his production perked up a bit. Bradley had a groin injury that dropped him out of the starting group and Jackson’s ankle injury has decimated the starting group.
Bradley went to the Los Angeles Clippers in the Blake Griffin trade and Johnson returned to the starting lineup after Griffin arrived. There’s been plenty of shuffling, but the perimeter production is part of what’s dogged the Pistons in their 10-20 stretch since Jackson’s injury.
For the past week, the Pistons have had a new perimeter trio, with Ish Smith, Reggie Bullock and James Ennis III as the starters. Ennis has supplanted Johnson as the small forward and Smith has started 28 games in Jackson’s continued absence. Bullock has been one of the surprises for the Pistons this season, with his 3-point shooting and production.
“I’m not going to make an excuse on that. We’ve got good players and we should be playing better. We’re capable of playing better and I think we will play better,” coach Stan Van Gundy said. “Nobody wants to be without guys for long periods of time, but injuries are a fact of life in the NBA and you have to play through them.
"Unfortunately for Reggie and for us, it’s been two years in a row with lengthy injuries, so it’s a little different, even if you miss three or four games at a time and then play a couple and then another three or four.”
The Pistons have been adjusting to different lineups for almost half the season and the record has suffered in that time. They entered Monday’s game four games out the final playoff spot and there are plenty of what-ifs to ponder if Jackson had been in the lineup.
“It’s just tough. He’s already been out over two months; it’ll be 10 weeks on Wednesday. That’s a long time to be out and then to try to integrate back in with one of your key guys you’ve never played with,” Van Gundy said. “It’s not an easy situation, but other teams go through it, too, and you just have to get through it.”
There was some optimism about Jackson possibly returning to full-contact practice next week and potentially being in the lineup for the six-game West Coast trip. That’s been tempered a bit, as he continues rehab and ramping up his work in practice.
Monday included some one-on-one, but there’s no sense that Jackson will be in the lineup anytime soon.
“He’s okay, but there’s nothing imminent with him. He’s doing his rehab and he did a little bit of one-on-one against one of the video guys, but that’s as far along as he is,” Van Gundy said. “We’ll just keep progressing; we’re not putting a date on it.
“He’ll hopefully do some non-contact work with our team and progress to some one-on-one with NBA players and then some two-on-two and three-on-three and then getting up and down the court, and then hopefully into a full-fledged practice. How long that takes, we’ll just have to see.”
The last time the Cavaliers played the Pistons, it was the day after the Griffin trade, so Monday marked the first game they have faced him with the Pistons.
Cavs coach Tyronn Lue remarked at the unique fit with Andre Drummond and Griffin in the frontcourt and how teams have to prepare for the combo.
“It makes them kind of traditional, from back in the day, having two power players at the (power forward and center). Blake being in the post, being able to catch the ball and make plays off the dribble and get it off the glass and push it full court,” Lue said.
“It’s a tough matchup for a lot of guys and his post presence and passing ability, they work together like he and (the Clippers’) DeAndre (Jordan) did, the same way.”